If you’ve ever wondered why a dish in a restaurant tastes so much better than the same dish at home, the answer is probably much more simple than you think: Salt.
Salt is one of the most important ingredients in cooking, but it’s not as easy as you may think to use it. Many people have a fear of getting too much sodium, so they don’t use enough salt, which can make a fantastic dish taste flat and bland. It’s a tough balance to maintain, but once you learn it, it will immediately take your cooking up a notch. Read on to learn how to use salt to take your cooking to a new level.
Understand What Salt Is For
This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding when it comes to salt. Salt is not supposed to make your food taste salty. If it does, you’ve used too much.
Instead, salt is supposed to bring out the natural flavor of whatever it is you’re cooking. This is why a pinch of salt in your hot chocolate can give it a richer, chocolate flavor, or salting a homegrown tomato makes it taste so much better. When you take a bite of something with salt, the first thing you taste should be the food itself; if all you taste is the salt, you’re missing the point.
In some cases, if you’re looking for something crispy or crunchy, it may be the saltiness you’re after, but in most cases, salt should be in the background of a dish.
Practice Makes Perfect
Seasoning is not easy, and is one reason why many people think they can’t cook. It takes practice seasoning different foods, using different types of salt, and tasting throughout the process to get it right. If you cook often enough, and pay attention to when you season and how much you use, before long, you’ll be a pro.
Not All Salt is Created Equal
One of the biggest challenges of new cooks is figuring out which type of salt to use and when to use it. If you wander down the spice aisle in your regular supermarket, you’re likely to run into several different types of salt; go to a specialty store and that number increases dramatically.
Before you worry about specialty salts and finishing salts, you need to choose a good all-purpose cooking salt that works for you. Kosher salt is a good option, as it’s got a clean flavor and a large flake that makes it more difficult to overuse, but it’s not good for seasoning cooked food. Sea salt is another popular choice. Most serious cooks stay away from iodized or table salt, as it has an off flavor due to added preservatives.
The best way to find one you like is to try them. Buy some, use them, taste, and decide which one is best. Once you’ve got the art of seasoning down, you can experiment with different types of more expensive salts.
Add A Little Bit at a Time
This should go without saying, but adding a little bit of salt at a time is important in seasoning, since it is much easier to add more than take away.
Fix Over Seasoned Dishes
Although not foolproof, there are ways to fix over salted dishes. The easiest is to add more of something. If you’re making a soup, add more water or broth (although be careful using seasoned broth.) You can try to balance out the salt by adding a bit of sugar, milk or cream, or an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Which will work best depends on the dish.
If you’ve simply gone way overboard in salting, it may not be fixable without making another, unsalted batch of the dish and combining them. Remember, go with less and add more. An under seasoned dish can still be eaten, whereas you probably won’t be able to eat something way too salty without being reminded in every bite that’s its over salted.
Season Every Part of Your Dish
Many dishes come together in parts; think casseroles, meats with sauces, or anything layered. In these cases, it’s important to season every single part of your dish. If you’re making pasta, for example, season the pasta water, the vegetables you’re sautéing to go with it, and the meat. If you’re breading chicken, season the flour and the breadcrumbs before dredging the chicken. This may seem like overkill, but it’s the only way to make sure each bite of food is perfectly seasoned. Again, a little is better than too much.
If you’re making a soup, stew, or tomato sauce that will simmer for a while, season in the beginning of the cooking process and taste it as it simmers. Reducing liquid reduces the flavor, and therefore brings out the seasoning.
Taste, Taste, and Taste Again
The only way to know if something is properly seasoned is to taste your dish, and taste it often. Never assume that the amount of salt in a recipe is the perfect amount; there are many things that can affect the flavor of your dish like the exact size of a certain vegetable or fat content of a piece of meat.
Use Salt to Remove Moisture
Salt removes moisture from foods like vegetables and meats. You can use this to your advantage by lightly salting eggplant slices before layering in a casserole or salting your shredded potatoes before making hash browns. When you salt a steak or pork chop before cooking, you’re not only bringing out the flavor, but also removing the moisture, which promotes a nice, browned crust.
Keep in Mind Salt Content of Ingredients
When cooking, you should remember that some ingredients have added salt, or are naturally salty. Stocks and broth are usually heavily salted, unless you buy a low sodium variety. Butter is salted, unless it is marked as “unsalted” on the label. Pickled ingredients like pickles, olives, or capers are going to add salt, and cheese will add a salty flavor as well. When using one or more of these ingredients, you may need to season less, so be careful and pay attention as you go.
Be Careful with Seafood
Fish and seafood is naturally high in salt, so be careful when seasoning it. Not only can you cause it to be too salty, but you can also cause it to be tough and rubbery.
Use Substitutions if You’re Trying to Cut Back
If you’re trying to cut back considerably on salt, you can use herbs and spices to add flavoring to your food, or a squeeze of lemon or lime juice will brighten up your dish considerably. Remember though, that you get more salt from processed foods, so if you’re trying to cut back, try eating more fresh food that is seasoned properly and you’ll notice a difference in your sodium intake.
Salt Has an Indefinite Shelf Life
If you’re worried about buying that large box of salt because you think you won’t use it, don’t be. As long as it’s unseasoned, and you don’t add anything to it, it will last forever.
Salt does more than just make your food taste salty. In addition to bringing out the natural flavors of food, it also has other properties, such as preserving, or releasing moisture from foods before cooking. Learning to season your food properly isn’t as easy as it sounds, but once you know how to do it, you’ll wonder why it took you so long.