If there's only one thing you takeaway about how to use salt like a pro, it's this: Taste. Taste. And taste again. Season. And then taste some more. When you're in a professional kitchen, there are spoons everywhere. Chefs walk around with spoons in their pockets, tucked into aprons and there are usually pots of spoons near every sauce pan.
Salt. So integral to making our food taste amazing. And yet we've come to have such a love-hate relationship with the white stuff. We love it, we fear it, sometimes when we cook we forget all about it.
And some home cooks proudly exclaim that they have no use for it. But nothing has the power to transform and enhance our food and cooking the way salt does.
What kind of salt should you use?
Well, there's no need to buy fancy or pricey stuff, Whatever you have in your kitchen is probably fine, unless it's table salt. That's not fine. Save the table salt for salting your pasta and potato water. For everything else you'll want to use kosher or sea salt. My preferred brand is Maldon sea salt which is available everywhere and cheap. I buy a 3.5 pound tub and that lasts me about six months. ⇐ I cook A LOT!
There are some other exciting kinds of salt to use when you want to dress things up a bit.
It usually comes from Hawaii or Cyprus. It's a mix of sea salt and charcoal. It has a really strong mineral earthy flavour and is used as a finishing salt.
This is a moist salt from Brittany that is light grey in colour. It's harvested in the ancient Celtic way using wooden tools. It's usually used as a finishing salt because it's a little on the pricey side. I've got a small tub of it in my cupboard labeled "fancy French sea salt".
Fleur de sel:
This is the King of all finishing salts. It originates from the Guérande region of France. It's formed of only young salt crystals and is only harvested by hand once a year. It can get a little pricey too, but it's used sparingly and for finishing, so a little goes a really long way.
You can also make your own finishing salts with herbs, citrus zest and maybe try some truffle.
What does salt do to our food?
Besides enhancing flavours and making food "pop" salt actually has some powerful and important jobs in cooking.
Salt fixes bitterness
The fact that coffee lovers the world over put a tiny pinch of salt in the grounds before they brew coffee is no accident. When bitterness and salt hit the tongue receptors at the same time, salt turns down that bitterness and makes it more palatable.
Salt brings out sweetness
When bitterness and sweetness happen in the same food (caramel) the two flavours tend to dampen the reception of the other on the taste buds. But when you add salt, the bitterness gets turned down and the sweetness gets turned up and it's all brought together with a hit of salt. It's an alluring and seductive flavour profile and is found in so many places. Like, salted chocolate, in all our fancy coffee drinks and chocolate covered pretzels.
Salting out the aromas
With aroma making up 80% of our flavour perception, it very obviously plays a large part in what we taste and how we taste it. When you cut something like a grapefruit or an orange, the citrus scent fills the immediate area and you can almost taste the fruit. If you were to then salt that grapefruit or orange, the smell would become even more enhanced as the salt pulls moisture out of the fruit. This process that occurs is called salting out. And it happens all the time, to almost everything we cook.
How to use salt like a pro?
Well, the pro's start to use salt early in the cooking process. When you start the cooking process at home, you should have a small tub or bowl of sea salt next to your stove, so that you're not reaching in and out of a cupboard. This can be a helpful reminder to season and taste as you go. Season from a height so that the salt flakes get distributed evenly. This isn't so much an issue in soups and stews that get stirred.
You can go up but never down!
This is a hard lesson for any novice chef to learn. You can always add a pinch more salt, but you can never take it out. I don't know a single chef who has not at some point, early on in their career, toiled over a stock or soup pot, tasted, stirred seasoned and tasted again.... and had to throw the results down the drain. It can be easy to get heavy handed when you're new to seasoning. And it can sometimes be a tad tricky to know when enough is just enough.
Add small amounts and often.
What to do if you do add too much salt?
I get it. What we're doing here isn't Michelin star cooking. It's dinner. And we can't afford to be throwing food down the drain, economically or ethically. So, if you have gone a bit over the top with the salt, you can try and rectify it with some squeezes of lemon, a dash of dairy (butter, cream, etc) or you can try the Julia Child technique of placing a potato into the soup or sauce and letting it simmer gently for about 15 minutes while the potato soaks up some salt. Pass it all off through a strainer and you should be good to go.
There are a few exceptions to seasoning in the beginning of the cooking process and they are:
Salting mushrooms too early in the cooking process will bring out too much moisture and turn them soggy.
Peas and broad beans
Salting the cooking water will result in tough cracked skin on these tender veggies.
Dried pulses and legumes
Adding salt too early in the cooking process will result in a shell forming on the out layer and your legumes will take forever to cook.
In the end, it's simple. Get some good quality, but not expensive sea salt. Taste everything throughout the whole cooking process. And keep in mind, you don't want the food to taste salty, but rather to enhance all the natural flavours already present in the food.
As for the age old recipe instructions "season to taste"? It should read "season to your taste". And that truly boils down to your personal taste and what you like.
What about using other "seasonings"?
That's a great question. Salt and acid enhance flavour. Seasonings like pepper change flavour. Although, we've become very used to adding a grinding of pepper to most savoury foods that we cook. That's no bad thing, just be aware that as soon as you add pepper to something, you're altering the flavour profile.
How to season without salt?
Is it even possible to season without salt?
Yep. It sure is. Using ingredients like soy sauce, fish sauce and miso will help add a salty kick to your food. But again, these also have their own flavour profiles that will alter the original taste of the food. When you're using soy, miso and fish sauce and anything else that has a salty kick to it, it's best that you are more restrained with your use of salt and taste ALL. THE. TIME. during the cooking process.
Salt has been pretty misunderstood lately. With everyone being worried about heart disease, heart attacks and cholesterol, salt has been seen as artery enemy number 1. It's not your use of sea salt that's doing it. It's the hidden salts in packaged food and processed food.
Cook from scratch, season things yourself and taste as you go. Salt will become your best friend in the kitchen.