Salt is the most important ingredient that everyone has in their kitchen today. The transformative properties of salt affect an ingredient’s flavor and texture, and can also assist with safe preservation practices. The beautiful thing about salt is that it enhances the inherent flavors already present within an ingredient. Developing one’s seasoning hand is a crucial kitchen skill everyone needs to develop, and it’s only through the course of time and experience that one can become proficient at bringing out the true flavors of ingredients.
Obtaining salt is traditionally handled through two methods, mining or the evaporation of sea water. Mined salt is typically processed much further than sea salt, creating a “cleaner” product, sometimes with the inclusion of additives to prevent clumping or the addition of iodine to assist with dietary deficiencies. Where sea salt retains many of the trace minerals and elements found at the source of harvesting, this affects the final taste, texture, and color of the salt.
Not only is salt used as a enhancer, but food preservation is another important aspect of its toolbox. The use of salt can create a hostile environment for microbial growth and bacteria. It achieves this by drawing water out of the cells via osmosis, and introducing salt molecules into the cell; this causes them to dehydrate and either die, or inhibit their growth. This is an important factor in such techniques as: brining, curing, and pickling, and even plays an important role in bread making by affecting fermentation and gluten formation. Pink salt (aka Prague Powder) is an important preservative in some meat products. It achieves this through the use of small amounts of sodium nitrite and potentially sodium nitrate within a salt blend. The sodium nitrite aides by inhibiting microbial growth, delays oxidization that causes meats to go rancid, and also reacts with the myoglobin in meat to help with color retention; sodium nitrate breaks down over time during the curing process into sodium nitrite, extending the longevity of the effects. This is an important factor for long curing items like hard salamis.
Salt’s ability to draw moisture can also be used in cooking to alter the structure of an ingredient. For example, salting shredded cabbage and allowing to sit for 10-15 min will result in the cabbage shreds wilting, and salty cabbage water to pool in the bottom of a bowl. Salt also has an effect on the gelatinization of proteins which is important for things like sausage or cheese. If you give fish a quick cure, it will cause the proteins to firm up leaving a denser texture, which can be a desired effect.
My salt preference stems from my days in restaurant kitchens, and that is to use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. It has a larger crystal structure that adheres to foods beautifully, while also capable of easily dissolving into solutions. This particular brand contains no additives, and has a clean flavor profile. The real difference between kosher and typical table salt is the feel in the hand, and how much better control you have while seasoning ingredients. Typically sea salt also has a large flaky structure, but is considerably more expensive then kosher salt, so I tend to use various sea salts as finishing salts for that little bit of flair when called for.