I have discussed in the past the various kitchen staples that would, should I ever find myself without them, cause me much distress. Many of them are kind of obvious - canned tomatoes, dried spaghetti, olive oil, lemons, onions, garlic. With them I know I can always whip up a very basic meal. There are things that I like to have - fresh herbs such as parsley, coriander, or rocket leaves; noodles, couscous, canned beans or chickpeas, parmesan cheese, fresh ground pepper, butter. And if there is a little bacon and some eggs - all the better.
But there is one thing that will improve the taste of pretty well any of these basic ingredients. Something that has been in equal parts treasured and vilified, something that has been traded for centuries, and that is a vital ingredient in most recipes, whether savoury or, increasingly, sweet.
Salt. It's so basic, so obvious that I reckon we often take it for granted. I think we often greatly underestimate its importance in our food. Used correctly, and in the right quantity, it seems to make food taste more of itself - think of tomatoes, or eggs, or potatoes or pasta without salt - underwhelming. Weak tasting. But, given a sprinkle of salt, they really come into their own. It makes food sing.
In general, I like things that are fairly salty. I blame my grandfather, whose taste for salt had him making a pile of salt on the side of his plate, into which he dipped his food - slightly terrifying. And while I do think that this is overkill, I think that people are often too timid when it comes to seasoning. People always seem to find restaurant food more flavoursome - quite largely because, as US food/travel writer Anthony Bourdain notes, when the food is creamier, and butterier, and saltier than what you would make at home, it is because it has more cream, and butter, and salt than you might allow yourself to use in home cooking.
Sometimes (like, say, when I have just finished eating a couple of weeks of pretty much nothing but burgers!), I crave nothing so much as steamed veges - cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, or asparagus (that is coming into season now!) - dressed with nothing but lemon juice, maybe a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. So simple, and so delicious. Or a baked potato with butter, or sour cream, and salt. Always a little salt.
How much salt? Enough salt. I think something is salty enough when you don't notice it enough to think that something is actually salty; rather, it just tastes like what it is supposed to taste like. Salt makes things such as eggs or tomatoes have more depth of flavour, and, as I always find, if food is more flavoursome, you feel less inclined to overeat. This is subjective, and salty enough for one person will be too salty for another. And, while you can always add salt to your food, you can't take away what it has been cooked with.
There is that adage that you should cook pasta in water that is "as salty as the Mediterranean" (though there is always going to be some debate as to just how salty the Mediterranean actually is...).
I think it is important to serve food that is seasoned, and salted, to a reasonable degree, and also to have salt (and pepper) on the table (I think it is annoying if a restaurant or café does not).
Ultimately, I think salt is just like anything else - moderation. You need to make salt work for you, and also be aware of its ability to make food dry out and go tough and rubbery when you cook with it - especially things like eggs and meat. I always think of salt as the counterpoint to fresh lemons, which I also use a lot when cooking. I like to use standard iodised salt in cooking, and Maldon salt at the table, in dressings, and for finishing food - I love its flaky texture and intense flavour (you may prefer another type of salt?).
And sure, too much salt is bad - it may increase the risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease (though some of this information is contentious). But then too much of anything is no good for you. And salt is an essential part of the way we build flavour in food and cooking - think of a delicious salted caramel, of slices of tomato on crusty bread with just salt, fresh basil leaves and olive oil. Or the sprinkle of sea salt on freshly churned butter.
Are you a salt fiend? Would you agree that proper seasoning is one of the things that elevates "eating out" food over that which you (abstemiously) prepare at home? What is your favourite use for salt? And - what is your favourite salt?
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Picture: Christian Mertes
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