Cooking

Worth Its Weight in Salt

Everything you need to know about the essential seasoning
Salting Water
When blanching greens, salt the water just before it comes to a boil | Photo: Tasting Table

Your last salary likely came in the form of a paycheck. This is because we've moved on from Roman times, when soldiers were paid in salt, hence the two words' similarity.

But what hasn't changed is the importance of salt—it brings out the flavor of food, is one of our five basic taste sensations and encompasses one of the most easily recognizable brands, thanks to the world's oldest young girl. Getting conflicting information about this ubiquitous molecule can be like, well, salt in an open wound—so here are five tips to help get the story straight.

Just a pinch. Jeffrey Steingarten once calculated the mass of one shake of his saltshaker—twice actually, to ensure accuracy. We're not suggesting you go through similar efforts, but it's helpful to know what it means when a recipe asks you to add "a pinch of salt." Literally speaking, it all depends on the size of your thumb and forefinger, but most sources will estimate a pinch as around 1/16 of a teaspoon. The best barometer, though? Your tastebuds. Everyone has their own salinity preference, so taste as you cook and keep a small bowl of salt handy, next to the stove.

Get the timing down. Salt raises the boiling point of water, so add it to a pot of water for boiling pasta or blanching greens just before the water comes to a boil. The salt won't make your food cook dramatically faster, but it helps! If you add the salt when you first put the water on the burner, the water will take longer to boil and the salt won't dissolve as well. There is one notable exception: When it comes to potatoes, food scientist Harold McGee suggests in his tome On Food and Cooking that you avoid salting the water, lest the outside of your tubers turn to mush. For flavor, add salt when they're done cooking.

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Mean, green, salting routine. It may sound absurd to massage your kale, but tougher greens can benefit from a bit of salt treatment. Salt helps break down the cell walls and it extracts water to tenderize the greens. Also, toss your salad tonight with dressing and a bit of salt—you'll be surprised how much even a small amount of salt can wake up simple greens.

Be aggressive. Salt your pasta liquid and blanching water so that it tastes like the ocean—the flavor will transfer to the food you're cooking. Don't worry about it being too salty, since most of the salt will stay in the water when you've cooked it. But as flour + water's Thomas McNaughton writes in his pasta-centric cookbook, the boiling water is important for seasoning, not just cooking. Should it really be as salty as the ocean, though? "Without a doubt," says Josh Laurano, executive chef at NYC's Lupa.

Salt your sweets. Joshua Bellamy, a head baker/owner at Raleigh's Boulted Bread, knows a thing or two about salt. After all, it's one of the four basic ingredients in a loaf of bread—and for this reason, he suggests using a high-quality salt (Laurano is fond of Maldon). Salt helps amp up the flavor of otherwise bland raw flour, and plays a crucial role in keeping dough from becoming too sour during fermentation. As for pastries, Bellamy adds a salted sesame- and sunflower-seed topping to his maple cream-doused twice-baked chocolate croissant in order to strike a "happy balance" in the pastry—without it, he says, the sweetness would be over the top.

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