Salt is arguably the most important and common ingredient in cooking – its role in flavoring alone could win it this title. But it’s also a diversely functional antimicrobial preservative with chemical and nutritional properties and that humans can’t do without.
Without salt, ice cream wouldn’t freeze, pasta would stick, bread would rise too quickly, cast-iron would rust, french fries would taste lackluster and pickles wouldn’t pickle. It adds texture, tenderizes, draws out and helps maintain moisture. Just the right amount of salt can transform a dish by enhancing, minimizing or balancing flavors.
Most chefs try to get away with adding as much salt as possible to a dish – and will encourage you to do the same. That's because learning the tricks and characteristics of salt can make you a better cook. Since understanding its characteristics and how to use it is an imperative skill, we asked a few local chefs to share recipes, tips and tricks to help you make the most of this essential ingredient.
Tips for Using Salt at Home
The science of salt offers us so much more than flavor. Use these tips and tricks in your kitchen to get the most out of your salt cellar.
Salt storage containers. Store your salt near the stove so it’s easy to reach in a salt pig (an open-mouthed container) or salt cellar (a slightly smaller vessel either open or lidded). Salt is antimicrobial and doesn’t require a lid, although it should be protected from humidity.
How to properly salt food. Season food properly by sprinkling salt from about 12 inches above, like rain falling down over the surface.
How to make flavored salt at home. Choose whatever flavors, seasonings or herbs (rosemary, garlic, onion, celery seed, chile powder, etc.) you desire and grind them together with salt using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder until coarsely crushed. Lay spice blend on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan to dry out any moisture created from crushing ingredients and store in an airtight container. Use flavored salts to enhance salads, french fries, croutons or cheese boards.
Deep cleaning a cast-iron skillet or pan. Cast-iron skillets and pans shouldn’t be cleaned with soap and water because the material rusts easily; instead, clean them with salt. Warm about ¼ inch of vegetable or grapeseed oil in your cast iron for about five minutes. Remove it from heat, discard oil and add the same amount of kosher salt to the bottom of the pan. Using a kitchen towel, rub salt around pan, pressing into bottom and sides, until rust or debris is removed.
Using salt to speed cooling. Understanding the chemistry of salt can help when you need to cool something quickly. Salt depresses the freezing point of ice and water, so you can make an ice bath with one pound of ice, ½ cup of salt and ¹⁄₃ cup of water. This works well for things like chilling room-temperature alcohol, cooling stews or soups before storage or thawing frozen meat.