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When and How Do You Salt Your Food While Cooking?


Chris Amirault
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I've been trying to watch my salt, not for health reasons but because my family has made it clear that, to them, I often oversalt things. I realized that I salt at various stages of preparation, and have been trying to think this through.

There's the liquid cooking medium, whether it's salted water for blanching or salting the olive oil in which I'm going to saute onions.

There's presalting the item itself, salting a piece of steak prior to going in the pan or brining.

There's during cooking.

There's after cooking with finishing salts.

Trying to hit the right level of salt has been tricky, but this multiple salting process also has me thinking about perceptions of saltiness when eating. I don't know quite how to wrap my mind around it all, and thought it might make a good topic.

How do you approach salting your food?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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If I have salted the liquid cooking medium (water in my case - I never thought to salt cooking oil)or presalted the item itself before it goes in the pan, I skip the "during cooking" salt and go fairly light on the finishing salt.

I believe I have mentioned before that I have been accused of undersalting food, :smile: but I have to agree with your family. I think you are oversalting a tad.

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Sorry. I made it sound like I do all of those things every time. That was a list of all of the possible times.

Of course, I didn't say how much salt I use in each instance. Perhaps I'm not using enough!

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Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It seems to me that there are two, maybe three, distinct reasons to use salt; Seasoning, Moisture Management (presalting steaks, brining), and maybe a textural element (pretzels being a prime example).

For seasoning, I'd say that I like to put off adding salt until the final stages of cooking. It's better to add it after everything has reduced to the proper consistancy, and you can taste the effect of any salt that came to the party on the backs of other ingredients (e.g. ham). Of course that's not always possible with things that get mixed before cooking - like bread or meatloaf. But generally, I put it off as long as practical.

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I'm southern and have Yankee inlaws so I feel your pain here, Chris. My wife's mother hardly salts anything (and thus produces very bland food)and she thinks everything I produce is oversalted.

I've lately focused more on getting everything salted a little bit from the start and then adjusting a little at the end. For example, I brine nearly everything except beef but I try not to get the protein quite fully salted with the brine. All veggies are very lightly salted as well.

I also leave out salt in any liquids or sauces to begin with so that reducing will not render them overly salty. I adjust them in my final tastings.

I find that the above gives a more balanced salting of the dish and prevents me from oversalting when making adjustments at the end. I attribute this to the fact that I am not going to take a test bite with a profoundly undersalted component that is not representative of the overall saltiness of the dish.

P.S. This is a very difficult subject to write about without sounding repetitive.

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If you look at what your family is saying from a different perspective, is it possible they're saying you don't have enough other flavors to balance it out, like fat or sourness?

I agree here too sometimes a bit of white wine vinegar is all a dish needs to overcome the saltiness.

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Presalting meats or brining I salt very liberally, during cooking taste test as much as you can and salt accordingly, and when it comes to finishing salts less is better because you can always put the salt on the table and let people do what they want.

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I usually hit the saltiness right on or just under and am actually surprised because I am not a cook who measures. My step mom oversalts to the point where your mouth gets an almost sour taste or face wrinkling reaction as you take the first bite. She now generally holds back and adds more salt to her portion at the table. 'Course she accuses me of being heavy handed with garlic!

I use Kosher salt and generally pinch between thumb and forefinger and lightly sprinkle. I do taste often and just keep adding layers of salt as needed. One thing I learned was, if possible, to let the "taste" cool off because something super hot, at least to my simple palate, is not going to accurately reflect taste including salt.

I also agree that the balance of sweet, sour salty (and hot;)) is key, but that is another huge discussion about balance. Often when I think something needs more salt and is a bit flat I do try a few drops of acid like vinegar first.

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I have come from an under-salting background, and particularly as I use less and less convenience products (i.e pasta sauces) I have had to adjust my salting. Sometimes i'm really surprised and quite hesitant at how much salt I'm putting in something, but then I remember that none of the ingredients have salt "built in". I still like to undersalt a little bit both for healthiness and also because people can adjust to taste. My house isn't a restaurant, and not *every* meal needs to be bursting with salty flavor, just like super-fatty and sugary meals aren't necessarily everyday foods.

An eG member made a great suggestion a while back to have a bottle of salty water mixed up that you could use to adjust salt levels. Since it takes a bit of time to dissolve and distribute evenly, I think this is a clever idea to make salt-adjusting easier (of course it wouldn't work for everything though).

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hrm I salt water for pasta SOMETIMES depending on what I'm going to be saucing it with. I really do not like the oversalting we find in most modern foods (like chicken why is a chicken coming presalted? isnt that my job?) If you are doing say a anchovy based sauce or a flavorful one then don't bother or keep the water really like diluted sea water (which depending on where you live can be quite salty so sorry if this doesn't work).

IMO you should salt the ONIONS not the cooking oil. I usually heat the pan, throw in olive oil, then onions, fry to coat with oil (pretty quick) THEN salt lightly (depending on what it's used for). Are you using kosher salt? Generally I find with kosher or sea salt you REALLY do not need much... I usually use less (supposedly some chef said use more but heh) then what it calls for. Especially with sea salt!

IMO you seemed to be reaching for the salt shaker way too much. I may use it right when I start and then adjust the salt right before I serve. That seems to make sure that I'm not oversalting.

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One thing I learned was, if possible, to let the "taste" cool off because something super hot, at least to my simple palate, is not going to accurately reflect taste including salt.

Good point. I have been fooled by this many times, usually when rushing to get food on the table. If I don’t have time to let the dish cool down, I try to undersalt and let each diner adjust salt at the table.

An eG member made a great suggestion a while back to have a bottle of salty water mixed up that you could use to adjust salt levels. Since it takes a bit of time to dissolve and distribute evenly, . . .

Another good point. I have oversalted when I hurriedly tasted the dish before all of the salt crystals have had a chance to dissolve. Yet another reason to prefer fish sauce!

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If I remember right you, Chris, you like cooking Asian or Thai food right? Remember that with most asian foods there is no real recipe. Then we often taste as we season to get the right balance of hot, salty, sweet, sour, bitter. A great Thai cook is one that when the food is brought to the table needs know condiments even though Thais LOVE condiments and Thai food is meant to be flavor to your taste kind of thing. Usually Thais will serve fish sauce, lime juice, and chilis as a condiment with EVERY meal so that someone can add more salt, sour, hot as needed. One thing I noticed living in the West is that America at least relies TOO much on salt as the ONLY condiment/spice/seasoning. When I stop eating junk (fast food or processed) then I REALLY notice how over-salted the food is here. I had a whopper recently after not having one for about 3 years and had to throw it out. WAY too much salt! You couldn't taste ANYTHING else besides it (what they want?). I tend to flavor in my regular cooking (mostly japanese) very lightly as Japanese main flavors are dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. Most of the recipes I have are from the kansai area (less salty more natural food flavors as opposed to kanto which is saltier more robust flavors) and call for flavorings that do not mask the taste of the natural ingredient and just enhance.

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Pretty much what everyone else said-

Proteins that will be grilled, roasted or sauteed get a good sprinkle whilst coming to room temparature prior to cooking.

If the protein is going to be braised or stewed just a little salt prior to browning it.

Sauces, soups anything that involves reduction- near the end of the process, less seems to be more.

We probably go through 1 box of kosher salt a year most of it ends up in pasta (or potato or blanching) water.

Finishing salt on raw veg especially- a little maldon salt on veg is sublime.

Jon

--formerly known as 6ppc--

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Since cutting back on salt several years ago I too wonder about the most effective point/s at which to salt food. It would be great to know at what point in the cooking process the food makes best use of the salt. I usually follow a recipe and salt at the times specified during cooking, but I almost always use about half the amount called for in things like soups and stews. I do salt meat before grilling, but when Bobby Flay says 1 Tablespoon I use 1 tsp. Some chefs seem to salt several times during the cooking process, but I just don't find that necessary.

I know one thing for sure. Anyone who cuts back on salt ends up complaining to their companions in a restaurant that the food is too salty. I don't go out much any more, because I just don't enjoy my meal if I find it too salty. Chefs who have restaurants almost always oversalt in their books, so I figure accordingly. I don't salt my stocks at all any more, assuming that whatever I'm going to make with them will get salt during and probably after cooking. When it comes to sauteeing veggies, I find that a little salt and pepper is helpful at about the midway point, or when the veggies have wilted or are thoroughly hot.

I salt the water for regular pasta but never for Asian pasta, which already has a ton of salt in it. I've taken to using finishing salt since often my food is slightly undersalted, but at least I can control it that way, and it doesn't take much, as someone mentioned above.

I use Diamond Kosher salt during cooking, and only use the gray salt as for raw foods or finishing. I'm typically cooking for two, not four, but my box of salt lasts at least six months. And that's cooking almost every night, plus bread baking.

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I should note that my family now accuses me of undersalting....

I think that the perception of saltiness is as much a part of salt as anything. Salted fats that coat an item you've sautéed make the item seem more "salty" even when it isn't; balancing that fat's saltiness with, say, the salt content of blanching water is important.

And, yes, using acid appropriately is also important.

I don't want people thinking that I serve everything in a salt crust! The idea here is to talk about when, and why, you salt when you do.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I rarely brine. Typically when contemplating adding salt during cooking, I think carefully about the other ingredients I'm adding to the dish. Capers in salt, olives, anchovies, bacon or pancetta, soy sauce, fish sauce, canned tomatoes, etc all have salt. If I'm using these, I typically won't add any more salt during cooking. At the end of cooking, I always taste and adjust, not only with salt but also with sour (vinegar, tamarind, etc), sweet, and piquant (hot), if appropriate. I think it comes from cooking Thai food with the balance of sweet, sour, salty, hot.

I do salt water for cooking pasta because the pasta is the focus of the dish not the sauce. You should be able to eat the pasta unsauced and still appreciate it as a food: that means using salt. The sauce is a condiment not the main feature and it should be balanced within itself. Note that I differentiate between pasta (Italian) and noodles (Asian).

I also salt onions while I am softening or browning them as I feel it gives a better result.

My philosophy is that it is better to undersalt and adjust the seasoning just before serving rather than oversalt and have to lift the whole flavour profile to cover it up.

Typically my palate seems to fit what most people enjoy and they do not use additional salt or pepper. Unless, of course, they are auto-condimenters who are going to shake or grind before tasting no matter what I do.

Edited by nickrey (log)

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

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Wow. I go through one box of Diamond kosher salt each month, minimum.

That doesn't seem crazily excessive (but when I visited Parma, they laughed at how salty I like things, and said it was because I grew up in Tuscany, so I may not be the best judge), I use about a box of salt a month, but we do eat rather a lot of pasta.

I salt the water for pasta, but not for rice (I like soy sauce on it, and that doesn't work so well if it's already salty). I always brine poultry, but don't add salt to the oil or butter I rub over it before roasting.

The water here is really hard, which seems to slow down the rate at which salt dissolves, so if I salt to the level I like right at the outset, things can end up too salty, even for me. I've also noticed that salt is less perceptible to me in hot food, than in the same food once it's cooled a bit, but this may be another aspect of the slow dissolve I mentioned.

If I'm making something that has salt cooked into it, I use the amount in the recipe or suggested by my judgement (in the latter case, I use a bit less than I feel inclined to); if it's what you might call 'surface salting', I add just enough to be perceptible, as close to the beginning as possible, then, when it's nearly done, taste, and perhaps add a bit more.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
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mscioscia@egstaff.org

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I've been persuaded by the idea of salting as early as possible where practicable. Meats especially where the salt has time to be absorbed. Obviously, not with broths and sauces that will be reduced, etc. The flavor seems different, and to me, better than that of foods salted at the last minute. I'm learning cookery as I go, so the concept of salting early may be a bunch of hoooey, but so far it seems to me to have helped.

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Pretty much what everyone else said-

Proteins that will be grilled, roasted or sauteed get a good sprinkle whilst coming to room temparature prior to cooking.

If the protein is going to be braised or stewed just a little salt prior to browning it.

Sauces, soups anything that involves reduction- near the end of the process, less seems to be more.

We probably go through 1 box of kosher salt a year most of it ends up in pasta (or potato or blanching) water.

Finishing salt on raw veg especially- a little maldon salt on veg is sublime.

Wow. I go through one box of Diamond kosher salt each month, minimum.

Are we discussing the same size boxes here? DC comes in a rectangular tall box that holds a LOT, and a cylindrical box that holds 13 oz. I prefer the canister, since it fits on my kitchen shelves, whereas I have to really maneuver the large box to remove or replace it.

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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Salt pasta water, always, and heavily.

Salt veg while they're sweating/carmelizing, absolutely.

Salt meat before (large chunks) or during (ground) browning, yes.

Salt to "dry brine" (poultry, beef roasts), yes.

Salt when the sauce starts to cook, yes.

Taste and correct when it's about ready, always.

Unless its something that's going to reduce, then I hold off until the end. And I use a light hand when there's inherently salty/sodium rich ingredients in the dish (olives, capers, anchovies, cheese, etc.). Then I usually skip the inital salt, and wait until the end to "correct". But I still salt the pasta water, if the other product is being used as a pasta sauce.

And I always put a bit of salt in my rice, polenta, grits, couscous and other grains.

--Roberta--

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