You probably dont spend a lot of time considering salt, despite the important role it plays in your everyday life. We use salt for sore muscles, to keep ice off our sidewalks, to keep things from spoiling and yes, to season our food. However, salt goes beyond the shaker in your kitchen. There are many different types of salt and cooking techniques you should care about if you want to cook delicious food.
What Is Salt?
The form of salt we are most familiar with isa mineral formed by a compound of sodium and chloride. In ancient times,salt was used primarily to preservefood rather than flavor it. As the salt trade grew and expanded, though, so did the way humans used salt. We still use it for preservation, but also for flavor, texture and dozens of non-culinary purposes.
How Is Salt Made?
There are a few different ways salt is harvested, including evaporated seawater, mining salt from earth or obtaining salt from salt brines. Non-culinary salts, like industrial salts or road salts, are pulled from the earth. Salt directly from the ocean or from salt mines is responsible for most of the culinary salt we use today.
Different Types of Salt
There are many, many different types of culinary salt. Some of the most popular varieties include:
- Table salt:Weve all used table salt. It is salt that has been mined and then soaked in water to purify it and remove all minerals that arent sodium chloride. It is then dried out again, resulting in a slightly bitter, tiny grain. Table salts are usually combined with anti-caking agents or iodine.
- Kosher salt:Kosher salt is a large, coarse-grained salt that is ideal for seasoning meats. Unlike table salt, kosher salt is free of all additives.
- Finishing salt:Finishing salt is often used by professional chefs and bakersto make a final product look visually pleasing, to give a dish a brighter taste or to add a more satisfying, crunchy texture.
- Himalayan salt:Pink Himalayan salt tastes similar to table salt, but the presence of iron oxide is what creates the unique color. Many people prefer Himalayan pink salt for adding a touch of color to their dish, or they purchase it in large slabs to cook and prepare food on for a complex taste. Although pink salt is most commonly found in stores, there is black Himalayan salt as well.
- Curing salt:Curing salt is used to cure and brine meat products, like pork. It preserves food, preventing it from spoiling and killing bacteria.
- Seasoned salt:Seasoned salts or flavored salts are salts that have been mixed with other flavor additives, like dried herbs, spices or sugar. Seasoned salts are a great way to pack a lot of flavor into one dish, without the need for multiple types of seasonings. Many restaurants particularly chain restaurants use unique seasoned salt combinations for trademark flavors.
- Sea salt:Sea salt is salt that was harvested specifically from the ocean. It comes in many different shapes and textures, including coarse grains and large flakes. Use sea salt for a slightly different taste in your recipes, or to finish off baked goods.
Why Salt Matters in Cooking
Anyone who has spent time in the kitchen knows that salt is a staple in cooking. Nearly every recipe including both sweet and savory dishes call for salt or salt substitutes. Have you ever wondered what it is about salt that makes it a kitchen necessity?
Salt Enhances Flavor
If used correctly, salt is one of your most powerful tools as a cook. There are a few reasons why salt has such transformative power over your dish:
- Our bodies want it:Why does salt taste good?Some food scientists and biologists believewe enjoy the taste of salt in our food because our bodies need sodium chlorideand are hard-wired to want and crave the taste of it.
- Taste receptors:In elementary school, you might have learned that the tongue can be brokeninto different taste receptors, including sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Research suggests that receptive parts of the tongue as well as individual receptor cells chemically respond to specific tastes, including salt.
- It changes food:Salt changes the way we tangibly experience food. Why does salt bring out flavor in food? Salt helps your tongue detect otherwise subtle flavor profiles, and it can suppress more bitter ones. As you experiment with salt in cooking, you are actually experimenting with the way the human body responds to it.
Salt Adds Color and Texture
One of the other big uses for salt is to add color and texture. Coarse, flaked or colored salts can add a pop of color or visually pleasing texture to your final dish. The crunchy texture of salt is also a way to add another layer of interest to your food. This is especially true in dishes that are cured with sodium nitrite or encrusted with salt.
Salt Is Used for Preservation and Curing
Many processed and prepackaged foods rely on naturally occurring compounds in salt for their preservation process. Still, there are also a few ways you can use salt as a preservative in your home kitchen with pre-made food curing kits using sodium nitrate:
- Sodium nitrite vs. nitrate:Sodium nitrate occurs naturally, and we absorb it from many foods, including fruits and vegetables. When sodium nitrate is used to preserve and cure foods, it is converted to sodium nitrite. When we consume nitrates in food, our bodies also convert it to sodium nitrite.
Why Does Salt Preserve Meat?
It does so through the process of osmosis, which draws moisture out of foods and kills bacterial cells in the process. Think of pickles, for instance. On their own, cucumbers do not have a long shelf life. When pickled in a salty brine, however, they can last in your refrigerator for a long time without any signs of age or decay. In this case, the process of salt and acid-based preservation is known as brine curing, and it changes the taste of the cucumber entirely.
What Is Cured Meat?
Curing is a process of food preservation that has been used for centuries. These days, we do it less out of necessity and more so because we enjoy the taste of salt-cured foods, like jerky and ham. When chefs and home cooks cure food with salt, they can also use other components, like sugar and smoke, to amplify the flavor and create interesting tastes.
Unsure how to salt cure meat? You have a few options. You can salt brine, create a salt box, smoke cure or dry cure meat. Experiment with techniques to find your favorite method.
Salt Is Necessary for Nutrition
Most of us need a certain amount of sodiumin our diets to help regulate the amount of fluid in our body, relax our muscles and transmit nerve impulses to our brains. However, very few of us actually need as much salt as we consume daily. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends consumingno more than 2,300 milligrams of salt per day a far cry from the 3,400 milligrams of salt Americans consume on average. Too much salt can cause high blood pressure, which leads to heart disease, stroke and other serious health problems.
Does this mean you should throw out all salt and start eating flavorless food? Of course not. You should, however, be aware of how much salt you are cooking with, as well as the sodium levels in prepackaged and prepared foods.
Salt Is a Binder
Salt interacts with the proteins in food, which often makes it an emulsifier in your dish. Adding salt to certain recipes can bind the rest of the ingredients together. By controlling the salting in recipes, you can also control the level of moisture and fat. For example, salt as a binding agent is commonly seen in sausage making, where salt proteins help combine the fat and meat into a firmer, gel-like structure.
Ways to Cook with Salt
Beyond sprinkling salt on your food to add flavor while it cooks, there are many ways you can use it in the kitchen.
Brining is a process where you submerge a food typically poultry, but fish and beef can benefit from brining as well in a solution of saltwater, herbs and other seasonings. As the meat sits in this solution, it naturally absorbs that saltwater, as well as all the different flavors mixed with it. The result is tender meat with a juicy flavor that is difficult to replicate.
Are you excited about trying this technique but arent sure how to make brine? There are hundreds of brining recipes online with process instructions, but most have the same basic elements: kosher salt, water and flavor additives. Common flavor additives include sugar or other natural sweeteners, peppercorns, beer, garlic or any combination of spices you prefer.
The amount of salt you add depends on how much water you are using and what you are brining. For example, the chicken brining ratio for an average-sized bird isone-fourth of a cup of kosher salt per gallon of water. Turkeys are no different from chickens, except they are usually larger. To brine a turkey, how much salt you use depends on the weight of the bird. Use enough water to cover the bird entirely and measure your salt and other ingredients accordingly.
In recent years, people have experimented with using salt in less conventional ways around the kitchen. One such method is by using large slabs or blocks of pink Himalayan salt to prepare and cook food on. Salt blocks can withstand high levels of heat, making them great for baking, roasting and grilling. They can give your food a more vibrant flavor and texture, and it may even infuse your dish with more nutrients. You can also use these salt blocks as an eye-catching way to serve your food to guests.
Salt crusting is a process where you mix salt and water to form a coarse, grainy paste that you use to thickly coat a piece of fish or other food before cooking. This salt crust traps moisture inside, resulting in a juicy, tender dish. If you mix other seasonings and herbs in with your salt crust, you create an encasement of flavor. Because salt takes a long time to heat, you can also encrust meats and fish that you want to cook all day, like pot roasts. Dont worry about salt crust making your food too salty you crack it open and remove the inner meat before serving, so you get all the flavor without so much added sodium.
Tips for Cooking With Salt
When you cook with salt, it is important to be mindful of how much you are adding. Too much salt can kill a dish and make it impossible to eat. Too little salt, on the other hand, can result in bland, disappointing flavors. To harness the power of salt in your cooking, follow these tips:
- Taste it first:Unless you are dealing with raw ingredients, like meat, you should always taste your dish before salting it. This will give you a better idea of how much salt is needed, and you are less likely to oversalt.
- Give it time:Once you season something with salt, give it time to absorb. When you apply a dry rub to beef, for example, you want to let those spices and seasonings sit with the meat for a while before you begin the cooking process. This gives the salt and other flavor plenty of time to permeate the outer membrane of the food.
- Season as you go:Many home cooks make the mistake of salting their dish either at the beginning or at the end. In reality, you should be tasting your dish throughout the cooking process and adding salt whenever necessary. If you choose only to salt your dish at the beginning, the flavor could be too subtle by the end if you have added a lot of other strong flavors. If you wait until the end to salt, you risk not giving it enough time to transform your dish and marry with your other spices. Salt as you go for the best results.
- Pair it with sweets:There is a reason most cookie and cake recipes call for a pinch of salt. Not only does it add elasticity to a lot of doughs, but salt keeps a lot of baked goods and desserts from being overly sweet. For a sweet and salty treat, you can also top your desserts with a sprinkle of finishing or sea salt.
- Use a salt dish:If you are cooking with salt from a shaker, it is difficult to get accurate measurements. For better accuracy and less mess consider storing your salt in a salt dish.
- Season from up high:When you season your food, you should season it from up high, roughly eight to 12 inches above your dish. Experts say this isthe best way to distribute your salt, pepper and other seasonings equally across the entire surface.
- Know your recipe:Before you start cooking, make sure you know your recipe inside and out. Take a close look at what other ingredients you will be adding. Are any of them especially salty or acidic? For example, fish sauce is very salty. Adding too much salt to a dish with fish sauce could be very overpowering. Knowing what else is in your recipe will help you avoid over and under seasoning.
- Store it correctly:Different types of salts may have different recommended storage methods, so always be sure to check your salt packaging or label. A good rule of thumb is to store your salt in a dry space, out of direct light and away from any moisture.
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