Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Salt: The single most important ingredient

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Samin Nosrat writes in the NY Times:

Growing up, I thought salt belonged in a shaker at the table, and nowhere else.

I never added it to food, or saw Maman add it. When my aunt Ziba sprinkled it onto her saffron rice at the table each night, my brothers and I giggled. We thought it was the strangest, funniest thing in the world.

I associated salt with the beach, where I spent my childhood seasoned with it. There were the endless hours in the Pacific near our home in San Diego, swallowing mouthfuls of ocean water when I misjudged the waves. Tidepooling at twilight, my friends and I often fell victim to the saltwater spray while we poked at anemones.

Maman kept our swimsuits in the back of our blue Volvo station wagon, because the beach was always where we wanted to be. She was deft with the umbrella and blankets, setting them up while she shooed the three of us into the sea. We would stay in the water until we were starving, scanning the beach for the sun-faded coral-and-white umbrella, the landmark that would lead us back to her.

She always knew exactly what would taste best when we emerged: Persian cucumbers topped with sheep’s milk feta cheese, rolled together in lavash bread. We chased the sandwiches with handfuls of ice-cold grapes or wedges of watermelon to quench our thirst.

That snack, eaten while my curls dripped with seawater and salt crust formed on my skin, always tasted so good. Without a doubt, the pleasures of the beach added to the magic of the experience, but it wasn’t until many years later, while I was working at Chez Panisse, that I understood why those bites had been so perfect from a culinary point of view.

It was there that Chris Lee, a chef who took me under his wing, suggested I pay attention to the language the chefs used in the kitchen, how they knew when something was right — these were clues for how to become a better cook. Most often, when a dish fell flat, the answer lay in adjusting the salt. Sometimes it was in the form of salt crystals, but other times it meant a grating of cheese, some pounded anchovies, a few olives or a sprinkling of capers. I began to see that there was no better guide in the kitchen than thoughtful tasting, and that nothing was more important to taste thoughtfully for than salt.

One day, as a young cook in the prep kitchen, I was tasked with cooking polenta. Milled from an heirloom variety of corn, the polenta at Chez Panisse tasted of sweetness and earth. The chef, Cal Peternell, talked me through the steps for making it, and I began cooking. Consumed by the fear of scorching and ruining the entire pot — a mistake I had seen other cooks make — I stirred maniacally.

After an hour and a half, I brought Cal a spoonful of the creamy porridge to taste, looking up at him with equal parts respect and terror. “It needs more salt,” he deadpanned. Dutifully, I returned to the pot and sprinkled in a few grains of salt, treating them with the preciousness I might afford, say, gold leaf. I thought it tasted pretty good, so I returned to him with a spoonful of my adjusted polenta.

This time he marched me back to the pot and added not one but three enormous palmfuls of kosher salt. The perfectionist in me was horrified. I’d wanted so badly to do that polenta justice, and the degree to which I’d been off was exponential. Three palmfuls!

Cal grabbed spoons and together we tasted. The corn was somehow sweeter, the butter richer. All of the flavors were more pronounced. I had been certain he had ruined the pot and turned my polenta into a salt lick, but the term salty did not apply to what I tasted. All I felt was a satisfying zing with each mouthful.

Having experienced the transformative power of salt, I wanted to learn how to get that zing every time I cooked. I thought about the foods I loved to eat growing up — and that bite of seaside cucumber and feta, in particular. I realized then why it had tasted so good. It was properly salted.

Salt and Flavor

James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient. Learn to use it well, and food will taste good.

Salt’s relationship to flavor is multidimensional: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2017 at 2:29 pm

Posted in Food

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