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Salt and gastronomy

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Salt and gastronomy

JD | May 2, 2002 04:46 AM

I am starting another thread because the "RestauRANT" thread seemed to get a bit lost amongst topics like the health risks in salt consumption, habits of restaurant critics and the like. I hope this doesn't violate the board rules.

What the last thread didn't talk about was the impact of salt on cooking. It is a huge subject, but here are a few observations.

1) Lazy cooks, including many restaurant chefs, seem to rely on the salt jar to bring up flavours that have been lost because of poor quality ingredients, badly made stocks or thoughtless preparation, e.g. leaving the "fond" (caramelised residue after browning meat) on a pan rather than deglazing it. Salt can be a flavour enhancer, but relying on it leads to a certain sameness after awhile, and the subtleties of flavours get lost.

2) Heavy use of salt seems to increase diners' need for more salt. Those who consume a lot of salt seem to need more and more to bring out other flavours...a habituation rather than an addiction, but damaging to the palate nonetheless. Fortunately it seems to be reversible.

3) On the other hand, undersalting can be bad, particularly for boiled foods. I was taught to cook pastas in heavily salted water; this seems to reduce the need for salt in sauces with which they are served. Green vegetables, in my view, taste better when blanched in a large quantity of heavily salted, boiling water. (Note that there is controversy about this, and I think that either Harold McGee or one of the other noted food scientists recommends blanching in unsalted water). Most breads are better with salt added to the dough, though the Tuscans don't do this.

4) There is a lot of controversy out there about whether to salt roasts and sautéed meats before or after cooking. I've solved this problem for poultry by either brining roast chickens/turkeys/ducks/geese or salting them on the inside. Beef and lamb are trickier.

With sauces, stocks and risottos I find that the best technique is one of cautious titration: starting out with no salt at then adding a tiny amount, stirring carefully so that the salt is well distributed and tasting, then adding just a bit more and repeating the cycle. There is usually a point where the flavour increases dramatically and there is no need for further salting. The thing to avoid is the advice to "add a teaspoon of salt" to this or that. And of course you have to be careful about salting stocks that will subsequently be reduced.

There are lots of books and articles about this, starting with Elizabeth David (Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen) and including one of John Thorne's early essays.

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