We’re starting a new thing over here at Finding Quiet Farm: the FAQ Series. This programming will be based on the most common questions I’ve been asked over nearly a decade of teaching cooking classes to thousands of people; hopefully you’ll learn something and improve your own cooking. Let’s kick this show off right with the number-one question I hear: “How can I make my food taste more like restaurant food?”
The iconic pyramidal crystals of Maldon salt, harvested off the coast of England.
Pose this question to any professional chef, and the answer will be the same: learn how to use salt properly. (Just to quell the suspense, the second most popular question is “What sort of salt should I use?”)
I don’t find it at all unreasonable that I have more than ten varieties of salt in my kitchen…except I only use two. You don’t need this many.
Learning how to season food properly – and specifically, how to use salt – is what separates mediocre cooks from amazing cooks. Whether in a restaurant or at home, salt is far and away the single most important component after the raw ingredients themselves – you can get by without almost anything else, but nothing (savory, at least) tastes good unless it’s been properly salted. And most sweet things need a little salt too, for balance. (Looking at you, salted caramel.)
Salt is the only rock we eat, and it’s vital to our health. It’s been prized for thousands of years throughout the world; Roman soldiers used to be paid their monthly wages in salt, hence our word salary. Salad, too, originates from salt since the Romans salted their greens. The Bible carries dozens of references, including salt of the earth and pillar of salt. Someone without esteem is not worth their salt. Simply put, it’s essential to our survival.
The salt flats in Bonaire.
Salt is actually composed of two minerals, sodium and chloride. It’s produced either through mining deep deposits in the earth, or through solar evaporation. Most standard table salt is heavily processed and includes both added iodine (as a public health measure) and anti-caking agents to keep it free-flowing. Sea salt is, as you might expect, evaporated from seawater; fleur de sel is the crunchy, delicate top layer of sea salt and is typically used as a finishing salt. There are no health benefits to sea salt, despite a marketing campaign designed to make you think otherwise, but chefs don’t like the intensely chemical taste of iodized salt. We also use so much of it that we can’t spend our entire budget on fancy sea salts. We love coarse kosher salt.
So 11 ounces is less than 48 ounces but the bottle costs $12.95 and the box costs $2.99? I sense a swindle.
The term kosher just means that the crystals are larger and therefore more effective in drawing blood out of meat after it’s been slaughtered, in keeping with kosher tradition. Chefs love it because we use our fingertips to pick it up; most of us have those measurements so carefully calibrated that we’re more accurate than a set of teaspoons. All you need in your kitchen is a box of coarse kosher salt, poured into a small dish and set near the stove, plus a finishing salt like Maldon, whose large pyramidal crystals offer a satisfying crunch and burst of flavor when used properly on top of caramels or fresh ricotta with peaches on crostini or a beautifully seared steak. Don’t ever waste your finishing salt in pasta water or in baking recipes, and don’t ever pay $12.95 for the branded bottle on the left when the box on the right is the exact same thing, contains more than four times as much and costs $2.99.
It’s the only rock we eat…and it’s gorgeous. And delicious. And necessary.
Like our newfound obsession with the mysterious gluten, however, we’ve gotten our relationship with salt all wrong. The American Heart Association and other major medical organizations have shouted for years that Americans consume way too much salt and that it is a leading cause of high blood pressure, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. The Mayo Clinic claims the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt each day, while the recommendation is 1,500 milligrams or less.
We avoid using salt the few times we do cook at home – that’s the salt we can control – because we’re so scared of it, and as a result our food is bland and tasteless. So we go out, or buy premade foods, because they taste better. Unfortunately, we get the vast majority of our salt (and our sugar) from these processed foods, including the ones we don’t even think about: sliced bread. Salad dressing. Bottled spaghetti sauce. Pastries. And obviously, any fast food will be loaded with salt. A single Egg McMuffin contains over 700 milligrams of salt – good luck staying under that 1,500 milligram mark if you eat fast food. Salt is a flavor enhancer, but more importantly for the processed food industry, it’s a preservative.
I’ve taught numerous cooking classes where I’ve added salt to a dish and acknowledged gasps of horror at the quantity I’m using. Please, trust me on this: if you are eating most of your meals at home, cooked from fresh, healthy, whole foods and not from boxes and packets, and if you avoid processed foods like bottled salad dressings, take-out pizza, commercial lunch meats and cheap sliced sandwich bread, you don’t need to worry about adding salt when you cook. You’re already way ahead of the game.
You only need two salts: one for finishing, on the left, and one for everything else, on the right. Oh, and read that book.
How can you become more proficient about using salt? Taste your food. Taste it before you add salt, and after. Slice a fresh summer tomato and eat it without any salt. Now take another slice, sprinkle it with crunchy Maldon, and taste it again. Cut a steak in half, and cook it exactly the same, but use salt on one portion and not on the other. Your pasta water should taste like the sea, according to Italian grandmothers everywhere, and you should never cook beans or rice or vegetables or grains in unsalted water. Seasoning should be done in layers, as you build a dish, rather than just dumping a bunch of salt on at the end. Taste and taste again. Salt should never make food taste salty, it should make food taste more like itself; it’s designed to enhance food, not to overwhelm it. Restaurant food tastes delicious – and ideally not salty – because those amounts are carefully calibrated. And because chefs have spent years learning how to season.
Learning to cook well at home is a process, as I’ve mentioned many times. And learning to season is part of that process, just like learning your own palate. Remember those famous words: “salt to taste.” So go get a box of kosher salt, and start using it. With your fingertips, please.