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June 25, 2007 / Tony

Kosher Salt

Salt is the key component to any type of cooking.  It does not so much as provide a distinct flavor of its own but it deepens and enhances the flavor of everything that it touches.  It is not too much to say that it is salt that makes food taste like it is supposed to taste.  Food without salt is bland, non-descript, and borderline tasteless.  In many cases, a dish made without salt is virtually inedible, culinarily speaking.  Take the juiciest steak you can find and grill to perfection.  It may look good but without salt, it will be a hideous, tasteless glob of protien that is not fit for human consumption.  Hence, it is fair to say that the proper use of salt is the key component of good culinary technique.

What astonishes me, however, is how little heed the average American cooks pays to salt.  How many kitchens in the U.S. are only equipped with the fine-grained, Morton’s Iodized salt and a salt shaker with only two little holes from which salt may issue when shaken?  Probably more than I want to know about.  Salt is something that is lightly shaken on foods (unless specifically asked for a substantial amount by a recipe), instead of the major player that it should be in cooking.  The problem with this method of salting food is not that fine-grained salt is any different than Kosher salt in taste.  They are chemically identical (except for the iodine).  The problem is in usage.  The issue is that it takes too darn long to get any substantial amount of salt out of a salt shaker.  I can only guess that getting a 1/2 tsp. of salt out of a salt shaker would take at least thirty seconds and perhaps more.  By design, salt comes out slowly; which is not a bad thing for table use but for cooking, it is a unnecessary and probably hurtful burden.  For nobody is willing to shake that stupid shaker for 30 seconds because it’s a waste of time.  Hence, the food that is being cooked is probably being underseasoned and will probably require further seasoning at the table in the form of more salt. 

I don’t know how others feel about whether or not a salt and pepper shaker should be present at a dinner table but I feel that if a cook does his or her job right, their guests should not need salt of pepper on the table.  (I will make an exception for corn on the cob.)  A cook should be able to perfectly season his or her food in a way that no guest will even feel the need for additional seasoning on their food.  Furthermore, a cook should understand that salting the food on the table is a vastly inferior way of seasoning food.  It just makes food taste salty instead of being seasoned because it has not had any chance to be cooked with the food.  It just sits there on top and hits your tongue before the food so that the first taste is just salt.  Not an ideal situation.

So what is a remedy to this situation?  The liberal use of kosher salt in a little dish.  I use a salt cellar

 salt-cellar.jpg

 but any small bowl will do. (The picture is from AltonBrown.com and this is the salt cellar that he uses in every episode.  It’s a little bit of money but it is so handy.  Well worth the expense.)  You really don’t even need to cover your salt; it’s a rock so it will not go stale or anything like that.  You would just need to be careful not to drop things in it.  Now, it is easy to access and deliver salt.  Simply pinch your fingers in there and sprinkle over the food.  It is now easy to avoid the problem of underseasoning.

But why use Kosher salt instead of regular salt in the salt cellar, you ask?  Easy, it’s difficult to pinch fine-grained salt between your fingers.  It’s too slippery.  Kosher salt, on the other hand, with its larger granules is easy to pinch and hence, easy to dispense. 

Three last things:  First, even though fine-grained and Kosher salts are chemically identical, they do not measure the same because of their physical differences.  Fine-grained salt is saltier by volume; that is, a teaspoon of fine-grained salt will taste saltier than a teaspoon of Kosher salt.  That is because its smaller grains can be packed more tightly together.  Hence, if your chocolate chip cookie recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt, use the fine-grained salt instead of Kosher salt.  Otherwise, you’ll have flat-tasting cookies.  Second, I want to be absolutely clear that I am not advocating that people not use fine-grained salt.  It has its uses.  All I am try to fix is the misuse, as I see it, of that type of salt and advocate for the use of Kosher salt during cooking.  Good cooking requires the proper use of the proper ingredients at the proper time.  Salt is definitely subject to that rule.  Third, I am no nutrionist, but I do not share our culture’s seemingly love/hate relationship with salt.  Obviously, we love to eat it but there seems to be a huge fear that it will somehow shorten our lives.  Perhaps, excess of anything is usually not a good thing but it is indisuptable that salt is necessary for our survival and absolutely necessary for food to taste good.  So use it and don’t be afraid of it. 

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Tracy / Jun 27 2007 5:26 pm

    What are your thoughts on sea salt?

  2. Tony / Jun 28 2007 9:15 am

    Sea salt is one of those new ultra-gourmet items that have popped up in the past few years. And they have their uses but I think it is foolish to use only sea salt in your cooking. One, it is far too expensive for such everyday use. Two, even if you did regularly use sea salt, you wouldn’t recieve any benefit. What makes sea salt so desirable isn’t it’s saltiness. It’s still just sodium chloride. What is desirable is its shape (hopefully coarser than even Kosher salt) and the impurities that are present in the salt. The shape is nice for cooking (but you can do the same with Kosher salt) but the impurities will probably not be detectable in a dish you make with it. So, for everyday cooking, there is really no benefit.

    On the other hand, using sea salt as a finishing salt is a great idea. Imagine a nice loaf of focaccia with nice large chunks of sea salt on top. In that case, the large chunks of salt will hit your mouth first giving you a nice salty burst as well as giving you the opportunity to taste any additional flavors in the salt. Now that’s a nice use of sea salt.

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