Seasoning Snafus: Salts

Don't get salty about salt.

Reading online recently, I've noticed a lot of culinary blogs listing common kitchen mistakes, mishaps, and misunderstandings. One of my favorites is this growing list of over 40 of the most common kitchen errors at Cooking Light. It got me thinking about a number of the seasoning peccadillos that we hear from customers who come through the Spice House, and without a doubt are guilty of some ourselves from time to time. So what are some of these common seasoning snafus, and how can we avoid them?

As a spice merchant, one of our prime responsibilities is educating our customers about the use of our product. Spices, herbs, and seasonings can be plutonium in the kitchen, without the right knowledge and care they can make dinner a disaster with just a few shakes. We would never want someone to take home a spice and ruin a perfectly good dish because we simply didn't articulate a product's proper use. So, I've decided to start to compile a short list of some of the most common seasoning mishaps and misconceptions. With each of these posts I'll list a new common seasoning snafu based on ingredient, why it happens so often, and how to avoid it.

Salt: to much, not enough, or simply the wrong kind?

Salt, one of the most important components to just about any kind of cooking is often misused and misunderstood. Cooks, professional or otherwise will often under or over salt their food with disastrous results. But these problems can be easily avoided with a little understanding of the different kinds of salt and how they should be used. If you learn to use the right salt, your tongue, wallet,  and cardiologist will thank you.

There are a number of different kinds of salt, but each one has unique attributes that make it best suited for specific uses. Using the wrong salt can either rob your food of flavor, or worse, rob the salt of its special and sometimes expensive qualities. So how do we decide which salt is the right salt? Well, without getting to technical, the world of salt can be simply divided into two major categories, cooking salts and finishing salts.

A cooking salts are generally less expensive dry salts that would be used during the cooking process, or when the salt would not be physically seen in the final dish. Some examples of cooking salts would be kosher salt, corse rock salt, or even fine shaker salt. Finishing salts are often more expensive wet or dry salts that are used during serving to maximize their physical and visual presence in a final dish. Some examples of finishing salts would include fine European sea salts, Himalayan pink salt, or visually striking Hawaiian salts.

To further understand the devision of finishing and cooking salts, the structure of salts should be addressed. Sodium chloride is the primary mineral in any kind of salt used for cooking. Both cooking and finishing salts will contain approximately the same amount of sodium by weight, it doesn't matter if it is a wet sea salt or fine shaker salt. Conversely, due to the shape and size of the salt crystals, different salts will have varying amounts of sodium by volume. Dry dense cooking salts will dissolve faster and with greater potency, while moist flaky finishing salts will stay crystalline longer with a lower sodium content. This is important because the shape and size of a salt can dictate how the sodium is concentrated, and thereby how it seasons food.

Finishing and cooking salts, Maldon sea salt on the left and Diamond kosher salt on the right.

Sodium chloride is a powerful flavor enhancer, without getting too much into of the science of it, sodium seasons food by pulling fluids and the flavors within these fluids to it. On a cellular level, salt permeates cell walls in an effort to equalize the salinity (or saltiness) of the fluids in and around those cells, taking all of the rich flavors in that fluid with it. This process, known as osmosis, is a powerful tool to concentrate flavors, either pushing flavors deep into our food or pulling those flavors right up to the surface. Wherever moisture is present, the salt will push the flavors along with itself in the direction of that moisture. The question to ask is where do we want the flavors to go, and what's the best way to get them there?

Now, to push flavor into food, using a marinade for example, a cooking salt is much more effective. The higher sodium concentration of the dense dry cooking salts can easily dissolve into a moisture rich marinade, and at a much lower cost than expensive finishing salts. Other good uses for the cooking salts would be sauces or soups, pushing all the flavors together into one harmonious melody.

If the desire is to pull flavor out of a food, a finishing salt is best. After a dish is plated, a pinch of crunchy sea salt can pull flavor right to your taste buds. The flaky structure of the finishing salt allows it to sit undissolved atop of foods, until it is finely crunched down by our teeth. After it is chewed with food, the sodium in the finishing salt dissolves in our mouths, pulling flavors out of the food and right to our taste buds. Secondly, the lower sodium content by volume of finishing salts will help to avoid using to much salt. Being able to see how much salt we place on food is a great way to  train ourselves to use less sodium in our diet altogether.

That's the broad strokes for salt, no pun intended. There are certainly many more rules and exceptions regarding the use and misuse of salts, as well as their individual histories and characteristics. We offer a wide variety of salts, with lots more information on each to explore. Don't be afraid to try them out, and by all means, make mistakes while you cook, just don't cry about it.

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One thought on “Seasoning Snafus: Salts

  1. Very interesting article on salts! Thanks for the information. I found you from the Salty Fig website’s blog. Salty Fig is one of my favorites, so I’m so glad you’ve partnered with them. I’m looking forward to learning lots more about spices from you!