Salt an Age-Old Food Additive

Salt has been used for many thousands of years, in virtually every culture and every country, not only as a condiment, but as a preservative for foods.

By Fritz Sonnenschmidt, CMC

In ancient times salt was been considered a fertility symbol, was a key ingredient in magical spells and potions, used as currency, applied in religious ceremonies, and was even a key ingredient in mummy making. Salt was one of the reasons adventurer and explorer Christopher Columbus and many others went and searched for new worlds rich in the seasoning, spices and gold. In those days salt was worth its weight in gold.

Salt is also an essential nutrient for our body, necessary for a number of regulatory functions and critical to heart and muscle contraction. In this respect, salt is truly a substance of life.

In the kitchen, salt enhances and brightens food flavors and is a natural antimicrobial, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and molds.

For culinarians it is important to know how salt affects the texture, color and taste, especially as there are now many types of salt available. Selecting the right one is a science by itself, because the texture and origin of a salt can dramatically change the end results of the dish in question.

Salt is not only used in flavoring but also as a cooking vessel similar to the old Roman clay pot cookery method. Combine enough kosher salt with egg whites (herbs such as thyme or rosemary may be added) and encase a rack of lamb, beef tenderloin or whole prepared chicken or fish (skin intact) and bake in a 350˚F to 400˚F oven. The salt will absorb fat and seal in moisture and flavor.

Salts have an unbelievable number of varying crystallized structures, depending on the region of the world from which they come. Salt from Brittany (northern France), Provençe (southern France), Germany, Italy, England, Utah, Hawaii or New York are each distinguishable to the palate, imparting their unique flavor and intensity differences.

Salt from Hawaii has volcanic clay deposits and so has an earthy flavor. In Utah the salts are rich with minerals and leave a slightly sweet aftertaste. Salts mined in New York, as you might expect, has a characteristic boldness.

Fleur de sel, the “flower” of salt from the sea comes to us via the beautiful coastal regions of France. It’s currently one of the most popular specialty salts on the market. Trace amounts of iodine lend it a hint of the sea. It has a prized clean flavor that evokes the pristine ocean air.

A number of other “boutique” specialty salts are finding their way into chefs’ hands and cooks’ tables. Colored volcanic salts, sun dried salt from New Zealand, salt from the marshy flats of The Camargue (a region of the Provençe's Mediterranean coast) and salt from some of the oldest salt production marshes in Europe, in Trapani, Sicily, are just a few.

Texturewise, salt usually comes fine milled, flaked (coarse) and as rock salt. The textures affect the intensity in some ways almost as much as the inherent flavors. Coarse flaked salt crystals have a large surface area which makes them ideal for salting meat. This is the type salt often called kosher salt. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, because all pure salt is kosher. Kosher salt is so named because it is used in the koshering process where all the blood must be drawn from the meat. But these traits also mean the salt gives a lot of flavor bang for the buck.

Unrefined sea salts, with high content of trace minerals, have broad range of flavor, perhaps due to the reaction of these other compounds on the surface of the tongue. The few moments needed by a creative chef to experiment with different salts can open up a wealth of possibility in each recipe.

Salt, used in the right context and with a deft hand will enhance health, flavor and texture, again proving that cooking is an art, a science and a way of sharing.

—Salt-encrusted Certified Master Chef Fritz Sonnenschmidt served for 34 years at The Culinary Institute of America as a faculty member, department chair, associate director of continuing education and culinary dean.

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