GRAINS OF TRUTH
The salient facts about salt every cook needs to know
Salt is NaCl (sodium chloride). All sodium chloride is salt. Or is it?
It’s the stuff that not so long ago precipitated the demise of an empire. It was part of a remuneration package that kept Roman legionnaires on the march. It propped up ancient Chinese economies over dynasties. Like silk and spices, its demand established early trade routes that crisscrossed Europe, Africa and Asia. Today it’s one of the cheapest items on our shopping lists and a packet of it can be picked off most supermarket shelves for less than R10.
It’s called salt, otherwise known as sodium chloride or NaCl. Without it we cannot live – but too much makes us very ill. Humankind’s recorded history is studded with salt stories and events. In Genesis 19, Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she dared to turn back to witness the destruction of the city of Sodom.
Mohandas Gandhi took on the might of the British Empire when on March 30, 1930 he embarked on the Satyagraha Salt March from his Sabarmati ashram to Dandi, a coastal town on the Arabian Sea. There he symbolically “made” salt from seawater. He’d left the ashram with 78 followers but by the time he’d walked the 388 km route many more had joined. Gandhi was protesting the existence of the Raj’s Salt Tax which required a tax on this essential commodity and prevented Indians from harvesting or selling it in their own country. The peaceful protest sparked a mass movement that spread like a brushfire across the Subcontinent with tens of thousands of Indians participating, many of them incarcerated (including Gandhi) or flogged. But the indisputable display of Indian solidarity and resentment shook the British Empire to its core. Many historians mark the Salt March as a precursor to the sun eventually dipping over the horizon of a global empire where sunsets were never supposed to happen.
The lexicon of the English language, and other languages too, sparkle with salt idioms and stories. Legionnaires across the Roman Empire were paid a portion of their wages to buy salt. This allowance was known as a salarium, from which the modern word salary has its source. We “take things with a pinch of salt”; a man can be “worth his salt” or be “salt of the earth”. And if he is offended, his disposition can be exacerbated by “rubbing salt in the wound”.
In Arabic if a relationship is considered to be stable and binding, there’s a good chance that one of its participants might remark that “there is salt between us”, alluding to the compound’s importance to the well-being of living creatures as well as to its preservative qualities. In Hebrew, “to eat salt of the palace” refers to wealth and belonging in higher social circles. In another context it could also mean showing loyalty to a higher authority. Spaniards might say “sembrar de sal” – “to sow salt” – referring to the punishment of a traitor. This expression is derived from the practice of salt being mixed into the soil of land owned by a convicted traitor, which in turn originates from the ancient predilection of victorious armies to “salt the earth”, so rendering the land of their vanquished foes infertile.
But enough of the history lesson because this is supposed to be a food story and relevant to those interested in most matters culinary. Because when you consider all the food items that emerge from your kitchen, there’re very few that don’t involve salt.
My faraway brother recently tried his hand at making biltong. As my interest in preserving meat and charcuterie techniques has piqued of late, I was curious as to his progress.
“How’s it going?” I enquired.
“Not enough salt,” he messaged in reply. So I advised him to return the incipient biltong to a slightly stronger saline brine for several hours and osmosis would do its job.
“Now it’s too salty,” he complained in his next missive. I asked him what kind of salt he was using. Was it table, sea, coarse or kosher salt?
“Salt is salt,” came the reply. “It’s all NaCl. I use what’s in my kitchen.”
He was right of course. Salt is sodium chloride, procured for human use from this planet’s land masses and oceans. Salt makes up about 3.5 % of the oceans of the world which themselves cover 71% of its surface. That’s a lot of salt. But my brother was not entirely right – there’s more to this salt story than what might meet the eye.
Every person who fancies him or herself to be a half decent cook would be better off knowing about iodised (also referred to as iodated) salt. It’s that commodity that’s mostly on sale all over the world. In fact, it’s quite difficult to procure salt that has not been iodised these days. But ask most people if they are aware that they’re buying iodised salt or even if they know why salt is iodised… and chances are that the responses will elicit more blank stares than knowledgeable smiles.
Deliberate addition of iodine to salt finds its rationale in the medical condition of goitre – a swelling and inflammation of the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland situated just in front of the windpipe. The thyroid, which is responsible for the well-being of the body’s metabolism, produces the hormone thyroxin to perform its function. But to synthesise thyroxin the gland requires iodine which is normally present in the human diet in minute quantities. If the thyroid doesn’t get enough iodine it starts to enlarge, leading to a swollen throat or “goitre neck” which can cause further medical problems. This condition was particularly prevalent about a century ago in some regions of the United States, particularly in the Great Lakes, Appalachians and Northwestern regions, where iodine content of soil is typically low.
After it was discovered that iodine deficiency was the primary cause of thyroid problems, from 1925 onwards the micronutrient was introduced into salt by spraying it with various iodine compounds (such as potassium iodate) making iodised salt accessible to most Americans. The thyroid issues all but disappeared overnight. Today legislation requires that iodised salt be widely available in most countries of the world. Research has also since indicated that a regular and adequate supply of iodine to keep the thyroid happy leads to enhanced cognitive abilities compared to people who are iodine-compromised. So there could be more than a grain of truth in the belief held by some that iodised salt makes a person clever.
Now we know that mass-iodised salt is the panacea to what was once a public health problem. But is it as beneficial to our Inner Gourmet Cooks who want to optimise every nuance and flavour of those marvellous dishes coming out of our kitchens? If we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us use salt indiscriminately. I mean, when did you last see a scone recipe that requires a teaspoon of non-iodised salt? Most likely it will ask for 5ml salt and you’ll reach for the table salt container that lives alongside the pepperpot in your kitchen cupboard.
But sometimes a dish doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its recipe. “What’s that flat, metallic element that my taste buds are picking up?” you might ask yourself. Well, the gatecrashing taste could well be attributed to the iodine compounds as well as the anti-caking agents that have been sprayed on to the salt in the process it undergoes before finding a home in your kitchen. Just about all table salts are iodised and sold as free-running salt which means that they have also been treated with anti-caking agents such as sodium tartrate mixtures with iron chloride.
You have every right to be pernickety about how your food should turn out and if you’re worried about salt queering the pitch of your creation, consider using pure unprocessed sea salt in the cooking stage. A table salt is exactly what its moniker infers – a salt that you put on the dinner table. Table etiquette encourages diners to say politely “Please pass the salt” then sprinkle relatively small quantities onto their serving to suit individual tastes. The amount added is usually so small that it has almost no significant impact on the food other than the required salt boost.
Cerebos salt with its familiar logo of an Enid Blyton-style boy chasing a chicken with a salt cellar through the farmyard is a good example of free-running iodised table salt treated with anti-caking agents to prevent it from clumping in humid environments. Incidentally the logo originates from the ancient European superstition that if salt is spilled on a bird’s tail feathers then the unfortunate creature is unable to fly and becomes an easy catch. These days animal rights activists protest that the “See how it runs” logo has become inappropriate and tone-deaf to contemporary sensibilities – but Cerebos is clearly nostalgic and possessive about its lengthy brand identity history and apparently has no intention of relinquishing it.
Just to complicate things further, foodies and chefs are becoming increasingly fond of using the description “finishing salt” which refers to gourmet salts such as Maldon Sea Salt flakes and Le Saunier De Camargue Fleur De Sel which are harvested in the Camargue region of France. Self-styled selmelier Mark Bitterman – a selmelier of salt in his world is what a sommelier is to wine – is author of the acclaimed salt reference book Salted: a Manifesto of the World’s Most Essential Mineral (published by Ten Speed Press, 2010) and proprietor of the Portland, Oregon-based Bitterman Salt Co. Bitterman describes finishing salts as those to be sprinkled on plated food seconds before it reaches the table.
In the case of Maldon Sea Salt flakes, he advises that it works best on vegetables, butter caramel or grilled meat. It’s less bitter, not quite as saline as other salts and provides a savoury zing that neither overpowers nor overstays its welcome. It’s an ephemeral saltiness with the flakiness adding a tactile dimension to food, he adds. Maldon is a coastal English town where the Osborne family business has been hand-harvesting pyramid-shaped salt flakes since 1882.
To further illustrate the nature of application of a finishing salt, here’s a recipe gleaned from Maldon’s online promotional material. It’s touted as The Great British Spring Salad but I have revised it slightly to become more accessible in our neck of the woods. So it could also be:
The Great South African Spring Salad
500g baby potatoes
150g fresh broad beans (shelled)
150g fresh peas
250g fresh green asparagus
Handful of pea shoots or a fresh assorted herb mix such as course-chopped parsley, tarragon and oregano for garnish
Cracked black pepper
Generous pinch of Maldon Salt
75g wild garlic leaves (garlic chives can be used as a substitute)
Small handful basil leaves
150ml olive oil
20g pine nuts
1 tsp capers
10g Pecorino-type cheese, finely grated
Start by preparing the wild garlic/garlic chives pesto. In a food processor or blender add the pesto ingredients and blitz until it forms a paste; this can be as chunky or smooth as you like. It will be vibrant green from the leaves. Set aside.
Next cook the baby potatoes. If any of them are too large, cut them in half. Place in a large pot of water and bring to the boil. Then reduce to simmer. Cook for 10 minutes or until they feel tender when inserted with a knife.
While the potatoes are cooking, bring a second pot of water to the boil. Once boiling, blanch the asparagus, peas and broad beans until just tender. Remove the pan from the heat, refresh under cold running water, and drain.
Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them too and allow to steam for a minute or so. After this, toss them in two thirds of the pesto.
On a large serving platter spoon on the warm pesto-drenched potatoes. Top with the blanched asparagus, broad beans and peas. Drizzle with the remaining pesto, some cracked black pepper and Maldon salt. Garnish and serve.
Here in South Africa I find that Khoisan Salt, which is an unprocessed pure sea salt brand harvested near Velddrif on the West Coast, is an exceptionally good cooking as well as finishing salt and is offered in a variety of guises. It’s not as expensive as imported Maldon salt, but then it also doesn’t come in the distinctive pyramid-shape flake form that sets the British product apart.
Then there’s the much-vaunted Himalayan Pink Salt which some cooks swear on their grandmothers’ cookbooks to eclipse all other salts. Its source is the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan, the second largest in the world. Iron oxide (in other words, plain old rust) is what gives Himalayan salt its distinctive pink colour. It also has small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, and is slightly lower in sodium content than regular table salt which is probably the reason why some people prefer the flavour of Himalayan salt over other types. However, the main difference is simply its colour, which can make a dish visually appealing.
What is becoming evident at this stage of my story is that although these speciality salts, be they English, French, Pakistani, South African, American or any other, share an overwhelming sodium chloride content, their distinguishing taste differentials lie in their differing trace mineral contents which include among others: phosphorus, potassium, bromine, boron, zinc, iron, manganese, copper and silicon. Texture also plays a tactile role in the impression made on the palate, as fine, coarse or flaked salts elicit different responses.
I rather fancy myself as a cheesemaker (although if truth be told, not always as successful a cheesemaker as I aspire to be). I have learnt that when making cheese salt is an essential component; not only because of its preservative qualities but also because it plays a vital role in bringing out the flavour of the cheese as it ripens and matures. I also know that I would be foolish to use iodised table salt in the process because iodine is to cheese is what kryptonite is to Superman; it destroys the lactobacilli (the so-called “good bacteria”) that convert lactose to lactic acid in the cheesemaking process. Look up just about any cheese recipe and it will ask for “cheese salt”, “canning salt” or “kosher salt” – as long as any of them don’t contain iodine in any form.
Canning salt is salt used for the preservation of bottled or canned foodstuffs. The preservation of sauerkraut would be a good example of the importance of using a non-iodised salt. Because chopped cabbage, along with kimchi and pickled cucumbers, undergo a fermentation process made possible by the presence of the same type of lactobacilli that transform milk to cheese, to become the finished products that find space in our fridges and pantries.
However, beware of taking for granted that all kosher salt is iodine-free. I notice that these days most of it on sale is actually iodised. But for its intended function I don’t suppose it really matters either way. You see, kosher salt is not really a kosher commodity in the same way that correctly prepared matzos is kosher and ticks all the boxes for consumption by Jewish people. The salt has not passed any stringent test nor has it been deemed acceptable by a rabbi. It does however play a role in making meat kosher. A Torah dietary requirement calls for meat from which the blood content has been extracted and this is exactly what kosher salt does. As salt is hygroscopic (it attracts and absorbs water-based liquids), it is traditionally sprinkled on meat to draw blood from tissue, then discarded. So a more accurate term would be “koshering salt” which I notice that some salt manufacturers are now starting to use.
As cooks we salt judiciously because we want to bring out the flavour nuances of our creations. We know from our kitchen experience that unsalted food usually tastes bland and insipid. It’s important to realise that salt is never the central flavour of a dish – it’s one of the facilitating agents that can make a dish poor, average or great. Remember that there’s a lot happening during the cooking process. Moisture enters and exits ingredients, depending on differing osmotic gradients. Elevated temperatures open up passageways, alter and combine things and all the while salt follows… infiltrating every nook and cranny. Saline concentrations eventually diffuse to find an overall equilibrium. If you’ve added the right amount of salt at the right time and allowed the salt to work its magic, enhancing and pronouncing the flavours, your intended showcase dish becomes a dining room reality – be it lasagne, Osso Buco or Bouillabaisse.
Generally, adding salt during the cooking process is where the real action takes place. Salting at the end of cooking is really only for fine adjustment.
Inevitably we must ask how much is too much? Restaurant and takeaway food is routinely accused of endangering consumer health because it’s too salty. This is mostly because proprietors and chefs are anxious that their wares be flavoursome, so building reputations that encourage return business. Nutritionists and doctors will tell you that you shouldn’t be ingesting more than 2,300mg of salt a day and if you are predisposed to high blood pressure or heart problems, 1,500mg is a more prudent daily intake. That equates roughly to a teaspoon or two-thirds of a teaspoon a day. So next time you consider tearing open that little packet of salt that comes with your Steers burger and chips, think twice before adding more salt. Because in its existing form your takeaway probably already exceeds that recommended daily intake.
While salt is an indisputable part of your diet – it facilitates the contraction of muscles and nerve functions while also regulating fluid levels – over time too much salt in your diet usually results in down-the-line hypertension and cardiac problems. So when you are eating processed food, cured meats, smoked sausages, preserved and fermented vegetables, restaurant and takeaway food, be aware that you should be careful and looking to cut back on your salt intake in other ways. Try not to let over-salted food become a habit – which can easily happen.
And if my brother in Cape Town is reading this, I would advise that he make his biltong brine from coarse pure sea salt that has not had iodine added to it. Because expensive beef has a habit of picking up that flat metallic taste of processed salt. DM/TGIFood