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Salt

Salt (‘solt) – a mineral for seasoning food; historically a currency and preservative, and adapted for numerous chemical applications.

Salt is ritually used in some cultures to welcome newcomers, so it seems fitting to launch this page with a discussion of this essential, virtually life-sustaining substance. Although widely used as a food condiment, salt has a long history as a currency; it is still used in trade in Africa. Whole wars have been fought over it, and societies have grown up around it.
Salt is an essential nutrient, indeed the very tip of the human tongue is devoted to detecting salt. Without it we cannot digest food or regulate metabolism. The expression “rubbing salt into a wound” is actually an historical footnote. It is said that thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers died during the retreat from Moscow because their salt-deficient diets would not allow their wounds to heal.

Most commercial salt (sodium chloride) is mined from the earth or evaporated from brine ponds. The various types of salt are the result of the refining process. Some varieties have additives to make them flow more freely, while others have iodine, a substance which can help prevent thyroid disease.
Coarse salt (gros sel) is a larger grain and often is used to make a bed for roasting shellfish or forming salt crusts on meat or fish, or even the rims of Margarita glasses. Kosher salt is a form of coarse salt. Cooks prefer it because it is free of impurities and has a softer flavor. When flaked, it distributes its flavor more evenly in food. It does not measure properly thus its use in baking is discouraged.

Table salt (fin sel) is salt that has been ground into small grains. It is easily measured but tends to adhere poorly to food and it dissolves slowly. Additives and natural impurities in table salt cloud pickling liquids and interrupt bacterial fermentation needed for making dishes such as kimchee or sauerkraut. Iodine supplements found in industrially processed salt can impart a metallic flavor, and probably are not necessary if seafood is a regular part of your diet.

Rock salt is a non-food grade salt, crushed to size during the mining process and left unrefined. It might be suitable for de-icing roads and melting ice in your ice cream maker, but not for eating. Sea salt, evaporated from seawater, can be either coarse or fine. It is more expensive due to harvesting costs. Some sea salt products such as “Fleur de sel” have taken on gourmet airs (and pricing). For my money, I prefer to use Kosher salt for almost all cooking uses, and non-iodized table salt for baking.
“Salt is the policeman of taste; it keeps the various flavors of a dish in order and restrains the stronger from tyrannizing over the weaker.” Margaret Visser
New cooks are often skeptical of recipes that call for “salt to taste”. How much is too much or too little? The best rule of thumb is to be conservative. While you can always add a bit more salt to a dish, be careful not to ruin it with too much. The serving temperature of the dish is important. If it is to be served cold, use a little less salt because cold intensifies salt’s flavor.

There are few remedies for over-salted foods. However, there are some tried and true solutions offered for over salted soups; add water, pasta, or vegetables to dilute the salt intensity. Or you can follow a folk remedy that seems to actually work; simmer a peeled and quartered potato (russet is a good choice) for about five minutes, then remove and save the now salty spud for another dish.

Want to read more about the types, history, and use of salt? I recommend these web sites; www.saltinstitute.org, and “The Grain and salt Society” at www.celtic-seasalt.com.

Next installment of Food Science; Pass the Mustard, Please!

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