Respect the salt

July 15, 2007 · 2 comments

In my opinion, insufficient use of salt is perhaps the single greatest mistake by home cooks.1

Yes, this is a quote from Christopher Kimball, The Man With Whom I Rarely Disagree. When I first read it, I was so utterly glad that he wrote it, because it validated a thought I have had many times.

Salt is a curious thing. Like many things on this earth, it has a good purpose, and even provides necessary nutrients to our bodies; but it can be abused, and become a boisterous, drunken party-ruiner, drawing all attention to itself and pretty much sabotaging the fun of all other parties involved. It is this Overused character that has ruined the reputation of the world’s oldest seasoning. What could have dethroned a mineral that arguably shaped the development of most of the world’s civilizations? Probably a melange of factors, including the late-20th century fear of hypertension and water retention. But since we as a culture seem to enjoy throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, we have decided that salt is something to be avoided, all the while consuming more sugar in a year than most families of a hundred years ago consumed in a lifetime.

But, salt — salt is a friend, one that is ready to be supportive in almost all of our culinary endeavors. It is near magical, how it brightens and enlivens the inherent flavors of everything from a ripe garden tomato to sugar cookies (isn’t it fabulous irony, how salt can make something sweet taste better?). And it really doesn’t take much — just a sprinkle over a sautée pan of onions and garlic; a teaspoon for an entire batch of cookies; a light shower of kosher salt for a whole 3# bird. Different foods react differently to salt, so it’s always best to salt to taste (with the exception of baking, where I usually follow the recipe for the first attempt and adjust for the next one; also difficult for salting meats where you obviously can’t taste it until its done).

Of course, to balance the argument, I should at least address the issue of over-salting. It is easy to do, with nothing more than a heavy hand, and I’ve done it more times than are numerable. I even had the horrible experience of accidentally salting my coffee (back in the days when I drank my coffee sweet) — and let me say, it is a taste that will make your hair stand on end. There are ways to remedy overseasoning — I’ve heard of adding some lemon juice or sugar, but most often it just helps to eat the over-salted food with a bite of something else on your plate. We ate at a Mexican restaurant in Walhalla, South Carolina last week, and I ate what could possibly be the most over-salted meal I’ve ever had. It’s hard to get through and entire plate of hyper-salty food. But we chased it down with a bad margarita and then some delicious ice-cream at a little place on Hwy 11 called Sweet Treats (thanks to Eric and Carly for making us postpone a trip to Lowe’s for that lovely experience), and all was well.

Yes, it’s impossible to remove salt once you’ve gone too far. But for the love of flavor, let’s all agree to gird up our loins, and walk that line of risking apology at the dinner table. We’ll be better cooks for it.

1. Kimball, C. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. Little, Brown and Company, 1998. p. xiii.

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