Salt, Acid, Fat, Crunch – Making Your Food Pop, Part 1

Maldon (aka the world's greatest salt) Salt
Flaky Maldon (aka the world’s greatest sea salt), my personal favorite

Ask a professional chef to taste and evaluate a dish, and odds are that if they think it needs something, that something will be salt, acid, fat, or crunch.

Why? Because these are fundamental elements that make food pop. They aren’t going to turn undercooked eggplant into a silk purse, but if you give these actors a solid basic dish to work with, they can transform it into a knockout. I never develop a new recipe without at least considering how I have them in play. You could make it your culinary New Year’s resolution to do the same.

Today, we’ll take a look at salt, and over the next few weeks, I’ll complete the series with acid, fat and crunch. [Note: acid is up now]

Salt is the most basic taste enhancer, and the one home cooks are most afraid of. I think there are two fears. First, in most cases oversalted food can’t be easily fixed. So rather than take a chance, it becomes easy to think “well, if they want more they can just add it at the table”. The problem is, food needs salt during the cooking process. The salt helps extract moisture and concentrate flavor, and it needs to be in the interior of the food when you bite into it.

Second, people are concerned over the link between sodium and hypertension. If you are worried about this, I can do you no greater service than to refer you to the chapter on salt in Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, which you should read anyhow because the whole book is informative and hilarious. Obviously if your health professional has told you to minimize salt, listen to them, but if you are just doing it out of general free-floating anxiety, read Steingarten’s well-researched piece and see what you think.

If you want to fully appreciate the importance of salt in making food appetizing, try a head-to-head comparison. Scramble two eggs with absolutely no salt, and two more with a couple of good pinches. Or spread a piece of good bread with unsalted butter, and then eat a bite with or without a bit of salt sprinkled on top. In both cases, without the salt you have a sort of bland, neutral sweetness. The salt balances the sweetness and allows you to taste much more complexity and subtlety.

Good cooks salt food as they go, and taste frequently. When sauteing, I do this as each group of ingredients is added to the pan.  If you look through my recipes on this site, you’ll see that almost every step includes an instruction like “taste and adjust seasoning”, or “salt to taste”. One of my great fears when writing recipes is that those instructions will be ignored, and salt will be only an afterthought.

Palates differ, ingredients differ, salts differ, and often what is needed is just a pinch or two – too little to be worth measuring. Keep an open container of Kosher salt next to your stove, and add a bit at a time until you suddenly hear the flavors sing. With practice, you’ll hear that chorus easily.

You’ll notice I said Kosher salt. I use it almost exclusively for general cooking (as opposed to finishing dishes), because the larger grain size makes it easier to pick up and distribute. For baking, you have to hope the recipe author tells you whether Kosher or fine-grained “table” salt is intended, as they have different weights for the same volume.

Finishing dishes with salt can be the real coup de grace. Something about having a few grains of salt as the first thing that meets your palate is innately appetizing to most people. Think of a well seasoned french fry. Salt hits your tongue, almost too much for a second, and then the crisp shell gives way to the fluffy, mild potato. Fried foods are obvious, but almost anything from caramels to polenta will appreciate a miniscule final sprinkle. (Italians have a concept of capriccioso, applied to chili flakes. Rather than mixing them in completely, they may add them at the last minute to get surprising little pinpricks of heat. Salt is the same way, it can be more exciting to taste the individual crystal.)

There are many wonderful finishing salts from all over the world. Any taste differences are quite minor. What counts is appearance and texture. I have quite a few of these salts, but I’d never be sad if I could only keep Maldon (aka the world’s greatest salt). It is superbly flaky, adding an element of crunch as well as salinity.

If you have never bought a finishing salt before, you might choke on the idea of spending $7 for 8 ounces of salt. Remember, you are using it in tiny quantities. A single box lasts me months at home and adds pleasure to so many dishes. Give a box as a gift and to a friend and they will first look at you like you are nuts and then the next time you see them, they will thank you profusely.

So, are you ready to really season your food?

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, January 4th, 2010 in Favorites, Miscellany, Theory and Rants.

31 Responses to “Salt, Acid, Fat, Crunch – Making Your Food Pop, Part 1”

  1. Jennifer
    January 4, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    I just received my first Maldon salt–now we’ll see if I can figure out what to use it on. I’m still confused about when to salt. I’ve been working on some Bayless cookbooks, and he seems to recommend salting at the end of his sauces and beans (and I appreciate his size suggestions–I think I usually undersalt).

    Like the idea of your series.

  2. Michael Natkin
    January 4, 2010 at 9:42 am #

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    @Jennifer – try searching my site for "Maldon" to get some suggested uses. There is a search box near the top of the right sidebar. Enjoy!

  3. maureen
    January 4, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    jennifer, i think that beans are an exception because salt can toughen their skins during the cooking process. this is what rancho gordo says, anyway.

    this is a great idea for a series of posts, and i’ll be looking forward to reading about acid, fat, and crunch too. i have a friend who is a truly stellar chef, and whenever we get together to cook, i try to pay attention to the way he uses these elements. he made an amazingly flavorful tomato sauce for gnocchi with italian sausage and delicata, and i was a little alarmed at the quantity of vinegar he splashed in while simmering, and then at the generous pad of butter and splash of cream he added as a final step. of course, once i tasted it, i immediately understood why his sauce beat the pants off anything i’d made!

  4. January 4, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    Hi Michael

    Well put! Have you ever been to At the Meadow in Portland, Oregon? It’s a phenomenal little shop with a zillion types of salt. They do mail order, too. I am addicted to their black truffle salt…google it!

    Happy New Year!

  5. Michael Natkin
    January 4, 2010 at 11:05 am #

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    @ivy I'll check it out! I have some black truffle salt I bought in NYC awhile back that I feel like I should be ashamed of, since no doubt it is as artificial as truffle oil. But I really like it too :).

  6. Melissa
    January 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Wow! What a great post! Thanks for the mini culinary lesson. I’m looking forward to the rest in the series :)

  7. Scott
    January 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    I think of olive oil as something that you spend a lot for its finishing abilities, but I have never thought of salt in that way. I will definitely have to experiment with this. Thanks for the motivation.

    I have been using sea salt from the bulk bin at the local food co-op for my daily cooking, but it’s not iodized. Do you ever used iodized salt? I wonder if the nutritional concerns that initially lead to ionization are still existent in the modern diet.

    Oh, and you forgot one of the other basic food groups- garlic ;)

  8. shane
    January 4, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    At the Meadow in Portland rules!!! I think they sell more different kinds of salt then anywhere else in the world.

  9. January 4, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Right on, Micheal! Fishing with salt really can make a difference to many dishes. My current favorite is Real Salt (Google it). Of course, I could be biased. It’s mined just 100 miles from my house. ;-)

  10. Michael Natkin
    January 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

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    @John – oh yes, I believe I've seen the Real Salt brand in our stores out here, I'll have to give it a try.

  11. January 5, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    Very few recipes do not include some form of salt. In ancient times salt was treated like gold is today, and doled out for a high price.
    Today, salt has so many forms and options like the flaky Maldon variety you mention here.

  12. January 5, 2010 at 7:05 am #

    Oh, so well put, thank you!

    +Jessie

  13. January 5, 2010 at 8:48 am #

    This is really helpful! I have to admit that I don’t taste-test my dishes enough during the cooking process, something I’m working on changing. Your pictures are stunning, and your writing is great! I just loved the phrase “They aren’t going to turn undercooked eggplant into a silk purse…”

  14. January 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    I like Maldon salt, very much!

    You know what is the real problem with salt Michael? That in many ‘developed’ countries people taste buds are either underdeveloped or have been killed. More people are using ready made food, or half made (sauces from sachets, mixes, those kind of things) which already contain sodium (sometime to much in fact) and other flavor enhancers. Salt is vital in our diet, we need it. Too much salt, and we die. But it is not the home cook, who makes everything from scratch and add his/her own salt who is at risk here! It is the one who buy ready made food, sauces, mixes, cans and packets…add the sodium that you see in the labels and see you blood pressure rise! If these people stop buying food, and learn to cook from scratch, they will also learn to use salt :-).

  15. January 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    I found your food blog going through a few links. Glad I ran into it. Didn’t know that the food blog/recipe community was so big online. I love your posts!

    I was wondering if you would like to exchange links. I’ll drop yours on my site and you drop mine on yours. Email at ramendays@yahoo.com or stop by my site and drop a comment. Let me know if you would like to do a link exchange.

    Cheers,
    Caleb
    http://www.ramendays.com

  16. January 5, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Well said, Alessandra.

    And great article! I look forward to reading the others.

  17. Katie
    January 5, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    I was coating candied orange peel with chocolate once and had leftover chocolate, so I spread it out on a silpat and added some sea salt to the top. It was so unbelievably good, especially since the chocolate was from low-quality chocolate chips.

  18. January 6, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    I found you through Wednesday’s edition of “Food News Journal” and I’m so glad they picked up your post. I enjoyed reading it, and I’m sure I can benefit–I’m one of those salt-shy home cooks you mention. I do love salt used with chocolate and caramels and am finally beginning to use more salt in my savory dishes (I’m aware of how that sounds–a bit like putting the cart before the horse). Anyway, thanks. I look forward to the rest of your “food popping” quartet.

  19. January 6, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Hi Michael, and thanks for your great post – I’ve read and learned a lot about salt over the years, but you put it brilliantly into context as being one of the arenas, if you will, that you can look to to take a dish from fine to fantastic. I look forward to reading about the others.

    I wrote about salt for my blog as well – this post includes a little about my salt epiphany, as well as how to train yourself to “season to taste”: link to jillhough.com. And this post talks about “designer” salts (I, too, am a big fan of The Meadow and Mark Bitterman, its selmelier): link to jillhough.com.

    Lastly, congratulations on being picked up by the FNJ!

  20. January 6, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Loved your comment, an important distinction about scratch cooks vs.the rest of those who cook. Knowing about foods, their natural qualities, and nutritional content can really make a difference in the use of salt. At least it does for me.

    I am a person who has cooked low salt for the last 40+ years by choice. I always warn guests I use minimal salt, they frequently don’t add any additional salt, although it is freely available, telling me my cooking doesn’t need it.

    That being said, I realize certain foods demand salt, such as mashed potatoes, and don’t hesitate to use it when called for. I use a Himalayan mined pink salt for everyday, and love alder smoked salt. I will definitelt check out the Meadow.

  21. Maggie
    January 7, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    Oddly enough — oddly because I’m a big salt-fan in general — I like my eggs completely unsalted. I don’t even want particularly salty ingredients, like aged cheese or (gulp) bacon in them. It’s precisely that silky, pillowy aspect I’m looking for, that seems to me to be as much about voluptuous taste as it is about texture — all cello, no bursts of flute. However, after reading your piece I’m thinking about trying a finishing salt in a TINY quantity to see how I like that.

  22. Michael Natkin
    January 7, 2010 at 11:15 am #

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    @scott – I really don't use iodized salt at all these days. As far as I know, it isn't a big issue, but if I develop a goiter I might change my mind :)

  23. January 8, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Thank you! This was a great post, and much needed. I don’t use table salt, and haven’t for years. I have a friend, whose food is so bland that I dread eating her food. She won’t salt anything. Blecccccccccch! I’m forwarding this to her!

  24. Michael Natkin
    January 8, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

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    That's a great idea Debby! Always easier to hear things from a neutral 3rd party :)

  25. January 15, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Very nice discussion of the importance of proper salting while cooking. I also like the analysis of salt, acid, fat and crunch: I’ve become a big believer in a drizzle of sherry vinegar or a sprinkling of Maldon on a finished dish. Would spice also fit into this model? A little cayenne, Tabasco or Sriracha goes a long way towards lifting flavors. Perhaps professional chefs wouldn’t include spice in the same way because different customers have different heat preferences?

  26. Michael Natkin
    January 15, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

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    @milcarnivore – Absolutely, spice can be used in that way. I think the only difference is that it is perhaps not as nearly universal as the need for salt, acid, fat and crunch. Another, related category might be the fresh herb garnishes, though that overlaps with crunch.

  27. January 17, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Salt addicts here. Do try truffle salt, you will soon be hooked, I use the Ritrovo brand from Marx foods and love it (they have a killer saffron salt too). Awesome on all things egg, potatoes, and on popcorn.

  28. Andrew Luhrs
    June 15, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    I like the selection at Salt Traders even better — and they ship anywhere! Check out http://www.salttraders.com ! I know they have Maldon too.

  29. Carolina
    September 14, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Although I agree with almost everything you said…American people are SO guilty of undersalting EVERYTHING they serve, AND they purposely do it, even if they have no health problems. (One thing they often say is that they never salt nor sweeten any foods so that their children will not have ‘bad habits’ to break when they’re adults. SMH!) HOWEVER…when it comes to unsalted butter, I MUST disagree with you. I buy only ‘hand crafted, organic’ butter from a woman at our local farmers market…her butter is even better than the imported Irish butter. I would never add salt to that. I serve it with my own homemade bread, and totally enjoy the sweet, creamy flavour of that butter, just ‘as is’. The bit of salt in the bread is all that is needed. Please, try a really great butter WITHOUT the salt, and see if you don’t agree.

    • September 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      That’s an interesting point… I’m not blind to the charm you are speaking of, of great plain sweet butter, but what I really like is a few grains of good salt on top of that sweet butter, not mixed in.

  30. Carolina
    September 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    I wanted to add that I also grow a variety of radishes called ‘French Breakfast’ radishes, and DO often serve them at breakfast topped with a good dab of that same unsalted butter. It seems counter-intuitive to serve radishes without salt, but this works, and works well. The French have served them like this for probably centuries now. It’s a ‘French classic’ and for good reason. (I also saute the radish greens and use them as part of the filling for an accompanying omelet. I DO salt the greens while sauteing, depending on what else will be in the filling.)

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