Thursday, February 16, 2012

Salt: Interview with Tony Maws from Craigie on Main

Last time I wrote about salt was in 2006, so it's time to revisit the subject.  I'll kick off a series about this favorite topic of mine with an interview with Tony Maws -- the chef from Craigie on Main.  If you are from the Boston area, Tony hardly needs an introduction (2 hands aren't enough to count the awards he's won).  I am not big on awards, but it is the only restaurant I found in Boston that seasons food just the way I like it.

I want to say a huge thank you to Tony for taking time to talk to me.

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Do you think there is a correct amount of salt for each dish or is it completely a matter of taste?
Of course it’s a matter of taste.  And even the same person will taste salt differently in different parts of the day or based on different conditions.  When you are dehydrated, you crave salt.  The cooks are hot and sweaty, so they’ll want more salt than other people.  You get addicted to salt.  The more you eat it, the more you want it.  Sometimes young cooks start over-salting. 

Given that the right amount of salt is completely subjective, how do you decide how much salt to put in food?
Your body begins to taste salinity at about 0.7- 0.75% of the weight.  That can be skewed by fat because it coats your palette differently, or by acid.  Some of our recipes are based on that.  Some are based on 1%.  It all depends.  If I am seasoning a pork belly, I might treat it one way for one dish and a different way for another dish. 

Do you ever weigh salt when you are seasoning?
We weigh salt when we are brining or curing because there is more of a process to it, but normally we don’t weigh salt when seasoning. 

How do you ensure the right level of salt is used for every dish when you have many line cooks producing the dishes?
I am always cooking with them.  I always taste what they make.  Even if one of my cooks has made the same soup 20 times, he always brings me a taste of it. 

What about proteins?  You can’t exactly take a bite of a fish fillet or a steak.
I spend time seasoning with the line cooks.  I cook the product with them and have them taste it with me so that they understand what we are after.  Then they cook it in front of me and we taste it together.  Sometimes you do need to swipe a finger on a steak and see what you taste.  Then you can adjust.*

Which proteins do you season right before cooking and which ones in advance?
I believe strongly in seasoning all meat, poultry, and fish ahead.  I want to get as much flavor into a dish as possible.  That doesn’t mean I want it to be over-salted, but if you season something ahead of time it will reach equilibrium. 

How far in advance do you season?
It all depends.  Fish is more fragile, so we season right before service.  About 30 minutes in advance is good.  But we don’t season it a day ahead unless we are curing.  Meats and poultry need a lot longer (at least several hours). 

How do you decide which proteins to brine and which ones to salt?
There are no hard and fast rules with this.  I don’t generally brine steak.  I brine some of our veal and lamb.  Not all.  I don’t brine fish with high water content (like cod) because I don’t need to introduce any more water into them.  I salt them ahead.  But I do brine salmon, arctic char, and swordfish to make them more juicy.  5% solution for 10 minutes [this means the salt amount is 5% of the water amount by weight]. 

Do you adjust the amount of salt based on the cooking method?
Yes.  For example, I season braises differently than I season roast meats.  I season the meat liberally when it’s going to be roasted.  When I braise, I season the meat itself, but I don’t season braising liquid because it might be reduced later.  But you can’t just add salt in the end because then it will just taste salty.  That’s the bottom line.  A lot of our food is building layers of flavor.  We sweat the onions and shallots, then we deglaze with wine, then we add mushrooms, then we add stock.  If you only add salt in the end of this process, it’s amazing what happens.  It’s not in harmony.  You taste salt.  But if you season at every step of the way, it’s much more harmonious.  You actually end up using maybe a bit less salt because it brings out the flavor. 

Which salt do you use?
Fine gray sea salt from France, course gray sea salt, coarse pickling salt, kosher salt, fleur de sel, malden.  They do taste different.  Salinity comes across in different ways.  Malden salt is delicious.  It has a really large flake.  That doesn’t mean you can’t grind it and make it fine. 

Many of those sound like finishing salts.  What if you are seasoning a fish fillet before cooking, what would you use?
Gray sea salt.  I love the natural minerality of it.  It tastes like the sea and goes great with fish. 

If you had to live with one salt at home, what would you use? 
Probably gray sea salt.  Standard kosher is fine too. 

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In the end of the interview, Tony recommended that I read Mark Kurlansky's book on Salt.

* Yes, restaurant cooks (at least the good ones) will taste everything they send out to you as much as possible.  Many people find this shocking.  Keep in mind that they have a sanitizing solution sitting on every station and they sanitize the finger before they stick it into food and after they put it into their mouth.  If you don't like it, you don't have to eat out :)  

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