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Michael La Corte

Salt early and often — even in desserts

Have you had the displeasure of eating a particularly unremarkable guacamole? Or a strangely bland steak? An oddly flat Caesar salad? My hunch is that that middling dish was most likely under-seasoned — or perhaps not seasoned whatsoever.

A few years back, at the labyrinthine Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tennessee, my mother and I were hungry but not famished and opted for a simple guacamole-and-margarita dinner on one of the many walkways that snaked throughout the resort like tentacles. At a tiny table next to towering greenery, we sat down and our guacamole came nearly immediately. We dug right in and said, "hmm ..." pretty much right away.

I grabbed a salt shaker from a nearby table, had my mom try the guacamole as-is, then salted it, stirred it with a tortilla chip, and asked her to try again. It was at that moment that my mother understood the sheer power of salt, the reason for seasoning and the purpose behind my adoration of large-flaked Kosher salt in a small bowl or basin next to the stove.

Now, guacamole is a raw, plant-based preparation, but salt's power is felt in everything from alcoholic beverages to meaty main courses to even desserts.

The National Institute of Health's "Taste and Flavor Roles of Sodium in Foods: A Unique Challenge to Reducing Sodium Intake" explains the science behind this; the use of salt "decreases water activity, which can lead to an effective increase in the concentration of flavors and improve the volatility of flavor component.

"Higher volatility of flavor components improves the aroma of food and contributes greatly to flavor," it continued. 

I've experienced this phenomenon my entire life. Growing up, I'd watch my mom essentially eat the salt off of pretzels (and sometimes not finish the pretzel) and I'd routinely use my pointer finger to dab the large salt crystals off of the baked potato skins at Red Lobster.

When I still ate meat, I'd often cook a sirloin steak. My method was always bringing the steak to room temperature, salting it heavily, then cooking it in a cast-iron pan that was scorchingly hot before basting with butter, garlic thyme and rosemary. I'd let it sit for ten minutes or so, then slice and serve. People would often go bonkers over it, asking what I marinated it in or what I seasoned it with and were almost always gobsmacked when I said, "Just salt."

Given salt's role in cooking, you may be wondering when and how often you should season with it, and the answer is likely "a little more than you think."  

Ideally, you want to season each component throughout the cooking process. If you're sauteeing onion and then adding garlic and chopped red peppers, season the onion and then season the garlic and red pepper. Whenever you're able to flavor and season a component or a layer of a recipe, you want to do so. When it comes to desserts, it's not as necessary to salt throughout, but you most certainly still need at least that one teaspoon or so, no matter if you're making cake, pudding or Baked Alaska. Have you ever tried a chocolate chip cookie without salt?

I think about an early episode of "Modern Family" in which Sofia Vergara's character, Gloria, makes the argument that a pinch of salt in chocolate milk makes the absolute best glass of chocolate milk. The other family members made fun of her for this, but then in the closing credits scene, one of the doubtful characters tries some chocolate milk with salt and makes a "darn, she was right" facial expression.

Since then, I never had chocolate milk without salt. And chocolate milk is one of my favorite beverages on earth, so I've consumed a lot of it.

The point here is that salt is a non-negotiable in quite literally every dish (although I will note that I do season very sparingly in anything containing soy sauce or tamari). Yes, you can certainly cross the line to making a dish patently "salty," but the perfect middle ground is when the salt itself helps the food taste more and more like its inherent self.  It's one of the most essential ingredients in your kitchen, bar none, if not the single most important one. You're doing a disservice to your food and your palate if you're skimping on salt. 

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