To cook without salt (save for sound and personal medical reasons), or to undersalt deliberately in the name of dietary chic, is to omit from the music of cookery the indispensable bass line over which all other tastes and smells form their harmonies.
Robert Farrar Capon
Whenever I teach cooking classes, I always surprise, or perhaps concern, my students with my assertion at the beginning of the class that the most important thing I can teach them is to “salt courageously”. Although the proper use of high-quality salt is just about the most important aspect of cooking, we live in a culture deeply suspicious of and confused about this most potent of ingredients.
When I was growing up, I absorbed the cultural message that sodium was a kind of poison, and that if we were to use salt at all, we were to do so with just the tiniest sprinkling. But when I started to cook seriously during college, I was exposed to the far sounder attitude of Marcella Hazan, who wrote in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen that “Salt is a magnet. When used judiciously, it draws fragrance from food… To shrink from an adequate use of salt is to leave unmined the deep-lying flavors of food. A pernicious consequence of the unjustified fear of salt is that our sense of taste, through lack of exercise, becomes atrophied and we fail to reject as resolutely as we ought, the savorless food we are led to prepare.”
Around the same time that I began using salt more courageously, I began using high-quality sea salt, which contains trace minerals and lacks added iodine and anti-clumping additives. I found that not all salts are created equal, and that even some sea salts seem to work better than others and taste different from each other. I realized that measuring by volume, different salts have differing sodium content. I began to experience depth of flavor in my cooking, as both Hazan and Robert Capon explained I would. I slowly realized that using salt judiciously, especially at the beginning of the cooking process, allows the salt to do its work of drawing out aroma and flavor from food while not drawing attention to itself.
This concept of drawing out flavor is an important one. Capon compared salt to a musical bass line. Hazan called it a magnet. The important thing is that the salt’s job is not to draw attention to itself, not to make the food taste “salty”, but to help develop the flavors that are already there in the food itself. Since the majority of what we call flavor is really a perception of aroma, the salt is actually drawing out and intensifying the aroma of food, which is why Marcella used to always test for salt not by tasting but by smelling. She describes testing this theory by salting a glass of wine and noticing the amplification of its aroma (though sadly no longer drinkable).
In this way, salt is very much like sunlight. A cloudy day can still be enjoyable. In fact, a cloudy day is often a nice change if not experienced too often. But there is no doubt that sunlight brings life to things. A tree, a garden bed, a beautiful home… graced with sunlight, everything comes alive and pulses with a kind of life simply not present without the light. This is what salt does for our cooking. For many of us who cook at home with a fear of salt, it’s like shutting the blinds of our house and blocking out the light which illuminates all things.
Of course, eating is a balance between pleasure and nutrition. Certainly we shouldn’t eat gluttonously, without regard for our health and well-being, but nor should we eat without savor or pleasure in the supposed name of health. For many years, I kept this balance keenly in mind: I knew salt was essential for preparing delicious food, but I was careful to keep it to a minimum because of possible health risks.
And so I laughed out loud back in 2012 when I read in the New York Times that the evidence that salt intake constitutes a health risk has always been on very shaky ground. This assertion has been repeated in the Times and other sources numerous times during the past several years. Then, while teaching cooking classes in Rome several months ago, one of my students who works in medicine, explained that about 15% of people are salt-sensitive and experience high blood pressure as a result of sodium consumption, but that salt intake has little or no effect on the other 85% of us. He explained that rather than go to the trouble of discerning who is and isn’t salt sensitive, the medical community has decided to simply keep mum on the issue and recommended extremely limited sodium for all.
I was floored. Could this really be? Could the single most important ingredient in our kitchen, without which we are doomed to bland and insipid food, really be demonized by the medical community without adequate justification? It turns out that is exactly what has been going on. Not only is increased sodium consumption not definitely linked with heart disease, some studies suggest that diets too low in sodium actually do us harm.
Moreover, the majority of sodium intake in the American diet doesn’t come from home cooking at all, it comes from fast foods and processed foods. Although eating three super savory meals at home every day certainly might not be a great idea, if most of us simply cut out processed and fast foods, we could salt at home pretty much as freely as we’d like and not have to worry too much.
But how much is the right amount? After all, taste is famously subjective. And what is just right for one person is too much for another. To continue the sun analogy, there are some people who spend so little time outside, that any amount of bright sunlight can be overwhelming. There are others who think nothing of sunbathing all day in the sun, even at the risk of cancer! For most of us, there is a healthy balance of sunlight, and so it is with salt. Based upon years of cooking for my family and for thousands of guests at the restaurant, most ingredients benefit from about 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of salt per pound. There are exceptions (eggs need only half that amount and sausage has about 50% more), but as a rule of thumb it is amazing how well that ratio works. And since a teaspoon of salt is about 5 grams and a pound of food is 450 grams, the ratio is about 1% salt. Of course, if you have a very salty salt, you might need less. Other salts just draw too much attention to themselves. But if you find a good, mild sea salt, the teaspoon per pound ratio should serve you very well. The nice thing about this approach is that it takes the guesswork out of it. Most cooks, even professional ones, salt by taste. This is great, but having a reliable ratio in mind immediately gets you in the ballpark. At my cooking classes, my students look on in horror as they watch me salt food and think to themselves that it’s going to be oversalted and awful, only to find later at the table that the result is not excessive saltiness but deep flavor.
Of course, this ratio is based upon salting early in the cooking process. Sprinkling a teaspoon per pound of salt at the table is surely going to taste too salty. The salt needs time to incorporate itself and work. Usually salting at the time ingredients go in the pan is the best approach. The fact that salt draws out moisture from foods and that moisture might interfere with browning is a myth that is exaggerated in my experience. As long as you have nice, high heat, there shouldn’t be a problem. But some foods benefit from salting well before cooking, especially meat. I salt meats at least 30 minutes or up to a few hours beforehand, a technique which can be thought of as dry “brining”. Traditional wet brining is also a valuable technique, though I admit that I never do it owing to the larger amounts of salt and water necessary. It seems like unneeded fuss. Dry brining works just fine for me.
The fact that salt needs time to work also explains why good restaurants don’t put salt shakers on their tables. In short, it’s too late! If the kitchen messes up their job and underseasons a dish, it should be brought to their attention and fixed. But it can’t be fixed simply by sprinkling salt on the table. And seasoning is also personal and part of the creative expression of the chef, and it can be a kind of signature. A chef has a right to season dishes as he or she sees fit. If a chef’s approach to seasoning doesn’t fit a customer’s preferences, it’s best to choose a different restaurant which does. Just as one doesn’t go into an art gallery and ask to have the light adjusted to suit the viewer’s preference for viewing the paintings, so in a restaurant one should allow the chef’s approach to seasoning to stand as he or she intends it.
But what sort of salt is a good salt? Although many chefs like kosher salts, for me it is natural sea salts which result from the evaporation of sea water and with minimal processing that provide the best character to cooking. Because I am frugal, I haven’t tried the super expensive salts that are out there. Here are some that I’ve tried and liked:
Lima Atlantic Sea Salt: My first love and the only salt I used for many years. It’s a little clumpy and so not as good as a finer sea salt would be for sprinkling a tiny amount. Great for measuring and using early in the cooking process.
Real Salt: It’s beautiful to look at with little lovely red flecks, and I really liked it for a while. But then I started noticing that it was drawing too much attention to itself. Food tasted salty when it shouldn’t have. Worth a try, but not sure I’d recommend it.
Alessi: My current salt of choice. Mild but effective. A little tendency to clump, so better when measured or used at the beginning of cooking rather than sprinkled near the end. Available at my local Wegmans supermarket.
Pure Ocean: A nice salt with a good texture, but it’s strong and you need to use less than a teaspoon per pound. I often use it if I need a little sprinkle near the end of cooking.
There are certainly many other options, and I think the most important thing is to try a few and find one that works for you. Because you’ll often be salting by feel, it’s important to choose a salt and stick with it until you have a sense of what it feels like in your hand and how much is the right amount. Of course, you can also measure.
Finding the right salt takes a little work, but it is absolutely worth it. Nothing can propel your cooking to a higher level more effectively than salting courageously!
Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm