If you love eating, but don’t always love cooking, here’s a simple ingredient hiding right under your nose that can take your home-cooked meals to restaurant heights. Learn how to use it to make your food taste amazing instantly.
What is salty?
Saltiness is one of the basic tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and umami. We’re hardwired to detect saltiness in food because it signals the presence of important minerals. That’s why adding salt magically makes your food taste better.
Before you take it for granted that everybody knows you should add salt when cooking, the details are murky.
Restauranteurs tell us to add more salt than we think we should because most home cooking is under salted, and therefore bland. Yet, doctors are telling us to eat less salt. When I asked my friend Lindsay, whom I rely on for a dose of home cooking reality, she told me she heard that she should only add “salt when you’re done cooking” or the flavor goes away.
What’s the truth?
Let’s explore why salt is magical to understand how salt interacts with food and how you can use it to make your cooking taste better.
Why do we add salt to food
Salt is a rock that’s made up of sodium and chloride ions (NaCl) (many salts exist in the world but table salt is predominantly NaCl). Salt is essential for humans. The sodium and chloride, along with trace minerals typically found in salt, such as potassium, iron, and calcium, are necessary for our nerve and muscles to function. Chloride helps balance our fluids and makes hydrochloric acid in our stomachs.
Our body craves salt because we need it to survive, according to Harvard School of Public Health. It makes sense that we have taste receptors that clock into salted food and makes us think this tastes good.
There’s plenty of research that suggests salt works as a flavor enhancer. Researchers, Paul Breslin and Gary Beauchamp, discovered that salt can suppress bitterness. Salt can “enhance sweetness, mask metallic or chemical off-notes, and round out overall flavors while improving flavor intensity”, according this book Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States.
Another reason humans have added salt to food for thousands of years (and why food manufacturers do it today) is that salt is a great preservative. Bacteria can’t thrive in high concentrations of salt. This makes cured meats, fish, and preserved vegetables last a long time, especially without refrigeration.
Finally, we add salt to foods and during cooking for the chemical reactions. Salt is necessary for the Maillard reaction, caramelization, and browning, which make food taste complex and flavorful.
Salt is important when using yeast because it slows down yeast growth, which helps gluten formation and developing an even rise.
Salt is also helpful for brining and other chemical processes that tenderizes meat and locks in moisture.
Now that you understand the role of salt, let’s uncover how you can use it in your cooking.
Salts come in different sizes
You’ve probably noticed that there are at least a dozen different salts when you step into the spices aisle of your local grocery store.
Did you know that these salts not only have different colors and flavors but also different grain sizes, which will contribute to the level saltiness in your food?
Here’s a list of the most commonly found salts in most supermarkets (high-end food boutiques will likely include even more variety than what’s listed here) from the smallest to the largest grains.
- Popcorn salt
- Iodized salt
- Table salt
- Sea Salt
- Sel gris
- Kosher salt
- Smoked kosher salt
- Fleur de sel
- Haiwaiian salt
- Himalayan salt
- Onion salt
- Garlic salt
- Bagel salt
- Maldon salt
NOTE: Himalayan and Haiwaiian salt come in different grain sizes from finely ground to large crystals to solid blocks the size of copier paper. These salts are prized for their color and have been trendy in recent years.
The different grain sizes of salt make a big difference in how salty your food will taste if you salt by volume instead of by weight.
TIP: If tend to over salt your food, use a bigger grain size of salt, such as coarse kosher salt instead of fine-grained table salt. There are many fans of Diamond Crystal kosher salt, who love this brand because they claim the grain sizes are much bigger than Morton’s kosher salt, which make it easier to season without over salting.
How to season for texture
According to Paul Breslin, professor at Rutgers University, you can only taste salt after it has dissolved in your mouth (usually in saliva). Therefore, you can layer different sized salts to deliver a sensory experience. Think about sprinkling fine-grained salt and Maldon salt flakes on top of your food.
First, you’ll taste the fine salt because it dissolves quickly. Simultaneously, you will experience a satisfying crunch when you bite into the Maldon salt flakes.
Eventually, the flakes dissolve and you get a prolonged hit of salt. You can use this layered texture to add a salt pop to all kinds of food, like steak, caramels, and baked goods. It’s a fun way to elevate your cooking to restaurant levels.
The frugal approach to expensive salts
Here’s my take on an affordable way to cook with different salts, some of which are expensive.
I use table salt or kosher salt at the beginning of cooking because they’re cheap salts designed for use in large quantities. This makes them the most affordable option for salting water, salting meat and vegetables, or pickling, especially if you are discarding the salted water.
I use these salts in the middle steps of cooking and baking because you won’t see or taste the salts.
Finally, I save expensive salts for sprinkling on top of finished dishes and desserts. This is where I get the most bang for my buck as I will taste and feel the finishing salts.
For flavored salts, I usually mix my own. I notice bagel salts where salt is combined with onion powder and herbs are more expensive than if I combined those separate ingredients. It’s not hard to use a leftover spice jar to mix my preferred combo of seasonings and herbs. Plus the jar lasts for a while.
Kosher vs. iodized table salt
I frequently read chefs recommend only kosher salt for cooking. In particular, Diamond Crystal kosher salt. I understand the benefits — hollow interior and bigger grains. But Diamond Crystal is not stocked on any grocery shelves in 2020 in Boulder (trust me, I checked them all) because they have a packaging challenge. And I’m not about to buy 3 pounds of salt for $12 on Amazon just because it has a cult following.
Is my food really going to be horrible because I’m cooking with Morton’s kosher salt or iodized table salt? Does iodized salt really taste metallic?
I’m from New Zealand where we don’t have much of a Jewish population. I had never met someone who was Jewish until I moved to the U.S. I certainly didn’t grow up with kosher salt in the supermarket. Our food tastes fine in New Zealand, and nobody uses kosher salt there.
I’ve also never noticed table salt tasting weird because of the anti-caking agents. I certainly don’t taste table salt and think, “Oh, there’s a strong hint of iodine.” Maybe I’m just not a super taster? Anyhow, I buy table salt because it’s cheap, and I use it for boiling vegetables. I like that it has iodine because I don’t trust myself to eat enough seafood to meet my iodine needs (and I don’t want a goiters, no offense to people who have one).
Mark Bitterman, interviewed in Food and Wine (and not to be confused with Mark Bittman), backs me up. He says kosher salt is “one of the greatest sins against salt.”
What ingredients are already salty?
If you’re eating store-bought or restaurant foods, you may notice they can be very salty. Food manufacturers add a lot of salt during processing or cooking because it preserves food and makes it taste better.
Whether you’re cooking at home with some store-bought ingredients or you’re eating out, it’s important to know which ingredients already contain high concentrations of salt. This allows you to balance out by adding blander foods or remembering not to add extra salt.
Here is a list of foods that are typically very salty if you purchase the store-bought versions.
- Just about all processed and packaged foods
- Cured meats & cold cuts (salami, sausages, bacon, ham)
- Store-bought rotisserie chicken
- Brined meat (brined chicken, brined turkey)
- Canned fish (canned tuna, sardines)
- Smoked fish (smoked salmon)
- Shrimp (source)
- Seaweed (roasted seaweed)
- Canned vegetables (peas, carrots, corn, etc.)
- Canned beans (chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans)
- Store-bought broth & gravy
- Chicken or beef broth
- Boullion cubes
- Homemade gravy (could the store-bought gravies taste umami because of the MSG?)
- Sauces & condiments
Check out this comprehensive list from UCSF Health (University of California San Francisco) on high- and low-sodium foods.
These salted foods are not “evil”. There’s nothing “bad” with high-sodium foods. You just need to be aware that they’re highly salted and find ways to accommodate your cooking around them.
TIP: Layering these different salted ingredients is a great way to add salt and complexity to your dish in addition to layering different textures of salt. Consider grating Parmigiano-Reggiano on your eggs or sprinkling capers on your salad as a way to add salt.
What foods and drinks benefit from salt?
Follow this advice for cooking with salt. Season in the beginning for the benefit of aiding chemical reactions. Then allow diners to season at the table. Or you can sprinkle extra salt before serving. This means all foods benefit from salt, even if it’s a pinch in a chocolate muffin or a banana bread recipe.
Bitter foods, like low-quality coffee, grapefruit, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and dark chocolate, benefit from salt, which tones down the bitter notes and enhances the sweetness (or aromas in the case of coffee).
Let’s learn about more specific cases of how to use salt when cooking.
How to salt vegetables
There are two main benefits to salting vegetables:
- Draws out water: Eliminating excess water improves dishes like quiche, dumplings, zucchini noodles, and spaghetti squash. Too much water seeping out of the vegetables could destroy your pie crust or dumpling wrappers and dilute your sauces, making them bland.
- Salted vegetables taste better: Sweet corn boiled in salted water enhances its sweetness. Vegetables, such as broccoli, green beans, and sweet potatoes, boiled in salted water taste more flavorful than vegetables boiled in unsalted water.
TIP: Salt your vegetables if you want to draw out excess water. Chop your vegetables into the desired sizes and sprinkle salt to cover the surface. Wait 20 minutes. Then dab the water off the vegetables with a paper towel or kitchen towel. If you’re salting finely chopped vegetables like cabbage, you can wring the chopped cabbage out between cheesecloth or muslin to remove the water.
How much salt to add to pasta water
Vegetables aren’t the only foods you should boil and blanch in salted water. Salted water seasons pasta, potatoes, tofu, and eggs. How much to salt pasta water is one of the most controversial topics on the Internet.
When I boil water for pasta, I add about 1 tablespoon of salt or a small palmful into about 1 L of water. If you need more precision, I love this Epicurious rule of thumb: the 10/100/1000 rule. That’s 10 g (0.35 oz.) of salt for every 100 g (3.5 oz.) of pasta in 1000 mL (or 1 L/1 quart) of water.
I find this rule of thumb works remarkably well for salting water for vegetables too. And it doesn’t matter whether you put salt in cold water or boiling water. There are a few differences but it doesn’t matter for most home cooks (leave a comment if you want to know the differences according to Harold McGee).
WARNING: Some chefs, like Samin Nosrat, recommend salting water to be as salty as sea water. That’s a salinity of 35 ppt. I tried this much saltier water by adding 35 grams (2 heaping tablespoons) of table salt to 1 L (1.1 quart) of tap water when I boiled green beans. It was too salty. I could barely eat the beans. Maybe she didn’t mean it literally but sea water was simply too salty for me (and yes, there’s different salinity in different oceans and seas so YMMV).
Salt doesn’t melt in fat
Last year, I was rushing to make a garlic chili oil sauce. I threw a handful of kosher salt into the hot Canola oil and watched the salt swirl in the oil until every grain sunk to the bottom of the pan. And there they stayed.
Alex explained to me that salt doesn’t solve in fat because salt is ionic. It only dissolves in polar solvents like water. This means salt doesn’t melt in fat. So how do you cook with salt when you’re cooking in fat or oil?
If you’re frying, salt should be mixed into your batter or directly into the food you’re frying. Sprinkling salt into the oil as if you were seasoning boiling water will do nothing to season your food.
If you invest in flaky salt like expensive Maldon salt to sprinkle on top of pan-fried tofu or grilled steak, you should coat the salt flakes in oil first, so that it remains crunchy. Or else your salt will melt into a salty puddle on top of your tofu or steak.
If you make herb butter or garlic butter, use salted butter, which has salt mixed into the water (15% of butter is water). Unless you intend to have crunchy salt crystals in your herb butter.
Add salt to your stir fry after adding vegetables to draw out water and lightly steam the veggies. Or don’t add salt at all if you want the heat to blister the skin like in Garlic Green Bean with Chili Sauce stir fry recipe.
This is why many Cantonese stir fry dishes call for soy sauce at the very end to season the dish before plating, instead of stir frying the veggies in a pool of soy sauce (unless soggy veggies are your thing).
Use salty ingredients in your oil-based salad dressings and dips. A Western-style salad dressing is usually one part oil to one part water. The salt easily dissolves in the water and with enough shaking, you can emulsify the salad dressing so the oil and water don’t separate.
But if you’re making a largely oil-based salad dressing or an oil dip like rosemary and oregano in olive oil, you can get creative about adding salty ingredients to the mixture. Like grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and anchovies (the basis of salt for Caesar salad dressing). Or chopped olives into olive oil with fresh herbs.
Finally, if making garlic chili oil in large quantities (ahem, note to self), use fine-grained salt when frying the garlic in oil before adding in the remaining two cups of oil.
How to salt desserts
As mentioned, salt is a flavor enhancer, which means it makes aromas and flavors pop. When used properly, salt is not supposed to make food taste salty.
Notice, there’s usually 1/4 teaspoon of salt in your banana bread recipe. Salt is especially important in chocolate dessert recipes because salt reduces the bitterness that your taste receptors detect, making chocolate taste more “chocolate-y”.
Experiment with fleur de sel or sea salt by sprinkling it on top of your desserts. Specialty salt on top of desserts offers the sweet-salty crunch that’s recently popular on rich sweets, such as caramels, brownies, ice cream, truffles, and caramel corn.
Sweet recipes that contain salt
FAQ about salt
Is salt bad for you?
Salt is necessary for survival. The question is how much is too much? I defer to Harvard School of Public Health because they’re qualified medical and scientific professionals. Their site says:
Most of the salt in our diets comes from commercially prepared foods, not from salt added to cooking at home or even from salt added at the table before eating.Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Salt and Sodium”
This means if you’re eating too much salt, it’s probably from store-bought or restaurant foods. Cooking at home would only help with your sodium intake, not hurt it, because you can carefully control how much salt you add.
As always, ask your doctor for advice on your specific health situation.
I also found it incredibly helpful to read about the mechanics of how salt can lead to poor health in the same Harvard article. It’s not like eating automatically leads to high blood pressure immediately. There’s a mechanism of increased fluid and blood necessary to dilute sodium in the blood stream over long periods of time that leads to wear and tear on the body.
Why do you add salt to boiling water?
The main purpose of adding salt to boiling water is to season the water. When you boil vegetables, pasta, potatoes, and other foods in the salted water, it seasons your food, making it taste better. There’s a small benefit where the salt will also raise the boiling point of the water making it hotter. But the small amount of salt you’re adding is probably negligible, so the primary reason for salting water is for seasoning.