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The science of salting


alwang
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Can anyone point me towards hard scientific information on how salting food (say, a piece of meat) affects the actual "saltiness" (i.e., the perception of salt from a taste standpoint)? I'm looking for answers to questions like:

1) Is saltiness directly correlated with the salt/meat mass ratio? This seems obvious, but it's worth confirming. If I salt a 1 kg piece of meat with 50 g of salt, will it taste the same as if I salt a 2 kg piece of meat with 100 g of salt? Or are there some other variables (meat volume, surface area, etc.)

2) Is salt evenly distributed through the meat? Or is it closer to the surface? If it is evenly distributed, how long does that take?

3) How does the animal the meat came from affect Question #1? Should I salt a pound of beef and a pound of chicken the exact same?

4) How does the cut of meat affect Question #1? Should I salt a fatty filet mignon the same way I'd salt a lean top round? How do bones affect this equation?

Seems like this would be an interesting line of inquiry. Like most people, I currently season meat mostly by feel (since you usually can't taste the product yet), but it'd be nice if I could measure out exactly how much salt I need for a given piece of meat, based on my own saltiness preference.

Edited by alwang (log)

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al wang

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The March issue of Fine Cooking has an analysis of salt chemistry--why it brings out flavor, how it blocks bitterness and enhances sweetness, how it makes meat juicier.

I love discussions about salt. Since I have to limit my salt intake just thinking about salt makes me happy. I used to love salt bagels, salty bloody marys with a side of cheetos....but no more. At family gatherings I would gag on my sister-in-law's cooking, because she doesn't use any salt at all. I still use salt, but very judiciously. I do always salt meat before cooking, but generally use about a quarter of the amount in the recipe.

My tolerance for salt has really changed. The food at many restaurants--and it makes no diff whether it's a dive or a chic joint--is now too salty for me. Oddly enough, when I traveled in Europe last fall, I found the food in Provence to be pretty salty, but the food in Venice wasn't.

So I would agree that salt preferences are very habitual. As for my sister-in-law I have now determined that it wasn't really the lack of salt, she's just a terrible cook; a little sprinkle wouldn't have helped.

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If I salt a 1 kg piece of meat with 50 g of salt, will it taste the same as if I salt a 2 kg piece of meat with 100 g of salt?

To you it might taste the same. To another person, they both might well taste terribly under-salted, and to a third person they may taste horribly over-salted.

I think that's why the phrase "to taste" is so often used with salt.

Sorry, but I think that's what your answers really reduce to.

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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If I salt a 1 kg piece of meat with 50 g of salt, will it taste the same as if I salt a 2 kg piece of meat with 100 g of salt?

To you it might taste the same. To another person, they both might well taste terribly under-salted, and to a third person they may taste horribly over-salted.

I think that's why the phrase "to taste" is so often used with salt.

Sorry, but I think that's what your answers really reduce to.

Actually, I'm not asking whether there's variance in perception of salt between two individuals: I think we all agree there is. What I'm asking is, if the same person is doing the tasting, will those two pieces of meat taste the same. (I also recognize that perception of salt is affected by what you eat beforehand; assume that's all held constant.)

Put it another way, if I've figured it how how much salt by weight I personally like for a pound of meat, can I just repeat that ratio for any other piece of meat? That would be useful to know, regardless of inter-person variance in perception.

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al wang

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I haven't seen any data on how different methods of salting affect taste but I've found as a general rule of thumb that 3% salt leads to about the right amount of seasoning. When I brine something, I use a 2 - 3% brine and whenever I need to salt something liquid without tasting (like a custard which needs to be baked), 3% is a good rule of thumb.

PS: I am a guy.

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Question 1 and 2 go together. Lets say you cut 1 kg of meat into cubes and and put those in 1 litre of water salted with 50 g salt, then those pieces of meat should have the same saltiness as 2 kg of cubed meat ( same cubesize of course ) put in 2 litres of water with 100 g salt, assuming both have the same temp.

If you salt on the outside of a steak however then I don't think there will be enough time for the salt to diffuse evenly through the meat and you will have a system with a concentration gradient of salt in the meat. Now if you take a steak that is double the mass but has the same shape the surface area will not be doubled but increased by a lower factor than 2. If you assume that the salt penetrates the meat with the same speed ( not really correct as I think the salt would diffuse quicker at higher concentrations ), the outer part of the big steak will be saltier.

If you let the salt concentration equilibrate through the steak they will be equally salty however.

The diffusion coefficient will most likely be different between different cuts and types of meat. Same for the equilibrium constant between meat and water if you have the meat in salt water.

Salt would diffuse much slower through bone than through tissue.

As to how large these differences are I can't really say.

Looking at it from a practical point of view, trial and error with a bit of common sense will probably be most effective in getting you the saltiness you want.

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I like the question. Yet, consider all items and not meats alone.

It seems that you are asking what the variables are regarding salt and aroma interellations? When are the variables insignificant?

Below is a random aside about salt I found interesting:

"In some unpublished work, we chose to thermally process (extrude) low and normal salt (NaCl) lots of a cooked cereal base. We then analyzed the volatile profile of the two extruded products by gas chromatography. We found that the low salt formulation contained substantially less volatiles (quantitatively) than the normal salt product. It appears that the salt levels used in extruded cereal products influenced the rate of the Maillard reaction. This observation is important in efforts to manufacture thermally processed low salt foods. It appears that taking the salt out of a food may influence both aroma and taste (saltiness)."

-Flavor Chemistry and Technology, Gary Reineccius

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Bread baking also uses rules of thumb when it comes to salting. 1-2% perhaps?

Much more than 2% in the dough will kill the yeast...even 2% will inhibit the rise, compared to using none..

I figured that out, after forgetting the salt, and getting a really great rise, and then tasting a really flat tasting loaf...

Although I think Tuscan bread omits the salt...

Bud

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The biggest problem is that people perception of salty differs. when I cook for people and season it to the point where it is just right, then almost invariably everyone else finds it salty. Probably the best thing is to just season it to the point where you don't think you seasoned it enough, and let each person adjust to their own taste.

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I find salting one of the more difficult parts of cooking. If salting at the end, I have to continually taste after each pinch to get it right, because if I don't, it goes from underseasoned to salty very quickly. One thing that helps is just to keep salting early and recognize what foods might need to be more salted than others. Veggies for example need to be salted pretty heavily compared to other things.

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