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Using Salts

by Elizabeth Skipper | April 10th, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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salt shakerGiven how frequently I’m asked about salt(s), perhaps a column on the salts found on my counter and how I use them is of interest. Here’s the line-up: coarse Celtic sea salt in a grinder, fine Celtic sea salt in a shaker, extremely fine Real Salt (that’s the name of it) from Utah in a shaker, and Diamond Crystal kosher salt in a glass jar.

Which do I reach for, and why? When I need salt in quantity, say for pasta-cooking or vegetable-blanching water, the Diamond Crystal kosher variety is my go-to. It’s inexpensive and not overly salty; and while it’s missing a natural complement of minerals, it lacks any additives that would make it taste off. A small amount will be absorbed by the food, and the bulk will be tossed with the water when the cooking is done. Additional seasoning of the dish will be done with another kind of salt.

There are other brands of kosher salt. Why choose Diamond Crystal? Diamond Crystal is actually a different shape – it’s a pyramid rather than a grain – which adheres better to food and dissolves quicker than grains. The crystals are also bigger than grains, so measure for measure, it’s less salty than other brands. For those who use this kind of salt exclusively, this makes it harder to over-salt a dish, a benefit if you’re less than confident of your seasoning skills.

If  I’m etuvéing, or “sweating” in the unappealing English terminology, a vegetable, I’ll use fine Celtic sea salt. This involves heating the vegetable in a sauté pan or skillet with a bit of butter or oil, salting it lightly, and covering the pan. The salt will draw the moisture from the vegetable, and it will continue to cook in its own juices. Usually you uncover the pan at some point to allow the moisture to evaporate, and the salt will remain in the dish. The nutritional value of the dish is enhanced by the minerals in the sea salt.

There are times when you want to draw moisture from vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, and tomatoes before cooking or eating. Kosher salt does this admirably, and as it’s going to be rinsed or blotted off along with any liquid, lack of minerals isn’t a concern.

Sauces and salad dressings require a salt that will dissolve easily, so I use either fine Celtic sea salt or Real Salt. Add it to the vinegar or other acid, when it will dissolve more readily than it will in oil, in vinaigrettes, cold emulsified sauces like mayonnaise, or warm emulsified sauces like hollandaise and béarnaise.

To salt a roast or steak before cooking, I like to grind coarse Celtic sea salt over it. To season cutlets or fish filets, I like a light sprinkle of fine Real Salt. Red meat can take a lot more salt than a thin slice of a lighter or more delicate protein. Eggs get fine Celtic sea salt if scrambled, made into omelettes, fried, or poached; but I prefer Real Salt on hard-cooked eggs or egg salad.
With no heat to help dissolve it, it seems to season cold eggs better.

Salt is important in baking, too, as a cake or custard made with only a sweetener will be lacking nuance. It’s difficult to describe, but without it, your dessert, muffin, pancake, or waffle will taste flat. Only a tiny amount, perhaps as little an eighth of a teaspoon, is needed. Bread needs salt for flavor and to control the action of the yeast. Use a salt that dissolves easily – I usually use fine Celtic sea salt.

For a potato gratin, pasta casserole, or other dish that will undergo lengthy baking, I’ll use any salt other than kosher. For vegetable ferments like pickles (naturally brined ones, not ones made with vinegar), Celtic sea salt is fine; I just made sure to dissolve it in the water before proceeding. If making sauerkraut without brine, fine Celtic sea salt works better to draw the cabbage juices.

There are foods and seasonings which are salty and may take the place of salt or require the judicious use of additional salt. I’m thinking of things like Asian fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire, anchovy paste or anchovies, and mustard. If a dish contains olives or feta cheese, it doesn’t need as much salt as it otherwise might. And if what you’re making will reduce, hold off on some salting until your dish is the desired consistency. A sauce that’s perfectly salted before it’s reduced will be too salty when it’s finished.

There are many other uses of salt in a kitchen than those listed, but those are ones I use on a regular basis. There are salts in my cupboard I use less often, such as Maldon sea salt or French fleur de sel, for finishing a dish. Their texture and flavor are distinct and intended to stand out against a food rather than simply be part of the seasoning.

These are my personal preferences; other chefs and cooks will have their own. I suggest if you lack confidence when using salt, to select one or two only and familiarize yourself with their characteristics. Add a bit at a time until you’re happy you’ve brought all the flavors of your dish together into a harmonious whole. “Salt to taste” doesn’t mean “until you taste the salt”! It means “salt until you’re happy with the taste of the dish.”

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