Salt – Common Ingredient, Unique Characteristics

 

Salt.

It’s become a four letter word for many. Don’t utter it, don’t use it… more than that, be afraid, very afraid. Part of the fear and the fervor stems from a lack of understanding.

If we only used salt to season our food, well then maybe we could consider other substitutes. However, salt plays a key role in our diets in five distinctly unique ways. There is no other single substance available that is capable of doing everything you are about to consider.

We all know that salt has a profound affect on the flavor profile of whatever you choose to whip up in the kitchen. We’ve also discussed its role in preserving foods. But, what you may not have known is that salt is also necessary in four other ways.

Salt affects texture. When making bread salt allows the dough to rise by helping the gluten hold more water and carbon dioxide. With proteins it helps improve tenderness – we’ll discuss the benefits of brining in an upcoming post. In cheeses it creates a more consistent texture both inside the wheel and with the hardness of the rind.

Salt acts as a binder in processed meats like hams and sausages. First, it helps to break down proteins which affects the texture as described above. But, it also affects the structure of the proteins by allowing them to retain more water which keeps those meats moist and juicy when cooking them.

Salt is a color preservative. Ham, bacon and sausage as well as hotdogs all keep their more appealing reddish-pink hue because of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite.

Salt affects fermentation. Whether pickling, making cheese, sauerkraut, or sausage, salt is used to slow and control the fermentation process.

With these other key areas in mind, it’s easy to understand one of the opening comments made in our presentation “Salt is Salt is Salt is Sooooo Wrong”. “Salt is in almost everything we cook or bake…but when a recipe calls for ‘salt’ we don’t usually ask which one, only… how much does it take.”

Most self-proclaimed salt aficionados, even some well known chefs, will tell you that the primary difference between all the various salts available is in their texture. We are here to remind you…that isn’t true.

Because all salt comes from sea water, there are basically only two types of salt available in the world. Refined and unrefined. Refined salt refers to the result of extracting as many of the naturally occurring minerals and elements out of the brine as possible before evaporating the water off. Unrefined salts are those salt which have been created by allowing their naturally occurring minerals and elements to remain intact.

Within each of these categories are a number of sub-categories. For example, refined salts include:

Table salt as a salt is 99.5% – 99.8% pure sodium chloride. Its purity is what accounts for the cubical nature of the individual grains. Table salt, as a category, includes the following sub-categories:

  • Pickling salt
  • Canning salt
  • Pretzel salt
  • Rock salt
  • Popcorn salt
  • Iodized salt
  • Seasoned salt

Kosher salt is also 99.5% – 99.8% pure sodium chloride, but the salt is raked as the crystals are formed, producing the much finer flake structure than table salt. Kosher salt as a category includes the following sub-categories:

  • Kosher salt
  • Koshering salt
  • Kosher-style flake salt

Not all salt is the same, and not all salt is bad for you, but these salts are! Refined salts are responsible for a significant percentage of the total number of people who suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure).

Does that mean we should avoid salt in our diet, or even avoid anything pickled or sauerkraut or canned? Absolutely not!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at each of the salts listed above as well as any viable substitutes that might be available. Our goal is to make it easier to understand why you would choose or refuse certain types of salt.

A healthy diet includes sodium intake. A tasty diet includes salt when cooking and seasoning. You don’t need to be afraid of salt in general, only certain types of salt. So relax, put your thinking cap on and get ready to learn all about salt!