FOOD WISE: A whole article about salt? You betcha!

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Salt is amazing and my favorite seasoning. But it’s so much more than just a seasoning. You won’t believe all the ways salt can make your life better. Keep reading…I promise it’ll be worth it.

First of all, there are many different types of salt, but with a caveat. Whether mined from underground salt deposits or obtained by evaporating seawater, salt in its most basic form is the same: sodium chloride. What distinguishes one salt from another is texture, shape and mineral content. These qualities can affect how a salt tastes as well as how it interacts with other foods.

The three main types we use these days are table salt, kosher salt and sea salt. Table salt consists of tiny, uniformly shaped crystals created during rapid vacuum evaporation. I find it works best in baking applications. One thing to consider is whether to buy iodized or non-iodized table salt. The reason salt was iodized in the first place was because folks were suffering from iodine deficiencies, causing thyroid problems and other serious conditions. These days, most folks consume enough iodine in other foods to compensate and don’t really need it in the salt. For me, iodized salt has a faint chemical taste that I don’t enjoy. You can be the judge for yourself.

Kosher salt is raked during the evaporation process to yield flaky crystals that were originally used in koshering meat. Unlike table salt, it doesn’t contain any additives. I like this kind of salt for everyday cooking. The large crystals cling well for seasoning foods like meats or fried potatoes. I don’t typically use it for baking because the large crystals aren’t as uniform or easily incorporated into baked goods as table salt, making it easy to over-salt a sweet treat.

Sea salt is the product of seawater evaporation. This is a time-consuming and expensive process that yields irregular shaped, mineral rich flakes that have a truly wonderful flavor. Don’t bother using this salt in regular cooking. You probably won’t really notice too much of a difference. Where this salt really shines is as a “finishing salt.” I like to use it at the table, where I can really taste that flavor on the food and the delicate crunch stands out.

Of course, there are other sub-categories of salts, like grey sea salt and pink Hawaiian salt and even flavored salts, but the three I talked about above are the main ones to know about and use regularly.

I’m sure you all have your own little techniques for how you like to salt food. I like to keep it in a little bowl next to my stove so I can grab a pinch to sprinkle as I cook. It allows me to control how much I’m putting in better than shaking it onto the food from a salt shaker or canister. This way I can avoid over-salting. Another thing I like to do is salt in stages. I’ll salt a little early in the recipe and then taste again towards the end of cooking to see if the food needs more seasoning. It’s much easier to add more salt later than to correct an overly salted food.

Here are a few more great uses for salt:

Brining meat or beans – brining brings flavor, tenderness and moisture, making it a great choice for lean proteins and tougher meats with a lot of connective tissue. Salt in the brine not only seasons the meat or beans, but also promotes a change in its protein structure, reducing overall toughness and creating gaps that fill up with water and keep the food juicy, tender and flavorful. A simple brine is just enough water to cover the food with the addition of a generous amount of salt. Allow the food to soak in the brine in the refrigerator. An hour is usually plenty of time unless it’s something big like a turkey.

Cleaning cast iron – to clean rusty or gummy cast iron skillets, warm about 1/4 inch layer of vegetable or canola oil in the pan for about five minutes. Remove from heat and add 1/4 cup course kosher salt. Scrub the pan with paper towels until cleaned. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Reducing bitterness in food – here’s a little known fact about salt: it masks bitterness. Our taste-buds have many more receptors for bitterness than the other four basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour and umami). This is why bitterness can often overwhelm other flavors in food. Salt works to block the taste of bitterness compounds, which enhances other less prominent flavors. You can add salt to everything from eggplant to coffee to reduce bitter tastes in foods. (For a 12 cup pot of coffee, add 1/8 teaspoon salt to lessen the perception of bitterness.)

Greener greens – ever have your cooked vegetables look kinda army green? Adding salt to cooking water for green veggies not only seasons the food, it also helps them keep their bright green color. When green vegetables cook in unsalted water, some of the chlorophyll molecules lose their color-enhancing magnesium atoms. That’s the technical explanation, but it’s what causes the vegetables to turn that dull shade of olive green. Salt helps to stabilize the chlorophyll, keeping the vegetables greener, longer. Use 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt for every quart of water.

Great scrambled eggs – salt keeps egg proteins from bonding to each other. This produces a weaker protein chain and more tender scrambled eggs. I use about 1/8 teaspoon of salt for every two eggs.

Less watery vegetables – Tossing watery vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and zucchini with salt before using them not only seasons them and rids them of extra moisture, but it also draws out their flavor molecules. Many of these molecules are not only trapped within the cell walls, they are tightly bound to proteins that also make them inaccessible to our tastebuds. With time, salt draws flavor compounds out of the cell walls while also forcing the proteins to separate from these molecules. This equals more intensely flavored, less watery vegetables.

Garlic paste – to easily make pasted garlic for toasted bread, aiolis or pestos, sprinkle kosher salt over minced garlic. Then use the side of the knife blade, pulled flat across the garlic salt mixture to reduce to a smooth paste. For best results, apply pressure to the knife blade and repeat until you have a smooth consistency.

Chilling drinks – salted ice water will chill beverages quicker than regular ice water or even the freezer. When salt is added to ice water, the freezing point and temperature drops, lowering the ice’s melting temperature to well below 32 degrees. The result is essentially a brine that is significantly colder than plain ice water that can rapidly chill liquids. I tested this with a regular bottle of wine. The bottle chilled to 38 degrees about twice as fast as when I put it in the freezer and three times as fast as the one I put in regular ice water. Here’s the formula: mix 1 quart of water, 4 quarts of ice and 1 cup of table salt.

All this and we haven’t even talked about using salt as a food preservative. See how great salt is? Next week, I’ll provide you with lots of valuable information and tips to get you ready for the grilling season. Be sure to check it out.

Chef Reneé is an award-winning, classically trained chef. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats, chickens and one ornery rooster.