Five Persistent Home Cooking Myths About Salt

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Five Persistent Home Cooking Myths About Salt

There is no ingredient more essential to every form of home cookery than salt. It’s one of the building blocks of life; an essential nutrient in the human body; a tool used in most every cooking culture around the globe. And yet, it’s also probably fair to say that salt also happens to be simultaneously the single most misunderstood, ignorantly reviled cooking ingredient as well.

We have a strange relationship with salt, in modern pop culture/food culture. Chefs celebrate it; internet celebrities and influencers have shtick revolving around it, and yet the average home cook still seems apt to misuse salt, or not really understand the important role it plays in properly seasoning our food.

Worse yet is the fact that salt seems to be actively feared by a significant chunk of the population, with rational concerns about its effect on something like blood pressure replaced by pseudoscience, magical thinking and ineffective attempts at replacements. Suffice to say, there are still too many people out there who hold up their own refusal to properly use salt as some kind of health-conscious badge of honor, when all they’re really doing is depriving themselves of food that tastes good.

Here, then, are five of the most persistent, incorrect views that too many of us still hold about various kinds of salt.

1. Salt makes food taste “salty”

Properly employed, making food taste “salty” is almost never the actual function of salt in cooking. Relatively few foods are traditionally meant to have an overtly “salty” flavor, and these are usually ones where salt may be sprinkled on liberally at the end. Think soft pretzels, or movie theater popcorn, or roasted and salted nuts. These are legitimately meant to taste overtly “salty” on our palate.

The purpose of salt in most food, on the other hand, is seasoning. Using salt on a protein like chicken or beef before cooking enhances and highlights the flavor of that meat, and when used in correct amounts does not make that protein taste notably “salty.” This is true of everything where we use seasoning, from sauteed vegetables, to the presence of salt in recipes for baked goods and even drinks. Salt is a flavor enhancer, and the opposite is also true–lack of any sodium makes most foods/flavors seem deadened and bland to our taste buds.

Why is this the case? Well, it’s because of the way salt interacts with water in our food, for one. Sprinkle salt on some vegetables you’re cooking in a saute pan, and the sodium will help to draw water out of your food. As you do this, you end up intensifying the natural flavors already present in that food. For this reason, food cooked with a modicum of salt–let’s say some caramelized onions in a pan–tastes more like itself than an unsalted version. It doesn’t taste like salt; it tastes more assertively like caramelized onions. This is why we use salt.

2. You can simply cook everything without salt

It’s a sad, sad corner of the home cooking world that attempts to just do entirely without salt. Granted, there are some legitimate medical reasons why one might be holding themselves to this standard. Someone with a genuine blood pressure problem will likely be trying to at least restrict their salt intake, but the reality is that even these people generally don’t need to be trying to cut it out of their diets entirely. “Salt free” has instead been assumed into fad diet culture in its own way over time, with proponents claiming that you can instead just liberally rely on elements such as herbs, spices or acid to enliven food.

The other frustrating reality is that many people who essentially do not use salt in their own home kitchen are widely unaware of how much salt is still present in everything else they eat, be it packaged foods or restaurant dishes. I promise you, even your favorite “health conscious” restaurant is still probably using far more salt than you’re expecting, because restaurants are in the business of making dishes that taste good. They’re not about to serve bland, unseasoned food because their customers mistakenly believe this is something they should want.

The truth is that unless you’re under some kind of medical order, tools such as saltless herb blends or spice blends are not intended to fill in entirely for proper seasoning. Salt plays its usual function in making these blends work in the first place–if you want a demonstration, taste a piece of cooked chicken with a saltless spice blend, and then a piece with the same spice blend, plus a judicious use of sodium. In the second piece, the spice flavors will be much more vibrant and satisfying. That’s what salt does.

This is especially true of products such as salt free or unsalted chicken stock/broth–a valuable tool to be used in the kitchen, but one that you’re supposed to be using with the understanding that it’s now your responsibility to add seasoning before eating. Unsalted broth is particularly useful in making reductions and sauces because you don’t have to worry about a reduced sauce getting too saltywhile waiting for it to concentrate to the correct consistency … but finishing that sauce means seasoning it yourself.

3. Salts can be used interchangeably

Home cooks tend to be at least vaguely aware that there are many different types of salt, but they all too often believe that the primary difference between them comes down to relatively unimportant factors such as trace minerals or the geographic origin of the salt. In reality, it’s the physical shape and size of salt grains that makes a massive difference in cooking with it, especially when you’re trying to follow a recipe.

It should likely be obvious that super fine table salt requires less to use when measuring by volume–because the grains are so small, there are fewer gaps and spaces between them in a teaspoon or tablespoon, meaning more sodium per TSP or TBSP. What’s far less clear is that even between the two popular, major brands of Kosher salt–Diamond Kosher and Morton Kosher–there are still big differences in the amount of sodium in any given volume.

Kosher salt is especially popular with cooks because its larger size makes it easier to eyeball how much you’re using, as well as being easier to pinch between your fingers. But because the different shape of Diamond Kosher salt means it contains almost twice as much sodium per cup as Morton Kosher, it becomes crucial that you know which brand is being referred to when you see a recipe calling for a measure like “a TBSP of salt.” For this reason, recipes written with ingredients by weight are often seen as preferable, because they’re more universal–that, or replacing volume amounts in cooking recipes with “season to taste.” If you are using recipes with ingredients written in volumes, such as a baking recipe, try to find ones that specify which brand or style of salt they’re calling for. This can be a crucial point.

4. “Season to taste” is just a suggestion

One of the most damaging mindsets a home cook can have in the process of cooking is to simply accept that something tastes bad or bland, and not do anything to fix it. This is especially common among inexperienced or unconfident home cooks, who have a tendency to hew closely to recipes as written and simply accept the results, regardless of what they are.

One of the most common pitfalls here is simply not seasoning food properly, either because you’re relying on an arbitrary amount of salt written in a recipe, or because you’re afraid to take “season to taste” literally and trust your own perception. Many of us have eaten bland meals made by a home cook who insists “I followed the recipe,” as if they couldn’t be expected to do any more than that.

“Season to taste” is something to be taken literally. One should season while cooking, and then taste the food you’re making before serving it to anyone. Lacking in flavor? Season some more. Still lacking? Keep going. Continue seasoning until “taste” occurs. That’s how you know you’re done. Curious why certain dishes such as mashed potatoes tend to taste so much better in restaurants than at home? It’s because restaurants season this way, until it tastes right. And you can do this too!

5. “Special” salts confer incredible health benefits

It should not come as a surprise that the world of salt, like any other corner of the cooking realm, comes complete with no shortage of pseudoscience and magical, New Age-y thinking. One will often see this manifest via the use of expensive, more difficult to obtain styles of salt that are of course reputed by their users to have all sorts of incredible health benefits. These may include special brands of sea salt gathered from areas of seemingly mystical importance, or the famed pink Himalayan salt, which is mined from the Earth and is naturally pink from the presence of trace minerals.

In the case of pink Himalayan salt in particular, adherents will often promise a hilariously wide array of benefits, ranging from improved digestion or circulation to “supporting bone health” and “energy healing” or stress reduction. For this reason, some folks even try to surround themselves with items made from this salt, such as lamps and talismans.

I trust you can guess where this is going at this point, but I’ll say it anyway just to be safe: There’s very little empirical, scientific evidence that the trace minerals in these salts have any documented, measurable health benefits for people. At the end of the day, they’re just one more would-be superfood for the Goop crowd to dump their disposable income on. Please do not spend a ton of money on pink Himalayan salt and then try to do all your cooking with it.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink, food and film writing.

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