A co-worker grabs me firmly by the shoulder and propels me towards the stove, where several pots are bubbling like cherry red hot lava. He lifts a lid, and a cloud of steam covers my face with the aroma of chicken cacciatore. “Here, taste this,” he says, as he waits for me to put the tasting spoon to my lips.
“Did you add thyme?” I ask.
“Yes, thyme and basil; the recipe calls for a tablespoon of each,” he says.
“It’s still a little flat; add a pinch of salt, turn the flame down and let it cook for another five minutes.” Minutes later, I taste again, and the rich, tangy, slightly sweet taste of slow-cooked tomatoes gives the chicken cacciatore its signature depth of flavor. The dish is alive, the stampede of flavor from the herbs, chicken thighs, mushrooms and wine are like a roller coaster for the palate.
Learning to season with salt is a skill that separates the professional from a novice in the kitchen. A trained palate knows how to add just enough salt to make the food sparkle.There’s something wrong with food that has no salt – it’s bland, dull, as boring as a rock on the ground. Just as bad – maybe even worse – is food that tastes like the ocean on a plate. From the dorm room student to the most serious gourmet, salt is found in every kitchen; yet most people have no idea how to season with, and taste for salt.
There is no doubt that salt has seasoned history. Today, table salt is so cheap, we take it for granted; but in ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt. In fact, the phrase “not worth his salt,” was coined by ancient slave traders to describe troublesome captives. As early as the 6th century in sub-Saharan Africa, merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold. Roman legionnaires received a part of their pay in salt (that’s the origin of the word “salary”). The infamous salt tax in France was one of the sparks that set off the French Revolution in 1789.
At some point in our history, man discovered that covering food in salt prolonged the food’s shelf life. Salt was the conduit that spread the Romans’ empire throughout much of Europe. Without salt, Christopher Columbus would have never made it to the New World. Not only did salt flavor and preserve food, it also made a good antiseptic; hence the term, “to rub salt in the wound.” Salt acts as a preservative by drawing moisture out of food and making it difficult for bacteria to grow. When used in a pickling solution or brine, salt produces an antimicrobial “bath” that changes the alkalinity of the immersed ingredients.
There are many different types of salt. Some have fancy names, such as fleur de sel, a very expensive unrefined sea salt from Normandy, France. Or Himalayan rock salt, which is bought in large chunks by restaurants and shaved tableside with a microplane. For now, we only need to concern ourselves with two types: plain iodized table salt and kosher salt.
Table salt is often preferred by home cooks and for use as a condiment. Kosher salt is the standard used by line cooks in the professional kitchen. Both of them serve the same purpose: they enhance the flavor of food, however kosher salt has no additives; it has larger flakes than table salt and coats food more evenly when sprinkled with your fingers. Table salt is often iodized. Its very small crystals are better suited for measuring with a spoon.
Learning to season with salt is like learning to ride a bicycle; you’ll get a lot of bumps and bruises, but once you learn, you’ll never forget. Here are a few tips to get you started in mastering the art of seasoning with salt.
If you can taste salt in your food, you have added too much. Salt is like a ballroom dancer that moves with understated elegance. It’s a flavor enhancer that heightens the taste of food, yet hides effortlessly in the background. Food that has been properly seasoned will be full of flavor – so good, you’ll want to lick the spoon and the plate.
Always add salt to soup and sauces toward the end of cooking. The more your liquid reduces, the saltier it becomes. Remember: once you put salt in, you cannot take it out.
Don’t be afraid to taste your own food; no one said you would get it right the first time. If you’re not happy with your food, don’t serve it. If it can’t be fixed in the kitchen, no one can fix it on the dinner plate, either.
It’s better to lightly season small pieces of chicken, fish or pork on both sides before cooking to intensify the flavor of the meat. Some cooks like to season a second time once the food is out of the pan to give their recipes that extra kick.
I can guarantee that with time, your palate will develop as your cooking skill progresses. As you become more confident in your abilities, you’ll be able to taste your own food instead of asking someone to do it for you. Remember, the only thing that separates a kitchen novice from the professional is a matter of taste.