The se­cret to sea­son­ing with salt

A pinch of salt just doesn’t cut it. Used cor­rectly, salt en­riches all flavours

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - SAMIN NOSRAT

Grow­ing up, I thought salt be­longed in a shaker at the ta­ble, and nowhere else.

I never added it to food, or saw Ma­man add it. When my aunt Ziba sprin­kled it onto her saf­fron rice at the ta­ble each night, my broth­ers and I gig­gled. We thought it was the strangest, fun­ni­est thing in the world.

I as­so­ci­ated salt with the beach, where I spent my child­hood sea­soned with it. There were the end­less hours in the Pa­cific near our home in San Diego, swal­low­ing mouth­fuls of ocean wa­ter when I mis­judged the waves. Tide­pool­ing at twi­light, my friends and I of­ten fell vic­tim to the salt­wa­ter spray while we poked at anemones.

Ma­man kept our swim­suits in the back of our blue Volvo sta­tion wagon, be­cause the beach was al­ways where we wanted to be. She was deft with the um­brella and blan­kets, set­ting them up while she shooed the three of us into the sea. We would stay in the wa­ter un­til we were starv­ing, scan­ning the beach for the sun-faded coral-and­white um­brella, the land­mark that would lead us back to her.

She al­ways knew ex­actly what would taste best when we emerged: Per­sian cu­cum­bers topped with sheep’s milk feta cheese, rolled to­gether in lavash bread. We chased the sand­wiches with hand­fuls of ice-cold grapes or wedges of wa­ter­melon to quench our thirst.

That snack, eaten while my curls dripped with sea­wa­ter and salt crust formed on my skin, al­ways tasted so good. With­out a doubt, the plea­sures of the beach added to the magic of the ex­pe­ri­ence, but it wasn’t un­til many years later, while I was work­ing at Chez Panisse, that I un­der­stood why those bites had been so per­fect from a culi­nary point of view.

It was there that Chris Lee, a chef who took me un­der his wing, sug­gested I pay at­ten­tion to the lan­guage the chefs used in the kitchen, how they knew when some­thing was right — these were clues for how to be­come a bet­ter cook.

Most of­ten, when a dish fell flat, the an­swer lay in ad­just­ing the salt. Some­times it was in the form of salt crys­tals, but other times it meant a grat­ing of cheese, some pounded an­chovies, a few olives or a sprin­kling of ca­pers. I be­gan to see that there was no bet­ter guide in the kitchen than thought­ful tast­ing, and that noth­ing was more im­por­tant to taste thought­fully for than salt.

One day, as a young cook in the prep kitchen, I was tasked with cook­ing po­lenta. Milled from an heir­loom va­ri­ety of corn, the po­lenta at Chez Panisse tasted of sweet­ness and earth. The chef, Cal Peter­nell, talked me through the steps for mak­ing it, and I be­gan cook­ing. Con­sumed by the fear of scorch­ing and ru­in­ing the en­tire pot — a mis­take I had seen other cooks make — I stirred ma­ni­a­cally.

After an hour and a half, I brought Cal a spoon­ful of the creamy por­ridge to taste, look­ing up at him with equal parts re­spect and ter­ror. “It needs more salt,” he dead­panned. Du­ti­fully, I re­turned to the pot and sprin­kled in a few grains of salt, treat­ing them with the pre­cious­ness I might af­ford, say, gold leaf. I thought it tasted pretty good, so I re­turned to him with a spoon­ful of my ad­justed po­lenta.

This time he marched me back to the pot and added not one but three enor­mous palm­fuls of kosher salt. The per­fec­tion­ist in me was hor­ri­fied. I’d wanted so badly to do that po­lenta jus­tice, and the de­gree to which I’d been off was ex­po­nen­tial. Three palm­fuls!

Cal grabbed spoons and to­gether we tasted. The corn was some­how sweeter, the but­ter richer. All of the flavours were more pro­nounced. I had been cer­tain he had ru­ined the pot and turned my po­lenta into a salt lick, but the term salty did not ap­ply to what I tasted. All I felt was a sat­is­fy­ing zing with each mouth­ful.

Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced the trans­for­ma­tive power of salt, I wanted to learn how to get that zing ev­ery time I cooked.

I thought about the foods I loved to eat grow­ing up — and that bite of sea­side cu­cum­ber and feta, in par­tic­u­lar. I re­al­ized then why it had tasted so good. It was prop­erly salted.

Salt and flavour

James Beard, the fa­ther of mod­ern Amer­i­can cook­ery, once asked, “Where would we be with­out salt?” I know the an­swer: adrift in a sea of bland­ness. Salt has a greater im­pact on flavour than any other in­gre­di­ent. Learn to use it well, and food will taste good.

Salt’s re­la­tion­ship to flavour is mul­ti­di­men­sional: it has its own par­tic­u­lar taste, and it both bal­ances and en­hances the flavour of other in­gre­di­ents. Imag­ine tak­ing a bite of a rich espresso brownie sprin­kled with flaky sea salt. The salt min­i­mizes the espresso’s bit­ter­ness, in­ten­si­fies the flavour of the choco­late and of­fers a savoury con­trast to the sugar’s sweet­ness.

Does this mean you should sim­ply use more salt? No. It means use salt bet­ter. Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form. A smaller amount of salt ap­plied while cook­ing will of­ten do more to im­prove flavour than a larger amount added at the ta­ble.

Sea­son­ing a but­ter­milk-mar­i­nated chicken the night be­fore you plan to cook it will give salt am­ple time to dif­fuse through­out the meat and en­hance the flavour of ev­ery bite.

And un­less you have been told by your doc­tor to limit salt con­sump­tion, you can re­lax about your sodium in­take from home-cooked food. In al­most ev­ery case, any­thing you cook for your­self is lower in sodium than restau­rant food.

Salt­ing isn’t some­thing to do once and then check off your list; be con­stantly aware of how a dish tastes as it cooks, and how you want it to taste at the ta­ble. At Zuni Café in San Fran­cisco, chef Judy Rodgers of­ten told her cooks that a dish might need “seven more grains of salt.” Some­times it re­ally is that sub­tle, a few grains di­vid­ing the sat­is­fac­tory from the sub­lime. The only way to know is to taste and ad­just, and to do so over and over again as you add in­gre­di­ents and they trans­form through­out the cook­ing process.

But­ter­milk-Mar­i­nated Roast Chicken MAKES 4 SERVINGS

1 chicken, 3½ to 4 pounds Kosher salt or fine sea salt 2 cups but­ter­milk

To­tal time: About 1¾ hours, plus overnight mar­i­nat­ing

1. The day be­fore you want to cook the chicken, re­move the wingtips by cut­ting through the first wing joint with poul­try shears or a sharp knife. Re­serve for stock. Sea­son chicken gen­er­ously with salt and let it sit for 30 min­utes.

2. Stir 2 ta­ble­spoons kosher salt or 4 tea­spoons fine sea salt into the but­ter­milk to dis­solve. Place the chicken in a gal­lon-size re­seal­able plas­tic bag and pour in the but­ter­milk. (If the chicken won’t fit in a gal­lon-size bag, dou­ble up two plas­tic pro­duce bags to pre­vent leaks and tie the bag with twine.)

3. Seal the bag, squish the but­ter­milk all around the chicken, place on a rimmed plate, and re­frig­er­ate for 12 to 24 hours. If you’re so in­clined, you can turn the bag pe­ri­od­i­cally so ev­ery part of the chicken gets mar­i­nated, but that’s not es­sen­tial.

4. Pull the chicken from the fridge an hour be­fore you plan to cook it. Heat the oven to 425 F with a rack set in the cen­tre po­si­tion.

5. Re­move the chicken from the plas­tic bag and scrape off as much but­ter­milk as you can with­out be­ing ob­ses­sive. Tightly tie to­gether the legs with a piece of butcher’s twine. Place the chicken in a 10-inch cast-iron skil­let or a shal­low roast­ing pan.

6. Slide the pan all the way to the back of the oven on the cen­tre rack. Ro­tate the pan so that the legs are point­ing to­ward the rear left cor­ner and the breast is point­ing to­ward the cen­tre of the oven. (The back cor­ners tend to be the hottest spots in the oven, so this ori­en­ta­tion pro­tects the breast from over­cook­ing be­fore the legs are done.) Pretty quickly you should hear the chicken siz­zling.

7. After about 20 min­utes, when the chicken starts to brown, re­duce the heat to 400 F and con­tinue roast­ing for 10 min­utes.

8. Move the pan so the legs are fac­ing the rear right cor­ner of the oven. Con­tinue cook­ing for an­other 30 min­utes or so, un­til the chicken is brown all over and the juices run clear when you in­sert a knife down to the bone be­tween the leg and the thigh. If the skin is get­ting too brown be­fore it is cooked through, use a foil tent. Re­move it to a plat­ter and let it rest for 10 min­utes be­fore carv­ing and serv­ing.

Cae­sar Salad MAKES 6 TO 8 SERVINGS

For the torn crou­tons: 1-pound loaf day-old country or sour­dough bread 1/3 cup ex­tra-vir­gin olive oil Salt, to taste For the salad: 1 egg yolk at room tem­per­a­ture ¾ cup neu­tral oil, such as grape­seed 3 to 4 ta­ble­spoons lemon juice, more if needed for may­on­naise 8 an­chovy fil­lets 1 gar­lic clove, finely grated or pounded with a pinch of salt 1 tea­spoon white wine vine­gar 1 3-ounce chunk of Parme­san, finely grated (about 1 cup), plus more for serv­ing ¾ tsp Worces­ter­shire sauce Salt and ground black pep­per Ro­maine let­tuce, Lit­tle Gem let­tuce, chicories, raw or blanched kale, shaved brus­sels sprouts or Bel­gian en­dive

To­tal time: 45 min­utes 1. Make the torn crou­tons: Heat oven to 400 de­grees. Re­move the crusts from the bread, then cut into inch-thick slices. Cut each slice into inch-wide strips, and tear each strip into inch-size pieces. Toss with olive oil to coat them evenly, then spread pieces out in a sin­gle layer on a bak­ing sheet. (Use a sec­ond sheet if needed to pre­vent crowd­ing.) Toast for 18 to 22 min­utes, check­ing them after eight min­utes. Ro­tate pans, switch their oven po­si­tions and use a metal spat­ula to turn the crou­tons so they brown evenly. Bake un­til they’re golden brown and crunchy on the out­side, with just a tiny bit of chew on the in­side. Sea­son with a light sprin­kling of salt, if needed. Use im­me­di­ately; store left­overs in an air­tight con­tainer for up to two days.

2. Mean­while, make may­on­naise: Place the egg yolk in a deep, medium metal or ce­ramic bowl. Dam­pen a tea towel and roll it up into a long log, then form it into a ring on the counter. Place the bowl in­side the ring; this will hold the bowl in place while you whisk. (And if whisk­ing by hand is sim­ply out of the ques­tion, use a blender, stand mixer or food pro­ces­sor.)

3. Use a la­dle or bot­tle with a noz­zle to drip in the neu­tral oil a drop at a time, while whisk­ing the oil into the yolk. Go. Re­ally. Slowly. And don’t stop whisk­ing. Once you’ve added about half the oil, you can start adding a lit­tle more oil at once. You want the may­on­naise to be stiff, but if it thick­ens so much that it’s im­pos­si­ble to whisk, add a tea­spoon or so of lemon juice to help thin it out.

4. Pre­pare the dress­ing: Coarsely chop the an­chovies and then pound them into a fine paste us­ing a mor­tar and pes­tle. The more you break them down, the bet­ter the dress­ing will be.

5. In a medium bowl, stir to­gether the an­chovies, may­on­naise, gar­lic, lemon juice, vine­gar, Parme­san, Worces­ter­shire and pep­per. Taste with a leaf of let­tuce, then add salt and ad­just the acid (the lemon juice and vine­gar) as needed, or add a lit­tle of each salty in­gre­di­ent (Worces­ter­shire, an­chovies, Parme­san) to the dress­ing, bit by bit. Ad­just the acid, then taste and ad­just the salty in­gre­di­ents un­til you reach the ideal bal­ance of salt, fat and acid.

6. Use your hands to toss the greens and torn crou­tons with an abun­dant amount of dress­ing in a large bowl to coat evenly. Gar­nish with Parme­san and black pep­per and serve im­me­di­ately. Re­frig­er­ate leftover dress­ing, cov­ered, for up to three days.

Salt bal­ances and en­hances the flavour of other in­gre­di­ents. The key is not to use more; it’s to use the right amount, at the right time, in the right form.

But­ter­milk­mar­i­nated roast chicken.

JESSICA EMILY MARX, NYT

Cae­sar salad with torn crou­tons.

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