Salt brings out the flavor of many foods, destroys the bitterness in some others, and acts as a preservative in many cases.
Without salt, food lacks and appetizing and varied taste.
Salt is a flavoring, not a spice; it is one of the oldest flavorings known to man. Salt owes its taste to sodium chloride, ClNa, an essential mineral for life. Complete abstinence is virtually impossible, although we get much of the salt we need from food. Nowadays, we tend to suffer more from an excess of salt than a lack of it, even if it is true that vegetarians need it to a greater extent.
It is used all over the world in savory dishes. You will find it in brines for preserved meat and fish, in dy-salt mixes for home curing, and in commercial or home made seasoned salts.
Salt was a valuable commodity once. Roman soldiers received a salarium, a salt allowance, when posted abroad in case they were cut out from the Empire's supplies. Soon salt was traded as money and this is the origin of the word salary. The road from Rome to the port of Ostia was know as via salaria. It should not come as a surprise that food was mostly preserved in salt at this time.
How to identify salt
Salt has a distinctive white color. Salt may come in a block, crystallized, or free running. Commercial salt often has additives to keep it free running.
Types of salt
The fact that we use salt too often and too much has made some people insensitive to the flavor of salt from different sources, and to the changes made by refinement or additives to make it free running
Table salt - Usually, finely ground rock salt with added substances, such as magnesium carbonate, to prevent caking and keep it free running. This is the most common used type of salt. Iodized salt is table salt with added iodine, done with the aim to prevent hypothyroidism.
Spiced or seasoned salt - Salt mixed with spices, whole or ground, such as celery, dried garlic, onion flakes, or white pepper. Many other spices can be mixed with salt to make a uniquely flavored condiment.
Common kitchen salt - Usually rock salt refined to various degrees. Free from additives and avilable in blocks for kitchen use.
Rock salt - Untreated, separated crystals, extracted from rock deposits in salt mines. it may have a gray hue and contains more minerals. Common as kitchen salt. Believed to have the purest flavor.
Sea salt - Obtained from sea water by natural evaporation, with the help of sun and wind. It is supposed to contain trace of other oligo-elements. It is used traditionally for curing fish. Good as well for kitchen use. The salt from the Bay of Biscay is famous worldwide.
Kosher salt - Coarse grain salt and additive free. Used in preparation of meat.
Pickling salt - Refined rock salt but free of additives which is necessary for pickling.
Saltpetre - This is potassium nitrate, an additive for salt. Salt with tiny amounts of saltpetre and spices is used to preserve meats. Saltpetre adds pink color to the meat, the familiar tone in salt pork, bacon, Parma ham or Serrano ham. With te addition of saltpetre, salt has a more penetrating and drying effect in the meat that on its own.
Salt substitutes - Products with little or no sodium used by people on a low salt diet.
How to use and store
Salt keeps for ever in a moisture free environment. Table salt does not need protection from moisture but it cannot be used for pickling or preserving because of the additives to keep it free running.
Grind salt crystals in a mill or crush with mortar and pestle. Use salt in general cooking as flavoring, in brines and marinades, pickling and preserving. Leaving vegetables such as eggplant to stand in salt will remove the bitter liquid or excess water. Just slice, layer and sprinkle salt among layers, leave to stand for 20 minutes, rinse and drain.
Add salt last to boiled or steamed vegetables, in order to retain nutrients, or beans, as they harden if salt is added while cooking. Brown meat for stews and casseroles prior to add seasoning, so the juices are sealed. Add salt to grills and roasts before cooking, to help retain juices, but never on the open cuts.
Boil salt pork and soak salt cod in clean water to get rid of the preserving salt before cooking. Be cautious with seasoning when cooking them afterwards.
Cooking with salt
It is better to add a bit less salt and place a salt and pepper shakers on the table for anyone to adjust seasoning to their taste. Adding too much salt while cooking is a blunder very difficult to correct. Be careful when cooking with ingredients such as Parma ham, Serrano ham or soy sauce, as they have abundant salt in them, be careful with any seasoning you add to the dish.
The recommendation for better health is to use less salt. How to cook with less salt or without any? It depends on the dish you are preparing. Some options to use instead of salt are:
- Italian seasoning, usually salt free, substitute 1 tsp salt with 2 tsp seasoning.
- Herbal salt substitutes, salt free, substitute 1 tsp salt with 2 tsp herbal salt.
- Salt substitutes, especially formulated so you can use in the same amount you would use salt. Bay leaf enhances the flavor of low sodium substitutes, so you can add a bit less of it when you use bay leaf.
- Chopped fresh herbs, substitute in the proportion of 1 to 2 Tbs chopped herbs for each 1 tsp salt.
- With boiled or steamed vegetables, in salads, and with fish, freshly squeezed lemon juice will add flavor without salt. Substitute 1 tsp salt with 1 to 2 tsp lemon juice.
Add a little salt to your baking mix to enhance the sweet flavor or to your pastry to get a flakier texture.
If you are out of salt and cooking or eating, there are some options. Substitute 1 tsp table salt with:
- 1 to 2 tsp seasoned salt, even if it will add other flavors
- 1 tsp soy sauce, contains salt and will season your food but will add a dark color
- 3 tsp anchovy paste, salty but will add fish flavor.
- 1 tsp ground seaweed such as powered dulse, in soups and stews
- 2 tsp yellow miso, in sauces, soups and stews
- 4 tsp dark miso, in sauces, soups and stews.
Fish baked in a salt crust
Baking food encased in salt creates a perfect environment where moisture and temperature are constant. This method is perfect with whole fish, but also loin of pork or boneless pork ribs, which are narrow and long pieces of meat. However, with a little preparation, even a whole chicken could be baked in salt.
- 1 family size fish, about 4 lb weight, whole, not need for it to be scaled or gut it, but wash it
- enough rock or sea coarse salt to cover it, in the proportion of 2 lb salt for each 1 lb fish
- Pre-heat oven to 375° to 400° F.
- Put a layer of coarse salt in an oven pan large enough to contain the fish. Place the fish on top and cover it completely with salt.
- Sprinkle a little water over the salt and place the pan into the oven.
- Bake until the salt cracks - it will take about 1 hour.
- Remove from oven. The salt will have hardened.
- Crack salt fully open and remove. Do it carefully ad the scales and skin of the fish are likely to be stuck to the salt and come out with it. Use a spoon to get rid of the skin, if not coming out on its own, and the head.
- Carefully separate the fillets and lay them on a serving dish. Season with a little olive oil and lemon juice.
- Serve with a simple sauce such as mayonnaise or aioli.
Scales protect the fish, but you can get the fishmonger to clean the fish inside and outside before cooking, if you would like to have it ready to eat once baked, but always bake with the head.
You don't really need to season the fish, there is plenty of salt around. But you can lay some herbs on top, or mix herbs or spices with the salt, in tiny amounts, and get very interesting flavors. If you had the fish gutted, introduce one or two slices of lemon and herbs, maybe a little olive oil.
Do not let the fish to cool inside the salt crust. It will get too dry and will have over-salted flavor. Rather remove the crust as soon as it is out of the oven.
If you would like a really tough crust, add 1 egg white to the salt instead of sprinkling water.