A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
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I had originally planned a badass recipe as my first post. My go to dish to entertain and wow, but then someone DM'ed me over twitter asking if they could substitute something else for salt. "Substitute something else for salt?," I asked myself. I won't go into further details, but the gist of the conversation was that they'd always watched their sodium intake and wanted a new way to season food. They had tried herbal mixtures, spice mixtures, low/no sodium salt substitutes (yes, they exist), all to no avail. And the thing is, there is no real substitute for salt. At all. Sure, it's a rock, and there are other salts out there that have a cation other than sodium, and sometimes an anion that isn't chlorine, but it's the only damn rock we eat. That we need to eat.
Aside from the sodium-potassium pump, sodium is a necessary regulator for normal body function. But more important to this blog, salt is taste. Remember the tongue/taste map from elementary school? Yeah, throw that out the window. Salt's role in taste goes beyond just "salty."
When you put a piece of food in your mouth, there are a bunch of flavors hitting those taste buds. With the exception of "pure" compounds - sucrose, urea, salt, acid - the flavor of what you have in your mouth is a mix of all four. Some of them are in high concentration, some of them are in low concentration. Grab a piece of fruit, say a mango. Open it up and take a bite. There's some salt, some sweet, some acid, and if it's under ripe just a little undercurrent of bitter. Now go into your pantry and grab your kosher salt. What? You don't have kosher salt? Why not? Go out and buy some. Right now. Chop chop. I'll wait. Trust me, you'll want to use kosher salt from here on out. As I start throwing out recipes you'll see why you should have it. Now sprinkle a tiny pinch onto an untouched piece of that mango. Wait a second or two. What does it taste like now? Go ahead. I'll wait for you to realize it.
It tastes even more like a mango! There's a nice balance of sweet and acid, but not bitter. Why? Turns out that salt masks bad and bitter flavors. Not sugar. Not acid. Salt. It makes ok stuff taste great and bad stuff taste (a little) better. Any bad/bitter flavors in foods are obfuscated by the addition of some salt. There are stronger bitter flavors out there that don't get completely hidden, but those end up with a much "softer" note of bitterness. In the masking of flavors, it opens up the rest of the flavors present that normally get overpowered by even a hint of bitterness. Seriously. Go try it out. Hate salad? Add a pinch of salt and check out the new depth of flavors you'll find outside of the harsh bitterness of greens. This is why you salt your water when making pasta. The salt gets into the pasta and makes it taste more pasta-y.
Now, you don't want to go out and just salt everything until it tastes salty, because then you've just defeated the purpose of using salt to enhance your food. And if you're put on a low-sodium diet, I feel real sorry for you. There just isn't a viable alternative for salt. All those herbs and spices won't have any real flavors until you throw on the salt. Turns out Margaret Visser was right. Salt is the policeman of taste.
Breslin, P.A.S. (1999) Interactions among salty, sour and bitter compounds. Trends in Food Sci & Tech. 7:390-399.
Breslin, P.A.S. and Beauchamp, G.K. (1995) Suppression of bitterness by sodium: variation among bitter taste stimuli. Chem. Sens. 20:609-623.
Breslin, P.A.S. and Beauchamp, G.K. (1997) Salt enhances flavour by suppressing bitterness. Nature. 387:563.
DeGraaf, C. and Frijters, J.E.R. (1987) Assessment of the taste interaction between two qualitatively similar-tasting substances: a comparison between comparison rules. J. of Exp. Psych. 14:526-538.
DeGraaf, C. and Frijters, J.E.R. (1988) Interrelationships among sweetness, saltiness and total taste intensity of sucrose, NaCl and sucrose/NaCl mixtures. Chem. Senses. 14:81-102.
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How does Kosher Salt differ from that stuff I have in my pantry?
A Rabbi took it and said "let there be taste"- and so there will be more tastiness in your food.
Awesome post, JCW! I freaking love salt, and will back you up on the Kosher until they cart me away. Also, the best chocolate chip cookie recipe I've ever made calls for a sprinkle of sea salt right before baking. AMAZING.
The above comment just provides more evidence to support that Dr Becca and I are alter ego ;)
I'm a bit of a salt fanatic and started using kosher salt a few years ago. Salt really does bring out the flavor of food-grapefruit, apples, salted caramel...
On a different note, I'd like to hear your take on why sugar substitutes have an "off" taste, even though they bind the same receptor. Perhaps the subject for a future post?
That's really interesting- great post!
No wonder that salty caramel hot chocolate at Starbucks is soooo goood.
@Rift - Chemically, the base of all salts are the same, NaCl. The differences come out in volume, mass and presence of other minerals. Kosher salt is just salt. There is no potassium or sodium iodide like in iodized salt, and the presence of any other minerals like in various sea and "gourmet" salts is non-existent. Also, when you read a recipe the salt they're talking about, unless otherwise noted, is kosher salt. When a recipe calls for a volume of salt, it's kosher salt. To get the equivalent of another salt, you'd have to weigh it out.
There's also flavor to take into account. The sea salts have a flavor influenced by whatever minerals are present in them, whether it's Pink Himalayan, Red Hawaiian/Tahitian or French Sel Gris. And iodized salts have this tendency to take on an off metallic taste if there's even a slight amount of moisture in the air.
Texturally, kosher salt, because of its flake shapes, is great for the cooking process. The flaking and irregular patterns mean it adheres to meats better during cooking. Kitchen staff loves this because those flakes are easier to pinch and dust onto food, and the irregular pattern means that it dissolves slightly slower. When you're making sauce, stock or soup, that slower dissolving helps you control the seasoning process. Conversely, kosher salt makes a lousy table salt. When you season at the table you don't want a giant hunk o salt on the tongue (Maldon being the exception), and in that instance I recommend finely ground sea and gourmet salts.
And then there's cost. Kosher is cheap. Around three US dollars gets you a 2kg box at the supermarket. Three dollars will get you 500g of sea salt, 20g of maldon, 5g of sel gris and they'll just kick you out if you try to by pink or red salt.
@BB - Already being researched. I've got a stack of pubs for artificial sweetners to go through. :)
I knew that salt makes things taste better.. now I know why..
Just a tiny doubt though, do we like salt in our food only because of the way saltiness interacts with other flavors or are any neurotransmitters involved too? Like in the case of chocolate..
So far no neurotransmitters have been found associated with salt, that I know of. Everyone seems to concentrate on how salt triggers taste or obfuscates and enhances other flavors. We know that Na+ and H+ set off the electron channels on the tips of papillary cells, unlike sweet, bitter and umami that seem to need to bind to proteins inside those cells. But other than the phyisological need for salt and the development of the specific sense for salt in our taste, that's the extent of current knowledge about how salt taste works.
I wonder if I could pitch this to a friend of mine at Monell Institute for further study...
If your friend requires any collaboration from Biochemists, I'll be right here ;)
@Belle and @JCW
The artificial sweetener stuff is REALLY interesting. Even comparing saccharine to sucrose is super complex!
But flavor enhancing with salt is just mind boggling. It affects the pKas of all the acids/bases in our food, shifting their equilibrium to more yummy!