Our latest installment of Ask the Chef Burning Questions with our partner chef Matthew Robinson of the Culinary Exchange relates to salt and the cooking process. I am happy to have this question, because I am believer that most home cooks are afraid of salt, possibly because of uncertainly as to when to use it.
Can you please explain the difference of cooking with salt (for flavor/seasoning) versus adding it at the table after the food has been cooked? I think food tastes different when it has been cooked with salt, but my partner says it tastes the same to just add it table-side. Thanks!
Oh, no! Those dreaded words that can give a chef and columnist for the lovelorn a fright have reared their ugly heads. Those words that suggest a topic coming between two people who love each other: “But my partner says.” This is an important topic and I don’t want anyone to read it and go home hurt in any way. But if two people are in a relationship and one partner is not in agreement with the other in the kitchen, something has to change. No, this is not the gratuitous post that compares early salting to foreplay or any of that nonsense. (You can read that on my website later.) Stay focused! This is not some food porn novel. This is serious cooking business. Here we go…
First, why do we salt? We don’t salt because we want things to taste salty. Sure, there are times when we want something salty, like potato chips, but we don’t want them in a way that the only thing we taste is salt. We want our chips to have some golden brown, fried spud flavors, too. We salt because we want to bring out the subtle and not-so-subtle flavors of the ingredients in a dish. When we say something is bland, we are referring to flavors as being muted. It is salt’s job to bring out the flavor nuances of ingredients so they can stand out and help the mixture of ingredients come together better as a dish. It is not salt’s job to be the central flavor of a dish. I have never heard anyone exclaim in a restaurant, “Wow, that salt flavor is so divine. Can I get the recipe from the chef?”
In the absence of salting for salt’s sake, seasoning with salt during cooking will make the dish taste differently vs. salting after. Why? For the most part, this is a concentration issue, but it is also the magic that salt can bring to the flavor components of foods. There is a lot going on during the cooking process. Water is going in and out of the ingredients. The heat is opening and unfolding things and salt is following along getting in every nook and cranny it can, penetrating the ingredients and floating about throughout the whole dish. The concentration of the salt is spread out and mixed well into the whole dish where it can work its flavor, forwarding magic throughout the whole dish. The salt concentration will be low so its taste is not pronounced, but its ability to bring flavors out is still very much in play. If I cook the same dish, but add no salt while cooking, then add the same amount of salt after cooking, it will likely be very salty because the salt won’t have the opportunity to spread around as much and have its magical effect on the flavors in the dish. It will just be there, and just be salty.
You can try this at home. Make two pots of your favorite stew. In the first pot, add salt during cooking. Then make a pot where you add the same amount of salt when it is done cooking adding none while you cook it. The first pot will have a much deeper and, I dare say, complex, flavor.
The same can be said for other items like steak. Early salting will have a different effect on taste vs. salting at the table. In this case, salt will affect the proteins and water at the surface of the meat. This will effect the formation of a crust, which will alter the flavor. Salting a steak at the table will leave a higher concentration of salt that has not really interacted with the meat, leaving a larger hit of plain old saltiness.
Salting (and even peppering) at the end of cooking is really only for fine adjustment. Adding the salt during the cooking is where the game-changing action happens.
So what about salt in baking? In the case of yeast bread, it is a slightly different application as the salt is more important to the bread making process. It does bring some flavor to the game. Where we take salt’s ability to bring flavors out for granted is in things like cakes, cookies and pie crusts. The dash of salt added to these recipes brings out all the tasty flavor notes. We don’t notice it is in there (unless there was bad mixing), but a pinch helps make our baked goods even better. And we know how bad it would be if we salted them afterwards. It just wouldn’t work.
Salting during cooking is the way to go. Tell your partner sorry for me. There are lots of things one can accept in a partner, but poor salting habits is not one of them!
What's your feeling about salt? What's your favorite salt to cook with? To finish a dish with? Inquiring minds wanna know!