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Super ingredient: salt

Who really understands the myriad complexities of sodium chloride?

Words by Fiona Beckett

Photography by Deborah Wastie

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If anything could claim to be a super-ingredient, it’s sodium chloride, a mineral that is essential to the healthy functioning of the human body and the oldest seasoning of all. Salt’s use dates back to several centuries BC. Roman soldiers were issued with salt rations, and it may even have been part of their pay – the salarium argentum, or salary. Before refrigeration, salt was the only way to preserve food, key to surviving long, hard winters. Parma ham and Parmesan wouldn’t exist without salt, and even 70-day-old steaks are viable now, thanks to Himalayan salt chambers. Salt comes from two main sources – the sea and ancient salt deposits, which are mined. For culinary use, the most prized are the sea salts obtained by boiling sea water or letting it evaporate naturally. Rarer is fleur de sel, obtained by skimming the surface of salt pans, a painstaking process done by hand; it has a slightly damp texture and consistency. Sel gris is harvested in a similar fashion, but it picks up extra minerals in the process, causing its greyish colour. 

Some parts of the world – the salt marshes of Olonne-sur-Mer on the west coast of France, and Maldon in Essex, for example – are famous for their salt. Others, such as Sel de Guerande and Halen Môn in Anglesey, even have their own appellation in the form of protected designation of origin.

As with olive oil, you ideally need more than one type of salt for cooking. Avoid basic table salt; it contains anti-caking agents and has the least natural flavour. Use kosher or coarse sea salt for adding to cooking water, and use fine sea salt for baking. For finishing a dish or adding crunch, use sea-salt flakes that you
can crumble between your fingers.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that you add salt to make food taste salty; in fact, you use it to heighten other flavours. ‘Salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient,’ writes Samin Nosrat in her bestselling book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, in which she devotes a whole chapter to the subject. ‘When food tastes flat, the most common culprit is underseasoning.’

3 ways to use salt

Baking fish
You’d think baking in salt would make a fish inedible, but the scales protect it, creating a snug crust that keeps the flesh moist and flavourful. Mix salt with egg white, pile it under, up and around the fish, work out the cooking timings and crack open the hard-baked crust at the end.

 

Brining chicken or turkey
If you’ve never tried brining – immersing a piece of meat in a solution of salt, sugar and spices – try it on something small like a pork chop, and see the difference in flavour. Emboldened, you might want to try a chicken or even your Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey. It will also make it more tender.

 

Enhancing sweetness
Just as salt enhances savoury flavours, it can accentuate sweetness. The obvious example is salted caramel, but salt’s ability to reduce the sensation of bitterness means it can also highlight the rich chocolatey flavour of a high-cocoa-solids chocolate bar. A pinch added to brownies and chocolate-chip cookies will make them more delicious.

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