Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Flavor Profile: Salt

Since this blog is all about flavor, I thought I'd do a series of profiles on ingredients to add to food to maximize flavor. The obvious first choice is the most ubiquitous: salt. A key ingredient to all savory dishes, and even to some that are sweet, it cannot be denied that salt is the most important addition to the food we prepare.

Salt has been around a long time. Its ability to preserve food was a valuable aid in the foundation of civilization. It eliminated the dependence on the seasonal availability of food and it allowed travel over long distances. Salt was difficult to obtain, so it was a highly valued trade item. Cities grew along "salt roads" all over Europe - one such road was even called the Via Salaria (which means salt) in Italy - some of which had been established in the Bronze Age.

There are 2 main sources for salt: rock salt and sea salt. Rock salt occurs in vast beds of sedimentary evaporite minerals that result from the drying up of enclosed lakes and seas. Sea salt is of course obtained by the evaporation of sea water.

Varieties of salt abound. The most common that many of us grew up on is table salt (think "Morton's"), which is a highly refined sea salt to which iodine was added in the early 1900's because of goiter. Though this is hardly a problem in America any more, it still is in various countries around the world. There is considerable dispute among gourmets concerning the taste difference between regular table salt and sea salt, and though some claim there is none, others believe that sea salt has a mouthfeel that table salt simply doesn't, and I agree. Table salt, however, is quite economical.

Kosher salt gets its name because of its integral role in making meat kosher. Jewish law dictates that blood must be extracted from meat prior to consumption, and kosher salt's texture was created during the evaporation process so that it could better absorb blood. (Wish you hadn't learned that?) This shows that salt is a great extractor, which is why many eggplant recipes, for instance, call for each peeled, sliced piece to be sprinkled with salt and allowed to sit for 1/2 hour in order to extract the bitterness out of the vegetable before cooking. I've noticed that kosher salt is used quite frequently by celebrity chefs. It does not dissolve well, however.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, there's Fleur de Sel, a type of sea salt obtained by harvesting the crystals that form on the surface of salt ponds. The harvesting of this type of salt always takes place in the hotter summer months, and now almost exclusively in the Mediterranean region. Most fleurs de sel often smell like the sea. Sea salt comes in a variety of colors other than white, such as gray, pink, black and even red salt! For a great description of salt varieties, click here.

Salt is what brings out food's true flavor, but it should enhance, never mask, the food it is added to. It should be in the background: there, but not noticed. Pay attention to when a recipe states to add the salt. It makes a difference to what you are cooking when the salt gets added. I usually add a little less than what's stated in the recipe and add to it if I feel it needs more. You can always add - it's much more difficult to take away!

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