NaCl
April 27, 2017 4:47 PM   Subscribe

The Single Most Important Ingredient [The New York Times] “James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient. Learn to use it well, and food will taste good. Salt’s relationship to flavor is multidimensional: It has its own particular taste, and it both balances and enhances the flavor of other ingredients. Imagine taking a bite of a rich espresso brownie sprinkled with flaky sea salt. The salt minimizes the espresso’s bitterness, intensifies the flavor of the chocolate and offers a savory contrast to the sugar’s sweetness. Does this mean you should simply use more salt? No. It means use salt better.”
posted by Fizz (65 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
My wife and I recently had dinner at Barbuzzo and their use of salt was virtuosic. Everything was salty, but in exactly the right way.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:59 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


…so hang on, why does salt intensify other flavors? Like, is there a chemical or neurological reason for it that we understand?
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:59 PM on April 27, 2017 [8 favorites]


I love The Joy of Cooking, have an older family down, great fun, lots of essential detail, except for that one small line in so many recipes: "correct the seasoning"

What    Does   That   Mean?

?
posted by sammyo at 5:11 PM on April 27, 2017 [5 favorites]


I like to load my salt from the bottom rather than the top. The way you do this is by throwing your food in the air and frantically shaking the salt upwards into it, so that when it smashes back into the saucepan or onto the plate, the salt is forced into the membranes of the food by the impact, not just (sad!) slow gravity. It takes a few tries to get this right but now I won't accept salt any other way. Sprinkling it over the top of a dish (or stirring it through, lol) just seems so...pedestrian.

To get an idea of how good this is, try turning your food upside down, adding salt, and pushing the individual grains into the food with a fine needle, or a toothpick split into thirds. This is called the "weak man's method". Put the food back the right way up and taste the difference. Not as good as the (proper) impact method, but a reasonable simulacrum.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:16 PM on April 27, 2017 [53 favorites]


correct the seasoning

Add enough salt so that, to you, it tastes good. But not so much that it tastes salty.

Sorry duder. There is no way to be more specific than that. You just have to start adding salt to stuff and tasting as you go.
posted by Diablevert at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


“Where would we be without salt?”
Without working nervous systems.
posted by strixus at 5:36 PM on April 27, 2017 [42 favorites]


the ideas in this post are enough to make my blood pressure rise dangerously - that's not a joke

by all means, have fun, but i've been wondering something - there's a gluten free section in many supermarket, an selection of organic food, but with so many people on salt restrictions in this country, where's our section of lower sodium foods?

i have to be careful with salt and frankly, the american food industry seems to be on a mission to kill me

bon appetit!
posted by pyramid termite at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]


It means season to taste. That is, the cook and not the recipe is the final arbiter of "does this need more salt? Does this have too much dill?"
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


The question I have came from noticing some good Asian friends of my parents finding Western food restaurants too salty. In modern Western restaurant cuisine, a salmon filet to be sauteed is brined to improve the texture. While I'm used to doing/eating that way, the family friend says she notices the salt, and points out that the basic Chinese-style steamed fish doesn't use salt on/in the fish like that. So my question is how much of this is subjective, considering cuisine differences and even the perception of healthy salt levels affecting whether a diner (the cook's audience) reacts well to noticing salt in their food? If a diner perceives a dish as too salty, does their palate need to be "corrected"?
posted by polymodus at 5:43 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]


Without working nervous systems.

Nonsense. You only need the sodium part of it really for a working nervous system. In a world without salt we'd probably have an MSG based culinary system providing our sodium intake.
posted by Talez at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


"Chlorine is actually a pretty important molecule and the most abundant anion in our body (followed by bicarbonate). The main function that the body uses chlorine/chloride is to help balance charges as molecules move across the membrane in order to maintain charge across the membrane. If you bring in a cation, you'll have to either remove a cation that's already in the cell or bring in an anion. Chloride is often that anion. This kind of system is present in pretty much every cell, but play an even bigger role in certain systems, especially in the kidneys, sweat glands, and pancreas. Cystic fibrosis is actually due to a mutation in a chloride channel that prevents the movement of Chloride across the membrane, messing up all of the charge balancing that has to happen for normal function.

Chloride movement is also used in neural synapses. The GABA receptor is actually a chloride channel that permits a huge flux of chloride to enter when it's activated. Although I'm not going to go into the details, this leads to an inhibitory signal on the post-synaptic (receiving) neuron." Link
posted by leotrotsky at 5:47 PM on April 27, 2017 [12 favorites]


It really is amazing the difference it can make. For ages my particular task in Thanksgiving preparations has been making candied yams, which I make as I was first instructed probably 35 years ago (save that we no longer add marshmallows). Lay out the yams (canned and precooked), dot with butter, sprinkle generously with brown sugar, bake in oven until bubbling. And they were fine, but not very interesting. Last Christmas I happened to notice a recipe that recommended salt as well, so after the yams were arranged and buttered but before I put on the sugar I shook a light but thorough sprinkle of salt over them. And it was amazing. Just a little edge of salt that mixed with the brown sugar and livened up everything.
posted by tavella at 5:47 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


i have to be careful with salt and frankly, the american food industry seems to beis on a mission to kill me

I heard an interview with an author a while ago --- I think on the America's Test Kitchen podcast --- who wrote a book on the American food industry's use of sugar, salt and fat. He described visiting I think Kellogg's and eating entirely unsalted version of corn flakes and cheeze its that nearly made both him and the phalanx of flacks accompanying him retch. Partly it's that you grow up eating the stuff and it warps your palate, but most processed foods would be like unto wallpaper paste without the piles of salt and sugar they put in them. Actual flavour costs money. That's why even the FDA has become rather blasé about people salting their food when cooking; about 80% of most people's sodium intake is from the piles of the stuff poured into what you buy ready-made, not what you add to raw ingredients you're cooking yourself.
posted by Diablevert at 5:50 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


Salt is the first culinary magic trick that makes food taste awesome. The second is butter. The third is acid*. The fourth is MSG**.

*vinegar or citrus
** or other umami magnifiers like Marmite.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:51 PM on April 27, 2017 [20 favorites]


That book is "Salt Sugar Fat" by Michael Moss. Awesome read, but talks about the abuse of salt rather than the correct use in cooking.
posted by nevercalm at 5:58 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


Chloride is in a few things in the human diet though. Leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, milk. There's plenty of places to pick it up in the typical diet without salt.
posted by Talez at 6:02 PM on April 27, 2017


there's a gluten free section in many supermarket

The ham I bought for Easter was labelled "gluten free". The more you know!
posted by thelonius at 6:03 PM on April 27, 2017


The ham I bought for Easter was labelled "gluten free". The more you know!

"Gluten is evil! That's why I only eat food chock full of sodium nitrite!"
posted by Talez at 6:06 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


Chloride movement is also used in neural synapses. The GABA receptor is actually a chloride channel that permits a huge flux of chloride to enter when it's activated. Although I'm not going to go into the details, this leads to an inhibitory signal on the post-synaptic (receiving) neuron.

That guy really knows his anions
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:15 PM on April 27, 2017 [5 favorites]


pyramid termite, I agree with others upthread that the best way to avoid too much salt is to cook from scratch as much as possible and avoid canned/frozen/pre-made/ready-to-eat products. Which is time consuming, requires the development of cooking skills, and can sometimes cost more (in comparison to, say, cheapo fast food) - i.e. easier said than done. I mean, I like properly good food and I like to cook, so for me avoiding "processed" foods isn't too difficult. But I'm aware of how lucky I am to be in a position to be able to do that.

On a related note, I've been discovering Jacque Pépin's Fast Food My Way videos (and More Fast Food), in which he demonstrates homemade meals from "scratch" that aren't complex and can be put together in under an hour. Though he's a bit cavalier on minor details like measuring - I swear his "couple of tablespoons of olive oil" he glugs straight into a pan tend to look more to me like twice that... Fortunately the Internet is at your service. Even with the printed recipes though, watching a master breeze effortlessly through producing a full appetizer + meal + dessert menu in 20 minutes is fascinating and I highly recommend it. It's a good way to get fired up about making some dang Food!
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:19 PM on April 27, 2017 [14 favorites]


That guy really knows his anions

How does that old saying go? "Take care of the anions, and the scallions will take care of themselves? Something like that.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:21 PM on April 27, 2017 [8 favorites]


In a world without salt we'd probably have an MSG based culinary system providing our sodium intake.

So every restaurant in the future can be Taco Bell!
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:42 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that some of the recent studies have shown no correlation between levels of sodium consumption and high blood pressure. Of course, the possibility remains that some subgroup's BP responds more significantly to salt.

I've been cutting back on it lately--not drastically, just trying not to go over about 2000 mg. After only a few weeks, everything that does have a decent amount of salt in it tastes quite a bit saltier.
posted by praemunire at 6:46 PM on April 27, 2017 [6 favorites]




In a world without salt we'd probably have an MSG based culinary system providing our sodium intake.

In a society where the most popular condiment is tomato ketchup, the most popular sauce is tomato and parmesan cheese, where meats are prized above all other sources of protein, I think we already sort of do.
posted by bonehead at 7:21 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


I like salt and eat as much as I want -- I have been known to salt potato and tortilla chips, in fact.

I suppose I could end up paying a price for it, but if salt wants a piece of that action, it had better get its ass in gear.
posted by jamjam at 7:24 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


I accidentally oversalted a litre of habanero & strawberry hot pepper mash that I wanted to ferment a couple of weeks ago. I was shooting for 9% salt by weight and thought I had done the correct conversion but hadn't accounted for your stupid American tablespoon sizes, which I got back-to-front (still your fault), added one "for the jar", and so oversalted the hell out of my mash. Happily, the saltiness is mellowing as it ferments, and some sugar and white wine vinegar at the end should sort it out, but still.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:33 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


...but hadn't accounted for your stupid American tablespoon sizes..

So very tired of other peoples' ineptitude blaming "America" for their own f*ck ups. Not reading directions is what it is. An "american tablespoon" is SMALLER....sheash!
a United States tablespoon is approximately 14.8 ml (0.50 US fl oz), a United Kingdom tablespoon is exactly 15 ml (0.51 US fl oz),[2] and an Australian tablespoon is 20 ml (0.68 US fl oz)
posted by shockingbluamp at 8:00 PM on April 27, 2017 [6 favorites]


No. It's stupid. Just use mL like the rest of the world.
posted by Talez at 8:03 PM on April 27, 2017 [10 favorites]


(I was good-naturedly ribbing because it was my stuff-up but if you wanna throw down by god I will throw down! Sort your measurements out! :-P)
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:14 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


I can't believe we've gone this far in the thread without someone quoting Marge Simpson: "you might say the secret ingredient is salt..."
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:36 PM on April 27, 2017 [4 favorites]


stupid American tablespoon sizes, which I got back-to-front

What does back to front mean in this context? You thought there were three tablespoons in a teaspoon and put in like nine times too much?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 PM on April 27, 2017


(If Turbid Dahlia is Aussie, an extra 1/3 salt would perhaps be noticeable.)

I thought this thread was about the crypto library, but this is way better. In particular thanks Greg_Ace for those Jacques Pepin videos. Great stuff.

This was a decent article. I think the main takeaway was two-fold: don't undersalt, and layer your salts. This is consistent with salting advice everywhere else (that I trust). IOW: Don't sprinkle salt onto a finished salad; season your vegetables, your lettuce, *and* your vinaigrette.

Salt is the first culinary magic trick that makes food taste awesome. The second is butter. The third is acid*. The fourth is MSG**.

I think that's a decent one-line summary of /r/askculinary (or perhaps more the periodic "Chefs of Reddit" AskReddits). (It's also close-ish to the theme of the book the article's author is selling.)
posted by iffthen at 8:58 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


ROU, I thought the American tablespoon was bigger, like your SUVs. Whereas in fact the American tablespoon is smaller, like your eagles.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:02 PM on April 27, 2017 [29 favorites]


The difference between bland and tasty:

Sodium: 0mg
Sodium: OMG
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:05 PM on April 27, 2017 [16 favorites]


Imagine taking a bite of a rich espresso brownie sprinkled with flaky sea salt.

No. I use my imagination to ride rainbow dragons, not eat gross shit. I don't need to imagine salt, it's on every table everywhere wherever you go.

No. Why don't you just imagine I did ok?
posted by adept256 at 9:06 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


There was once a king who had several daughters. To the first he said, "How do you love me?"
"I love you as sugar," said she.
To the next he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as honey," said she.
To the third he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as sherbet," said she.
To the last and youngest he said, "And how do you love me?"
"I love you as salt," said she.
On hearing the answer of his youngest daughter the king frowned, and, as she persisted in repeating it, he drove her out into the forest.

As Dear as Salt/Love like Salt
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2017 [9 favorites]


Salting your meat will improve its water and fat retention (juiciness and flavor) significantly as well as decrease bitterness and brighten the other flavors. Yes, it's a chemical reaction. Try salting one steak the day before you cook it and one when you cook it. You'll notice a difference. The less fatty the piece of meat, the greater the difference, which is why so many people swear by brining turkey. One example of cooking where people generally don't salt nearly enough is the water used to cook pasta. The water should taste like an over salted soup.
posted by xammerboy at 9:39 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]


And if we're talking about strategies for improving almost every meal, I recommend a dash of acid/vinegar in nearly everything one cooks. The difference between a pro soup and a bland one is usually just a squirt of lemon.
posted by xammerboy at 9:43 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


jetlagaddict, thanks for sharing that story/fable. I absolutely loved it.
posted by Fizz at 9:50 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


jetlagaddict's link didn't work for me, but I found something that might be similar.
posted by valrus at 9:50 PM on April 27, 2017


i have to be careful with salt and frankly, the american food industry seems to beis on a mission to kill me

Ha. I generally eat very little salt. Like my doctor asked me to track it once as part of a food diary (for something else) and straight up didn't believe how little I ate. It's cultural, my mom who taught me to cook has to take salt tablets sometimes because she eats so little and lives in a hot place. Of course, while IU don't use salt to season much I do put powdered habanero on salads to liven them up and cayenne pepper on fish.
posted by fshgrl at 10:01 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


No. It's stupid. Just use mL like the rest of the world.

How many Fahrenheit to an mL is it again?
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:05 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


6 gills.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:18 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


Imperial or US?
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:36 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yes.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:50 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


"...Does this have too much dill?"
posted by ActingTheGoat


How do you get the dill out? Mask it with more salt?
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:07 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


"I love you as salt," said she.

In the version I grew up with, she says, "I love you as fresh meat loves salt."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:13 PM on April 27, 2017


Helpful facts about imperial (and US) units!

Firstly, it's pronounced /ˈdʒɪl/, not /ɡɪl/. Which I'm sure everyone else knew, but why didn't someone tell me this decades ago?

Secondly,
In Scotland, there were additional sizes:[6]

big gill = 1.5 Imp. gill
wee gill = 3/4 Imp. gill
wee half gill = 3/8 Imp. gill
nip = 1/4 Imp. gill
Courtesy: The Scottish Licensing Laws: Being the Scottish Licensing Act, 1903 with All the Excise, Innkeepers, Assessing, Tippling, Adulteration, Betting, and Other Acts, and Laws Affecting Licensees and Clubs : and Introduction, Decisions, and Forms (and or wikipedia)

Thirdly, a gill is the same volume as a standard teacup.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:50 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]


"...Does this have too much dill?"
posted by ActingTheGoat

How do you get the dill out? Mask it with more salt?


Trick question, I can't stand dill!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:03 AM on April 28, 2017


No. It's stupid. Just use mL like the rest of the world.

Teaspoons and tablespoons are pretty widely used in the non-English speaking world. At least Sweden and the Netherlands, in my cooking experience. Only larger volumes regularly use the metric system.
posted by groda at 1:47 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


A teaspoon of golden syrup with a sprinkling of salt and black pepper: so good.

And if we're talking about strategies for improving almost every meal, I recommend a dash of acid/vinegar in nearly everything one cooks. The difference between a pro soup and a bland one is usually just a squirt of lemon.

I find it helpful to think of ‘seasoning’ more broadly than just salt. I try to hit at least two or three of the basic tongue receptors: if it’s a bit bland, you could add salt, but also consider something sweet (sugar, honey, fruit), sour (citrus, vinegar), umami (soy sauce, mushroom, parmesan) or I guess bitter. And then I think of aromatics and spiciness as extra categories. If you think of classic condiments they tend to be concentrated sources of one of two of the basic flavours: salt and vinegar obviously, but soy and parmesan are salty and umami; chutneys are sweet and sour, tabasco is as sour as it is spicy. Tomato ketchup is literally an umami/sweet/sour/salt reduction: tomato/sugar/vinegar/salt.

My other salt tip would be to get a salt grinder so that the salt you add at the table is really fine — like icing sugar. You get so much more flavour/gram.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 3:13 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


My in-laws are stuck in the "salt kills" mindset, which, if you're eating mostly home cooking as we do, it doesn't really (for most people). I can't remember the last time I used a salt shaker outside of their house, but I have to ask for it almost every time we eat there.

Salt your food! Salt, taste, adjust, iterate.
posted by uncleozzy at 3:14 AM on April 28, 2017


If I couldn't have salt and vinegar, I would stop eating.
posted by pracowity at 3:53 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


This thread really needs a little music from the McGarrigle Sisters
posted by briank at 5:31 AM on April 28, 2017


The ham I bought for Easter was labelled "gluten free". The more you know!

I know this seems silly, but you'd be surprised where gluten shows up. My wife went gluten free due to allergies about a year ago so we've had to study food labels.

Gluten is used as a thickener in a lot of things. If your ham was glazed, it's possible gluten could show up in the glaze. We've run across gluten in ketchup, soy sauce, soups...
posted by Fleebnork at 5:43 AM on April 28, 2017 [6 favorites]


In a world without salt we'd probably have an MSG based culinary system providing our sodium intake.

And the expression for returning to onerous labor would be "back to the MSG mines." Also, you would earn an MSGlery instead to a salary.
posted by XMLicious at 5:58 AM on April 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


'But try to attack a chicken with the pinch and your wrist will give out long before you’re done." I...wow.
posted by juniper at 7:14 AM on April 28, 2017


I remember the first time I was taught about salt. As a kid I knew that it was something to put on steak, or fries, but that's about it.

And so I muddled along until I was twenty two, and a girl I crushed on was hanging out in my place and I cooked some sort of flavorful breaded/fried tofu dish, and she said, "It's good. Needs more salt, though," and I thought, "Salt! That's brilliant!"

It was an epiphany, which made me feel dumb later.
posted by entropone at 7:15 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


No. It's stupid. Just use mL like the rest of the world.

A case can be made that a binary step-wise system of measures is superior, in practice, as a volume-specific method of relating sizes. And since most people teach these to their kids outside of school within familiar settings like kitchens, it will likely never die.
posted by Brian B. at 8:10 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


In modern Western restaurant cuisine, a salmon filet to be sauteed is brined to improve the texture.

I've worked in a lot of restaurants, and I've never seen anyone brine a salmon filet - which I think would totally destroy the texture by turning it mealy. Instead, what I've seen as standard practice is salting the top of the filet before sauteeing, which helps it to crisp and brown up better. So, since that's applied before cooking, you could probably always request a no-salt version.
posted by Miko at 8:31 AM on April 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


This was mentioned in the article but unrefined sea salt really can make a difference in cooking, a few flakes of Maldon sea salt placed on top of chocolate chip cookies, for example, take them to the next level.
posted by jeremias at 8:46 AM on April 28, 2017


…so hang on, why does salt intensify other flavors? Like, is there a chemical or neurological reason for it that we understand?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:59 PM on April 27 [has favorites +] [!]


1. Salt reduces bitterness by blocking the bitterness receptors on your tongue.
2. ripped straight off an ELI5 Reddit thread:
Salt is sodium chloride. When saliva breaks down salt, it dissociates into Na+, which has a positive charge, and Cl-, which has a negative charge. The Na+ is the important one here! We'll get back to it in a minute.

Your taste buds operate using something called an action potential. These are found in neurons (brain cells) throughout your brain and spinal chord, but also in your taste receptors and other cells. I'll give you a brief rundown of how they work.

There's an electrical current running through these cells. The inside of the cells are kept at a constant -70mV. This charge can fluctuate up or down a little bit if positively or negative charged ions enter the cell. You might see where we're going with this. If the cell's polarity (another name for the charge, kinda), rises or falls a little bit, nothing really happens. But if the cell depolarizes enough (that is, if its charge is raised enough), it hits a point of no return. That point is -55mV. What happens next?

Well, once the point of no return is reached (a value also known as the threshold stimulus or simply, the threshold), we see what's called an a action potential. This is a sudden SPIKE in charge, making the cell reach upwards of +40mV! This causes a chain reaction where the charge travels to other cells close by. This electrical impulse travels through the body and eventually reaches the brain, where it gets interpreted as "hey, I'm touching/smelling/tasting something!" Cells return to their normal -70mV baseline after they fire an action potential, and after a brief refractory period they're ready to go again.

Food electrically stimulates taste cells, raising them to that critical level so they go nuts and blast your brain with messages. Remember how I talked about salt dissociating into Na+ and Cl-? Well, the Na+, being positively charged and all, effectively raises the baseline voltage on the receptors in your tongue! Instead of -70mV, they might be hovering closer to, say, -65 or -60mV. That means that they require less stimulation to reach that critical -55mV and fire signals to your brain! Foods taste richer and more flavorful because your taste buds are primed and ready to fire at the drop of a hat.
posted by INFJ at 8:51 AM on April 28, 2017 [19 favorites]


Gluten is used as a thickener in a lot of things. If your ham was glazed, it's possible gluten could show up in the glaze. We've run across gluten in ketchup, soy sauce, soups...

Holy shit yeah, I have a good friend with actual your-intestinal-vilii-die-and-you-become-dreadfully-malnourished celiac and I would absolutely not buy a ham for her without reading the label.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:38 PM on April 28, 2017


worth repeating:

I once asked a friend who's a professional chef for his simplest flavor enhancement tricks. His answer was, "Salt and pepper. More than you would dream of adding at home." This is why it's not healthy to eat out all the time.
posted by philip-random at 12:40 AM on April 29, 2017


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