Can you imagine a meal without salt (Sodium chloride)?
If you had to go through your kitchen cupboards and spice racks, and you were to choose one flavour enhancer that you would never want to be without, I’d bet good money that it would be salt.
Salty, together with bitter, sweet, sour and savory (umami) constitute our most basic taste profiles. When added in correct proportions, salt makes most food taste better without making it taste “salty”.
Too much or too little salt reduces its palatability or “pleasantness” suggesting that with regard to salt in food, there is a specific “bliss point”. The key to good seasoning is to provide this desired quantity; what makes it a real challenge is that different foods and people may each have their own individual “bliss points”. Which is why after many years, I no longer wish to ban my sister-in-law from my dinner table. I simply pass her more salt.
There is substantially more to salt than a mere salty taste. When used in combination with the other basic tastes, salt has powerful filtering effects. It is known to suppress sour and bitter tastes, and enhance sweetness. This opens up many creative avenues for the use of salt especially in non-savory dessert dishes. Bacon and caramel ice cream anyone?
Salt is not a mere matter of taste though; our bodies (like those of other mammals) need the correct balance of salt to be healthy and to survive. Even though adding salt to food is considered a specific human trait – our desire for salt far exceeds our need for salt – human consumption of salt in large quantities (as is considered common today) started only some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Extensive salt mining and transportation is even more recent, and it is likely that the early demand for increased salt production was driven by early techniques of food preservation. A substantial number of these traditional salt-based preservation techniques are still in use today (just think biltong or Bacalhau).
Given our preference for salt, it is not surprising that exotic salts have become such a craze in the foodie world. These salts are harvested from every conceivable source in the world, come in colours that range from rose to blue and black, and are all marketed for their unique tastes. Supposedly, these unique tastes are attributable to the unique source environments, specific mineral contents, as well as, the specific methods of harvesting. Some are smoked or infused to provide unique flavoured salts. Needless to say, exotics cost a whole deal more than your bog-standard table salt. But, is it worth it? Does all salt not taste the same?
Various taste tests revealed that tasters could not detect the difference between ordinary table salt and the more expensive, exotic varieties when both were diluted. If you think a more expensive salt is going to make your stock, or soup or stew taste better than when made with ordinary table salt, you are wrong and will be wasting your money.
However, when salt is applied to the surface of food, differences become more detectable. For one, flaky salts release their taste in a different manner than salts with smaller grains. Flakes are larger and release a more (crunchy) intense salty taste. This makes them more suited for use as “finishing” salts or even (salty) garnishes to cooked foods, especially meats.
Fine salts when used in this manner often provide “harsher” salty tastes because it is much more difficult to sprinkle the finer grains in an even manner. This means that pockets of intense saltiness are created interspersed with pockets of no salt.
When used in baked goods such as cookies, the different salts had the opposite effects. Flaky salts caused pockets of extreme saltiness, whilst the finer grained versions dispersed much better, and as such provided a more even taste.
Some scientists have argued that sodium chloride remains sodium chloride, and thus, that all salts taste the same, no matter what the marketing brochures say. They did concede that different salty textures provided different salty flavour experiences, even though the taste remained the same.
In the name of good research, and to promote the scientific value of this column, I ordered a few exotic salts via the internet to conduct my own taste experiment. Included in my order are: a few slabs of pink Himalayan salt to cook on, Hawaiian Red Alaea, Black Lava, Persian Blue and Caviar Pearl.
I have no idea what to expect when my order arrives, other than that all the contents will probably taste like salt.
In the mean time, I have prepared a recipe for salted caramel candy, using smoked, flaky, Maldon sea salt. I love the contrast between sweet and salt, and these treats deliver it in just the right amount. If you do not have flaky salt, add all the salt to the mix, fine-grained salt just does not work as a finishing salt sprinkled over the top. It is all in the texture you see.