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What's up with all the salt?


Vinotas
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Following our dinner at Momofuku Ssam Bar the other night, I remarked to DutchMuse how salty many of the dishes seemed to me. He concurred, and this got me thinking. I've been finding that many restaurants are really over-salting their food lately, and I'm not the only one to notice.

Here in NYC, this has almost become an epidemic. Now, I like salty food (heck, my signature dish is a salt-crusted standing rib roast), but there has to be some balance. At a certain point salt overwhelms the very nature of the food you're trying to flavor. And I know that salt is a flavor-enhancer, but I think chefs are starting to get out of control.

So is it me? Is my palate becoming more sensitive to this? Or is it a trend, as certain other respected palates have suggested? Is it only in NYC or are folks in other places noticing this? And why would chefs need to turn to salt when many of the restaurants I eat in use organic, or locally-grown, or at least high-quality ingredients, that should have enough flavor on their own?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Cheers! :cool:

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I think it's a correction that has gone too far. In the 1990s, when I was really becoming familiar with fine dining here and in France, it was obvious when you traveled from New York to Paris just how much saltier the food in Paris was. The food here was undersalted, the food there was salted such that the flavors came out but it wasn't oversalted. I think chefs here have been figuring out, and customers have been accepting, that food tastes better when salted well above 1990s levels. But as with any new-found knowledge, it can be taken too far. I agree that right now a lot of New York chefs are oversalting -- especially these Millennials who came up through kitchens at a time when we were transitioning away from undersalting. They had the message that salt is the most important thing in the universe hammered into them. Now they often use too much of it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Could it sometimes be how they are salting rather than amount? Anyone who's ever taken a cooking class has been taught to season as you go-in layers and even with finishing salt at the end, you have adequate seasoning/flavor without that much total sodium. I wonder if some aren't doing this and just trying to compensate for not enough during the cooking process by over-salting at the end (not just finishing salt). Comes out just tasting salty. One cooking instructor told me that many cooks tend to develop tolerance, and a type of palate burnout (especially among those who smoke) and they tend to over-salt more.

Mark A. Bauman

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One cooking instructor told me that many cooks tend to develop tolerance, and a type of palate burnout (especially among those who smoke) and they tend to over-salt more.

Smoking and alcohol consumption does dull one's sense of salinity... I'd be curious to know which NYC chefs smoke (or their line cooks) and whether it correlates with the levels of saltiness in their food.

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One cooking instructor told me that many cooks tend to develop tolerance, and a type of palate burnout (especially among those who smoke) and they tend to over-salt more.

Smoking and alcohol consumption does dull one's sense of salinity... I'd be curious to know which NYC chefs smoke (or their line cooks) and whether it correlates with the levels of saltiness in their food.

Hah! From what I've seen, most of them smoke/drink/other to excess. :raz:

Seriously, though, I like salty food as much as the next person (much more so than sweet foods, though I do find many foods in the US sweeter than in Europe, even in savory dishes), but as Fat Guy said there does seem to be a massive over-correction going on. It's gotten to the point where I'm thinking of saying "no salt" with every order. This would be against my better judgement as I usually prefer not to tell chefs how to cook their food (except to say black and blue for my steaks).

Cheers! :cool:

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One cooking instructor told me that many cooks tend to develop tolerance, and a type of palate burnout (especially among those who smoke) and they tend to over-salt more.

Smoking and alcohol consumption does dull one's sense of salinity... I'd be curious to know which NYC chefs smoke (or their line cooks) and whether it correlates with the levels of saltiness in their food.

Do you have any scientific support for this?

I ask because the last time I did some poking around as to the effect of smoking on flavor perceptions (flavor being the combined impression of taste, smell, temperature, mouthfeel, common chemical sense, etc.) the indications were that smoking does not particularly affect taste. Here's what I wrote:

Interestingly, there appears to be little evidence that smoking has an effect on the taste receptors. Smell is a different story, however. Smokers do seem to have a reduced ability to identify certain odors. One major factor seems to be that exposure to smoke causes increased death rates of olfactory sensory neurons to such a degree that this overwhelms the olfactory epithelium's ability to regenerate. The result is lower numbers of olfactory sensory neurons, resulting in a less acute sense of smell. Since smell is often regarded as the most important contributing sense to flavor, it makes sense that quitting smoking can have a big effect on the intensity and quality of flavor.

Since salt is one of the five tastes detected by the taste receptors, I don't think smoking should affect sensitivity to salinity.

With respect to alcohol, I don't think I've ever read anything scientific demonstrating that habitual alcohol consumption affects the sensitivity of taste receptors. Exposing the tongue to high proof spirits can have a temporary anesthetizing effect on the taste receptors, but this is relatively short lived (very cold temperatures have a similar and similarly short-lived effect).

--

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Everything at Thanksgiving tasted too salty to me, but everyone else at the table swore it was fine. I've been on a low-sodium diet for about 15 years, so I think it must be that a "normal" amount of salt just tastes wrong to me, since I'm so used to undersalting. Maybe I'd better start putting a saltshaker on the table when I have guests - were they just too nice to tell me all this time? :sad:

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Special salts really only have an effect on flavor when they are used as "finishing salts" and find their way into the taster's mouth undissolved. Kosher salt is simply regular mined salt milled to a larger grain size, and sea salts are by law something like 99% sodium chloride. The unique sensations of eating different sea salts come primarily from the size and shape rather than the chemical composition of the salts.

--

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Ah, restaurant oversalting has become my personal misery, but I save a lot of money by not eating out much. Seems to me the American palate is used to a very high level of salt, partly due to reliance on processed food. I like salt, but I have had to cut back on it in the last few years, routinely undersalting everything I make--if you go by recipe specs--for health reasons. As a result, going to a restaurant can be like a visit to a salt lick. The ability to build or lose a tolerance for salt (sugar and hot pepper too) has to be pretty basic. However, I have been to pricey places lately where the food was so salty it was inedible, and it wasn't only me who thought so. I thought salt was supposed to enhance and deepen flavor, not become the dominant character (except maybe on a salt bagel.)

Perhaps many eGers who cook at home more often than they eat out are also people who use lots of fresh flavorful ingredients and have naturally cut back on salt because the food doesn't demand so much. Just a few crystals of good seasalt is all a great tomato needs. Is it us or is it the chefs? Perhaps a bit of both.

In Provence and Venice this fall I found the food less salty generally than it is here. Interestingly, there was less salt in Venice than in France and the food was by no means bland; maybe they let the seafood speak for itself. I also think certain cuisines tend to be saltier, altho I wonder if they are only saltier in this country. I can no longer eat Chinese out--it's far too oily and salty. The upside is I learned to make really good potstickers! Vietnamese food on the other hand is often not so salty. Japanese restaurants work well too, especially sushi, since the soy is on the side and I just don't dip.

Smoking? I don't see how it could NOT affect your tastebuds. It affects mine even when the smoker is ten tables away at an outdoor cafe. The one unpleasant aspect of dining al fresco in Provence. Why are the French still puffing away? Okay, another topic, another time.

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Special salts really only have an effect on flavor when they are used as "finishing salts" and find their way into the taster's mouth undissolved.  Kosher salt is simply regular mined salt milled to a larger grain size, and sea salts are by law something like 99% sodium chloride.  The unique sensations of eating different sea salts come primarily from the size and shape rather than the chemical composition of the salts.

But I think that's where a lot of the salting is done - at the finish.

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Everything at Thanksgiving tasted too salty to me, but everyone else at the table swore it was fine.  I've been on a low-sodium diet for about 15 years, so I think it must be that a "normal" amount of salt just tastes wrong to me, since I'm so used to undersalting.

I don't think there's a "normal" amount of salt that works for everyone.

90% of the restaurants I've been in the U.S. produce food that tastes too salty to me.

90% of off the shelf processed food tastes too salty to me. E.g. national bread, wraps, potato chips (with some exceptions), canned soup, salsa, ham, sausages, pancakes and chocolate cake. I get low sodium versions whenever I can.

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Everything at Thanksgiving tasted too salty to me, but everyone else at the table swore it was fine.  I've been on a low-sodium diet for about 15 years, so I think it must be that a "normal" amount of salt just tastes wrong to me, since I'm so used to undersalting.  Maybe I'd better start putting a saltshaker on the table when I have guests - were they just too nice to tell me all this time?  :sad:

There is a definite and physiologically supported "attenuation" factor with regard to perception of saltiness. In other words, it is scientifically supportable that you get used to salt, and conversely that if you've become used to low salt, that normally salted items will taste very salty to you. Our palates become acclimated to the level of salinity that's typical in our food. Anyone who's gone back and forth between low sodium diets and more standard ones have seen this. So to Special K, it's very likely that the standard Thanksgiving food would taste salty to someone on a low sodium diet. And yes, you may want to take that into account with your guests in the future:) I've been caught in that trap and really didn't love eating at friends' houses who were on low sodium kicks for whatever reasons (medical or superstitious or other).

That said, there may be some truth to an increased progression on the saltiness of food in NY restaurants. Though I must admit that I often don't notice it, I have seen my mother complain of excessive saltiness quite a few times in the last few years, and she's traditionally someone who likes her food very salty. This may be because I eat out much more often than she does and my palate is more acclimated to these increased salt levels.

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I thought several of the items I had at Hearth last night were aggressively (possibly over) salted. I used to have a bigger problem with salt at the Momofukus, but I actually think they've gotten much less heavy handed.

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I said: Maybe I'd better start putting a saltshaker on the table when I have guests - were they just too nice to tell me all this time?  :sad:"

And LPShanet replied: "And yes, you may want to take that into account with your guests in the future:) I've been caught in that trap and really didn't love eating at friends' houses who were on low sodium kicks for whatever reasons (medical or superstitious or other)."

Oh, dear! They probably were rolling their eyes behind my back when I mentioned that I was worried that everything tasted "a little too salty!" (I cooked the meal, but I had help - now I'm thinking that things got salted when I wasn's looking!) When I had to cut back on salt (hypertension) I tossed all the saltshakers. Guess I'd better go buy a new one!

LPShanet, thanks!

K

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I had dinner at Craftsteak last night and everything but the meat was too salty! Onion rings--too salty. Ceasar salad? Too salty. Hen of the woods roasted mushrooms? Too salty.

We spoke with the chef who was very receptive.

Please, chefs--stop with all the salt!

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I said:  Maybe I'd better start putting a saltshaker on the table when I have guests - were they just too nice to tell me all this time?   :sad:"

And LPShanet replied:  "And yes, you may want to take that into account with your guests in the future:)  I've been caught in that trap and really didn't love eating at friends' houses who were on low sodium kicks for whatever reasons (medical or superstitious or other)."

Oh, dear!  They probably were rolling their eyes behind my back when I mentioned that I was worried that everything tasted "a little too salty!"  (I cooked the meal, but I had help - now I'm thinking that things got salted when I wasn's looking!)  When I had to cut back on salt (hypertension) I tossed all the saltshakers.  Guess I'd better go buy a new one! 

LPShanet, thanks!

K

Glad to help. You could also enlist a civilian (read: non sodium restricted) taster for a neutral opinion before serving. But having a salt shaker (or good Portuguese rock salt) around can't hurt.

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I have to say, I would prefer if chefs allowed us the luxury of deciding how much salt we want on our dishes. This can only be an improvement on the current situation.

Another trend I notice lately is the lack of salt/pepper shakers on tables. Do you not trust us to know what we like? Are you that afraid that we'll abscond with them?

Enough with the salt!!!! :angry:

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I have to say, I would prefer if chefs allowed us the luxury of deciding how much salt we want on our dishes.  This can only be an improvement on the current situation.

Another trend I notice lately is the lack of salt/pepper shakers on tables.  Do you not trust us to know what we like?  Are you that afraid that we'll abscond with them?

Enough with the salt!!!! :angry:

I'd like to see salt on all the tables too. But no chef is going to send out an under-salted dish so that you can decide how much salt you want. That's an idea for a concept restaurant.

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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I think part of it has to do with the types of salt used. Sea salt and Kosher salt seem to be used more these days and I find them more pronounced - but in a good way.

I haven't found an oversalting problem... and I only use shakers at diners...

In Japanese dining, different kinds of salts, from French grey salt to mineral salts to dead sea salts to hawaiian salts, have been a bit of revelation given that this was the realm of almost exclusively Soy sauce for salting in the past, and it's been a welcome one, adding new flavor and texture to everything from sushi to yakitori. I noticed this starting around 2000 - Seki, Shimizu and Yasuda all will present with various salts instead of soy. They also work at places where customers don't drown nigiri sushi rice in wasabi-infused soysauce

Edited by raji (log)
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I have to say, I would prefer if chefs allowed us the luxury of deciding how much salt we want on our dishes.  This can only be an improvement on the current situation.

Another trend I notice lately is the lack of salt/pepper shakers on tables.  Do you not trust us to know what we like?  Are you that afraid that we'll abscond with them?

Enough with the salt!!!! :angry:

I'd like to see salt on all the tables too. But no chef is going to send out an under-salted dish so that you can decide how much salt you want. That's an idea for a concept restaurant.

OK, then at least a reduction in the salting in the kitchen would be nice. But I do think it's telling that shakers have disappeared from table tops lately.

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I have to say, I would prefer if chefs allowed us the luxury of deciding how much salt we want on our dishes.  This can only be an improvement on the current situation.

Another trend I notice lately is the lack of salt/pepper shakers on tables.  Do you not trust us to know what we like?  Are you that afraid that we'll abscond with them?

Enough with the salt!!!! :angry:

I'd like to see salt on all the tables too. But no chef is going to send out an under-salted dish so that you can decide how much salt you want. That's an idea for a concept restaurant.

OK, then at least a reduction in the salting in the kitchen would be nice. But I do think it's telling that shakers have disappeared from table tops lately.

I used to think it was arrogance on the part of the chef, the disappearance. Now I wonder if it might have more to do with the interior designers or maybe they're just streamlining the front of the house.

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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Salt as you go. Salting lightly in the beginning, and as you continue, you can get your flavors developing (that is called seasoning). The chronic oversalting is probably due to adding salt to un-seasoned food at the end, which doesn't add to flavor development and may not even be fully dissolved/distributed. What may seem like a heavy hand at the table, probabaly results from the taste-add salt-taste-plate treatment food gets before it hits the table. How long does it take kosher salt (always used in commercial kitchens worth their salt) to dissolve? Some chefs use salt water in varying concentrations to season their food. The impact is relatively immediate for changing the taste of a liquid, or emulsion.

Finishing salt is also a culprit. Good fleur-de-sel is good, but expensive. I like large grey salt that is somewhat broken into smaller grains for its impurities, which add complexity. But it's not like salt on a pretzel, it shouldn't be more than 5-7 grains. I use it on sliced meat or fish, where seasoning cannot reach, and sparingly....

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FWIW, we had a late meal last night at Momofuku Noodle Bar, and nothing was overly salted - we had the entire left side of the menu, as a matter of fact.

When we dined at the Kitchen Counter at Beacon, I asked for a dish of sea salt so that I could season the Kobe beef cooked on a rock. I often do this when I find that my food is not properly salted - though salting at the end is a totally different thing than salting at the beginning of and during the cooking process.

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