Salt is one of the most important seasonings of any meal. Too little and your meal can taste bland and flavorless, but too much makes it completely inedible. However, nailing the perfect balance brightens flavors, evens out sweetness and acidity, and can even change the cooking process.
Beginners tend to make several mistakes that limit salt's usefulness, specifically thinking it's only the amount that matters. When you add salt, how much you use, and the type you choose all change your dish's end result.
To use salt to its maximum potential, you need to first understand the chemical composition and its resulting properties. While this might sound like you’re back in chemistry class, it’s actually pretty simple.
When salt mixes with food solutions, they try to pull each other’s molecules apart. Usually, the ionic bonds between salt molecules are weaker than other bonds and the salt breaks down. This is why salt dissolves in water, pulls moisture out of other foods, limits bitterness, increases sweetness, and helps bind ingredients together.
Chances are, you’ve seen many varieties of salt in the baking aisle. Each one adds elements to your recipes, making or breaking them.
You’ll also come across salts with very specific purposes. Pickling salt is useful for pickling vegetables and other foods. Unlike table salt, it lacks anti-caking agents that would make the solution cloudy.
Finishing salts, like sel gris or Maldon salt, have very large grains, making them great for adding a punch of flavor to round out a dish. Pretzel salt is a form of finishing salt that is perfect for topping bread and pretzels. All of these salts are generally poor choices for cooking, due to their large grain size or extreme saltiness.
Many home cooks tend to only season their food toward the end of the cooking process. This is not necessarily wrong, but you miss out on the ingredient's ability to improve the robustness of your dish.
Salt can take a while to fully penetrate ingredients, so add some salt at the beginning of the cooking process. Sprinkling some salt at the end only adds a salty flavor, rather than allowing it to perform a full chemical process.
While you should generally salt throughout the cooking process, some recipes are picky about it. Add salt to meat, fish, and poultry just before you cook it for maximum flavor. Salting too much limits the browning potential and can negatively impact cooking in other ways.
For sauces, add a small amount of salt while sauteing vegetables and then again after adding liquids. Taste regularly to avoid overdoing it. When roasting veggies, salt before cooking to limit their bitterness and draw out the natural sweetness.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how much salt to add, but some rough guidelines can help. Soups, stocks, gravies, and sauces all do well with around 1.5 teaspoons of Kosher salt per quart.
Meats, fish, and seafood need just under a teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound. When salting water, add a teaspoon of Kosher salt for every quart.
Because there are so many different kinds of salt, you may not have the exact kind a recipe needs. If you need to substitute salt, remember that large grains will take up more space in the measuring spoon, resulting in less salt for each measurement.
A teaspoon of table salt is equal to 1¼ teaspoons of Kosher salt, and a ¼ cup of table salt is equivalent to ¼ cup and a tablespoon of Kosher salt. Remember that changing the salt also changes the flavor profile of the dish, so don’t expect to have the same results when substituting.
Remember that certain foods and ingredients already contain some salt. If you forget this and add salt as you would to unsalted ingredients, you could end up with an oversalted disaster.
Most notably, many store-bought sauces, broths, and vegetables come pre-seasoned. Soy sauce, in particular, is quite salty, though there are low-sodium varieties.
Most people tend to lock up their salt in a container in their pantry or cabinet, only grabbing it at the beginning or end of a meal. However, if you look at most professional chefs, you’ll notice they keep the salt close by.
Since you want to salt to your taste throughout cooking, keep it close at hand. Consider a container with a lid you can remove one-handed so you have easy access throughout the entire culinary process.
Home cooks often feel that salt is only for specific, savory foods. In reality, salt can round out all kinds of flavor profiles, so there’s little reason to skip adding a bit to most meals. Even cereals and oatmeal can take on new flavors with a pinch of salt.
Experiment a bit and see what works and what doesn’t, and you might just find a delicious new food hack.