Any chef will tell you that the key to great cooking isn't technique or expensive equipment ― it's using salt properly. Ironically, the most important seasoning in the kitchen is often relegated to the table, where it's used to make bland food taste better, after the fact.
But season a steak with coarse salt before and right after grilling, and you get delicious, juicy meat with a crunchy exterior. A salad tastes fresher and more flavorful when tossed with a properly salted dressing. And a sprinkle of flaky salt on a dark chocolate tart brings out the dessert's intensity and richness.
Without salt, cheese would taste like paste and potatoes would taste, well, like something dug out of the ground. Salt also affects the texture of food.
It tenderizes meat and slows the development of yeast in bread dough, preventing the dough from over-rising and collapsing. Salt plays other roles too: It inhibits the growth of bacteria, and it pulls moisture from juicy vegetables like eggplant so they'll fry without getting soggy.
Salt ― the right kind, in the right amount ― can transform your cooking.
WHY SIZE MATTERS
Ultra-fine salt gives a light, even coverage, so it's great for hard-to-sprinkle foods like popcorn. Fine-grain is useful for all-purpose cooking. Medium- to coarse-grain adds sparkle and crunch to bread doughs and roasted meat and fish. Save extra-coarse salt for seasoning pasta water or creating beds for oysters on the half shell.
DIETARY FRIEND OR FOE?
It depends on your perspective
While many chefs consider salt their most important seasoning, doctors blame it for raising blood pressure. (Sodium in very modest amounts, however, is essential for good health.) The American Medical Association and other health-advocacy groups have urged the FDA to limit the amount of sodium in processed foods.
Why focus on processed food?
Of the 4,000 mg of sodium the average American adult consumes daily, about 75 percent is served up in processed food. Another 10 percent occurs naturally in fresh ingredients. The rest is what we add in cooking and at the table.
Know your sodium guidelines
The USDA recommends that adults limit themselves to 2,300 mg of sodium a day, the amount in 1 tsp. of table salt. For those in the salt-sensitive category (anyone over 50, of African descent, or with high blood pressure), the guideline shrinks to only 1,500 mg of sodium.
If you fall into the group for higher sodium-sensitivity or are concerned about your blood pressure, talk to your doctor. It's still okay to cook with salt in moderation if you're in good health, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (diets high in potassium and calcium help lower blood pressure), and keep active. In any case, it's prudent to limit your intake of high-sodium processed and prepared food.
Greens and Herbs Salad with Classic Vinaigrette
Most people tend to be timid about using enough salt in a vinaigrette, but the right amount ― which may be different for each of us ― really accents salad's "green" flavors.
Thin Salt-and-Pepper Breadsticks
Sprinkling with a moist, unrefined sea salt such as sel gris or fleur de sel will create wonderful bursts of saltiness. Kosher salt works, too, but the breadsticks will be drier and more uniform in flavor.
Salt-crusted Beets with Avocado, Lavender, and Thyme
Chef Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu restaurant in Napa roasts beets in an aromatic salt crust that infuses the kitchen and the beets with the fragrance of flowers and herbs. We've highlighted them in this simple salad.
Chef's tip: Salt-crusting seasons food evenly, imparts complex spice flavors, and makes a great presentation when you crack open the crust. -Chef Jeremy Fox, Ubuntu, Napa
Grilled Pork Chops with Brown-Sugar Brine and Onion-Peach Marmalade
Because modern pork is very lean, the meat can easily dry out when cooked. Using a brine (a solution of water, salt, and aromatics) adds moisture and flavor.
Chef's tip: Brining makes meat juicy; also, the aromatics in the liquid are absorbed by the meat, so you get perfect seasoning every time. -Chef Mark Sullivan, Spruce, San Francisco
Salted Chocolate Tart
We prefer Maldon sea salt for sprinkling onto this tart. Its large flakes look striking against the glossy chocolate surface, and its crunchy texture contrasts beautifully with the smooth, velvety filling.
Chef's tip: Chocolate and flaky sea salt go together really well. The Salt cuts the sweetness and adds complexity and crunch. -Pastry Chef Kristy Choo, Jin Patisserie, Venice, CA
SHAKIN' OUT THE SALTS
The number of different salts on the market is staggering, and choosing the right one can make a big difference in your cooking. Here's a quick guide to regular salts--and some gourmet ones too.
The familiar, fine-grained standby. Anti-caking agents keep it free-flowing. Iodine, a mineral essential for proper thyroid functioning and mental development, may be added too. Table salt is either mined from the earth or evaporated from seawater.
Uses All-around cooking; preferred by bakers because it measures uniformly and dissolves quickly.
The best contain naturally derived flavors and range from smoky to citrusy to chile-hot. Originally for ceremonial use, Hawaiian red salt ― white sea salt with 'alaea clay added ― is gaining a following with cooks for its brick red color and earthy flavor. Now there's Black Hawaiian Salt, with charcoal blended in.
Uses Great on steaks and veggies.
Made from evaporated seawater. Refined sea salt is the least expensive; it has the dryness and uniform flavor of table salt, but without any additives. Unrefined sea salts are moist, irregular crystals that still retain trace minerals, subtle flavors, and, sometimes, colors from the source. Connoisseurs particularly prize French fleur de sel ("flower of salt"), delicate crystals that form on top of evaporation ponds, and coarser sel gris ("gray salt"), from the lower layers.
Uses Sea salt is available in fine to coarse grains. Fine-textured refined or unrefined works well for all-purpose cooking and seasoning. Unrefined medium- to coarse-grain sea salt makes flavorful, stick-able toppings for dough, fish, and meat. Try expensive artisanal "finishing salts" at the table, where you can appreciate their nuances.
A coarse-grained salt used for koshering (drawing blood out of) meat and favored by many cooks for its clean taste and pinchable texture.
Uses General cooking, salt crusting, brining, and margarita rimming. If substituting for table salt, you'll need twice as much Diamond Crystal brand (its pyramid shape adds volume) or just slightly more flake-shaped Morton.
Large, pretty crystals with a delicate crunch. The thin, hollow pyramid shape (which breaks easily into flakes) allows this salt to perch on food so you get a pop of saltiness when you bite into it.
Uses Sprinkle over a Caprese salad or dot over a scoop or two of rich ice cream.