The secret to seasoning with salt
A pinch of salt just doesn’t cut it. Used correctly, salt enriches all flavours
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.
Caesar salad with torn croutons.