Today’s question comes from Name Withheld.
Lots of times I see the direction to salt to taste. What does that mean?
Anonymous, this is an excellent question, and it’s one that took me a long time to get comfortable with.
In the world of the modern cooking where so many people rely on recipes with exact measurements to help them get dinner on the table, coming across an ingredient whose amount is labeled “to taste” is like throwing up a big old stop sign right in the middle of dinner prep.
I thought I knew what salting to taste was. I mean, before culinary school, I had studied on my own for years–reading cookbooks like they were textbooks and experimenting and baking and learning. I had always read “salt as you go” because if you wait until serving to salt, the food will just taste salty. I really did think I knew what I was doing.
And then I started working in professional kitchens.
What Does It Mean to Salt to Taste?
After I’d been working in the first restaurant awhile, I was tasked with making some thick, creamy mornay sauce to pipe into warm gougeres for a party in the private dining room. As a matter of fact, I just made something very similar the other day, and making the sauce reminded me of this story.
Of course, I knew I should put salt in the sauce. I added a pinch with the roux, a pinch more with the milk and a pinch more with the cheese. Then I added all the cheese, tasted the sauce, added a tiny pinch more, tasted again and deemed it Good To Go. I took the pan over to Chef Brandon so he could taste the sauce. Without blinking an eye, he shot at me, “Needs salt.” “But I salted it all along,” I said.
Brandon grabbed some Diamond kosher salt and showered some down into my sauce. I stirred and tasted, and he had been right. The sauce, while tasty before, now fairly sparkled. Not with saltiness but with the nutty, fully developed flavor of cheese. It was quite the lesson. Then, he sort of ruined it with a story about how you had to be like the Road Runner, zooming right up to the edge of the cliff before stopping short. I was admonished not to be like Wyle E. Coyote and keep running straight of the cliff to my demise. Fine.
In terms of seasoning, what he meant was you have to take the seasoning to the point of elevating the ingredients, giving them presence while being a supportive player. Salt should enhance all other flavors. It should make them dance and sparkle and be the very best versions of themselves, but it should never be a pronounced flavor in and of itself. Salt is the wind beneath ingredients’ wings. Salt is Barbara Hershey. Wait, strike that. Salt is Bette Midler, but it’s Bette Midler acting like Barbara Hershey. There is power in restraint, and a good cook knows when to stop. When they will cross the line from “This tastes amazing!” to “This tastes salty.”
Salt is the seasoning that snaps all flavors into focus. Each type of food needs a different amount of salt, and you can really only ever figure out how much each kind needs by tasting as you cook. My friend Monica who was raised learning to cook by sight and sound and scent, leaving the first taste of the cooked food for the Gods, would at least raise her eyebrow at what I’m going to say next: you have to taste your food as you’re cooking it, and you have to salt all along. Sorry Monica.
You know how you thought it was cool that salting watermelon makes it taste sweeter? I always thought it was cool. What the salt does is snap the melon flavor into focus. It fleshes out, rounds out and deepens the flavor. What used to taste flat–one note or maybe two–now tastes 3D and amazing. Salt brings out nuance and depth. It reduces bitterness, highlights sweetness and elevates foods from inoffensive to impossible to ignore.
When you salt food, the salt first draws moisture out of the food and then goes into solution with said moisture. At that point, the seasoned moisture gets “sucked back into” the food through osmosis. When you season each ingredient as you cook, especially if the cooking process is long like a braise, stew or soup, the seasoned liquids from the different foods have a chance to mingle and combine and get to know each other. This layered seasoning–salting as you go–allows each food to sparkle as its very best self. So, your meat is the meatiest. The carrots are the carrotiest, the potatoes are the most potato-y they can be.
I keep seeing visions of anamorphic designs as I try and explain what salt does. Let me show you.
I imagine the seasoning in each of these cases to be the point at which the 2D image starts to reveal its 3D secret. It gets closer and closer to looking 3D until BAM! It snaps into its full 3D glory. That’s what tasting and seasoning as you go does. I’m not sure that this metaphor is any better than the Road Runner/Wyle E. Coyote metaphor that Brandon used, but it works better for me.
Do I Need to Salt To Taste with Sweet Foods or Baked Goods?
The short answer is yes, you do. If you don’t believe me, make some vanilla pudding. Just a little bit of vanilla pudding.
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 2-3 Tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch or flour
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
Whisk together milk, sugar, starch/flour, egg yolk in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Heat, whisking constantly, until it comes to a boil. Let boil 15-20 seconds, still whisking.
Pour through a fine mesh strainer and add vanilla and butter. Stir until smooth.
Now, taste it. Not bad, right? Sweet, creamy, smooth. Maybe a little bland.
Add 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt (or kosher salt). Stir well and taste again. Do you taste the difference? The depth of the vanilla flavor should start to come out. You’ll get a bit more of the mellow egg flavor, the sweet milkiness, the creamy butter.
Is the flavor as 3D as it can be? Only you can decide. And the only way to know for sure is to add a tiny bit more salt. Be the Road Runner. You can stay back from the bleeding edge more than chefs do–chefs do adore their salt–but you definitely want to be close enough that you can lean forward to peer over the edge.
I also have seasoning rules for baking. In cakes, I like to go with just a smidge over 1/4 teaspoon of salt per cup of flour (4 oz). Or about 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of sugar (7 oz). Bread gets more salt than cake since the salt is often the sole flavoring and because it also helps to regulate yeast growth, about 1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour (4 oz).
If you still don’t believe that salt is necessary in sweet foods and/or baking, answer this question: Why is salted caramel such a popular flavor?
What Kind of Salt Should I Use?
During cooking, I use either fine sea salt or kosher salt, and that’s all. Generally speaking, I use kosher salt in cooking and fine sea salt in my baking. After the food is ready, though, I may sprinkle a bit of finishing salt on each plated dish. Usually it’s salt with large crystals so not only do you get sparkling bursts of saltiness, you also get to enjoy that satisfying little crunch. With finishing salts, less is almost always more, so just a few grains are really all you need.
I just went and counted my finishing salts, and I came up with thirteen. Some are smoked, one is mixed with fennel pollen. Another is citrus with rose petals, and yet another is black with lava. There is no great secret to using these salts. If a smoked salt will accentuate whatever you’re serving, use a smoked salt. If a hit of citrus will complement your dish, by all means use a citrus salt. If you’re not sure what to use, stick with one of the classic flaky finishing salts: Maldon Sea Salt, Fleur De Sel or Sel Gris.
I hope this little discussion has answered your question, my anonymous friend.
Thank you for reading, friends. I’m sorry for the short hiatus, but sometimes life just happens and I have to deal with it before I can get back in the kitchen.
Take care, and have a lovely day. And if you have a question I can answer for you for What Can I Do For You Wednesday, please fill out this short survey and I’ll put it on my list.