When Sodium and Chloride Get Together: Salt

If you grew up like me, salt was akin to a fine, white sand and it came out of a shaker that rested in the middle of the dining room table and once you became “of a certain age” you needed to keep a close eye on your intake.

Salt is known scientifically as sodium chloride, or NaCl. (Na is from the latin natrium.) Salt forms when sodium, a highly-reactive metal that ignites in water, and chloride, one part of the corrosive hydrochloric acid, get together.

Sodium and chloride are both essential in very small amounts to the life of all animals. Historically, salt has been used in a wide variety of ways, such as in the preservation of foods, the production of paper good, as an additive in cosmetics and, of course, to make food taste more delicious.

Kosher on the left, fine sea salt on the right.

Okay, so forget everything you’ve heard on the news, read in the paper or were taught in (nutrition) class about its dangers; you don’t need to be afraid of salt.

Salt intake need not be a concern of yours if you are eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. Processed foods, basically anything that comes in a package, are usually loaded with salt and can pose a health risk for a multitude of reasons. If you are a healthy individual eating few processed foods then your salt intake is likely fine. However, if you are salting your nightly TV dinner then maybe there is a problem but it is not just with the salt shaker.

Here are some rules to salt by:

  • First of all, salt throughout the cooking process. This helps evenly disperse the salt and this subtle saltiness helps to enhance the flavors of the food. Dump some salt in the pot when you boil potatoes or pasta. The salt dissolves in the water and helps add to the flavor profile.
  • Taste while you cook: taste, season, taste, adjust, repeat.
  • Salt using your fingers from a distance above the food of about 12 inches for even coverage.
  • When searing meats, many chefs recommend salting shortly before searing. Now, I’m not one to just take information and blindly follow it. I like to know why I should do it a certain way. In Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking he justifies the importance of salting before searing by stating that the salt helps to draw water soluble proteins to the surface of the meat and that aids in the browning process. While this is probably true, I am not completely satisfied with his reasoning. I have a flood of questions regarding this, I just wish I could ask Alton myself. Ultimately, it is not 100% crucial to know if salt aids in searing because it definitely helps enhance the flavor.
  • Salting vegetable before cooking results in a more acceptable texture. The exception is with mushrooms because the salt can “deflate” them.
  • An over-salted dish can be remedied in a few ways. First, the dish can be diluted with an unsalted liquid such as water or sodium-free chicken broth. If it is a liquid dish then you can toss a potato in to absorb some of the salt. (Just be sure to remove the potato before serving!)  Also, a little milk or cream, sugar or vinegar can help cut the saltiness.

Different types of salt:

  • Table salt: This salt is mined from a brine solution that is evaporated to leave behind salt crystals. It is often sold with iodine added, which gives it a slight metallic taste. While this salt is found in most homes, it is not necessarily the most ideal. Table salt is usually very fine but you can also find it coarse. (FYI, we don’t really use this salt anymore. I don’t even know if we have any.)
  • Kosher salt: Also mined from a brine,this salt is free of additives and more coarse than table salt.  Most chefs recommend using Kosher salt when cooking for a few different reasons. Because Kosher salt is a coarse grain it is easier to control between finger tips. This control is important in distributing the salt evenly over the food. Also, since Kosher salt dissolves quickly its flavor is dispersed quickly as well. This salt does not have any additives so finishing foods with it adds interesting texture and a clean taste.
  • Sea salt: This salt is mined from, you guessed it, sea water! Sea salts vary depending on the seawater used due to varying minerals being left behind during the drying process. Like Kosher salt, sea salt is coarse and additive-free, providing it with similar benefits in the cooking process.

Watch this video to have a virtual tasting of some fancy salts:

Mmm,
Mandy

Mandy’s Notes:
– I referenced this Salt Works website while writing this article. You can read about some more specific salts at that website as well.

Salt101.com is a fun, informative and interactive website from Diamond Crystal Salt featuring Alton Brown. Isn’t he so dreamy?

– As a healthcare professional, I think it is important for me to cover my bum here and mention that there are people who have real health issues that demand that they avoid or limit their salt intake, such as those with kidney disease. It is important for these individuals to avoid sodium in both processed foods and in salt due to kidneys diminished function.

Kendall’s Notes:
– I started reading Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History a long time ago and it is fascinating—so fascinating that I haven’t finished it yet because I kept finding myself taking notes which slows things down a little. Kurlansky explains many different ways that the only mineral we eat changed the world.

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