We don’t think twice about salt when we grab it from the cupboard, but salt has played a major role in the development of our civilization. In ancient times it was harder to produce salt, and as such became a highly valued trading item. It’s value came from how it could preserve foods, especially meats. In the hot season, meat barely lasts a day or two. Add salt, and you can keep the meat for much longer.
Roads were created just to make the transportation of salt easier in Roman times. Wars were fought for control of the mineral in the medieval times. Taxes on salts brought about the foundations of empires, and led to the demise of others. Without salt, long voyages across the Atlantic would not be possible. What would the sailors have eaten? Imagine not discovering the America’s until refrigeration was invented.
As recently as the 1930’s it played a vital role, when Gandhi famously marched across India to protest the salt tax imposed by the ruling British.
All this was over something we now get at the grocery store for less that $5.
Now we’ve gone the opposite way with salt. We have way too much of it, and a new war has sprung up over salt. This time, it’s trying to keep it out of our food.
However salt is a hugely important ingredient in everyday cooking. Try making a loaf of bread without salt. Oh, it will look fine. But the taste – blech! It’s not worth keeping. The thing is though, it doesn’t take much. 17 grams of salt, about a tablespoon, is all you need for a bread recipe that uses 1 kilogram of flour. You could probably get away with less if you wanted to, but never completely eliminate it.
In culinary school, my instructor for the soups and sauces class loved his salt. Before he would even taste our soups, he would throw in a handful of salt. Keep in mind we made soup by the gallons though. Adding a pinch wasn’t going to make any difference.
There’s a knack to it though. Most of the time you don’t want to taste the salt. If you can taste it, there’s too much salt in your dish (with minor exceptions). Salt will brighten tomato sauces and enhance the flavours. It will even boost the chocolate flavour in brownies and cakes.
What I hate though is hidden salt. Even with all our modern technology, salt is still a key component of preserving foods. There are other things used as well, usually listed as an unpronounceable chemical. But salt is still a key component of most preserved foods.
We all expect a hot dog to be fairly salty and terrible for us. That’s half the fun. But buy a package of tortillas from the store and have a look at the sodium content. One flour tortilla has as much salt as one hot dog. And boy do they last. I cleaned out my cupboard recently and found an old package of tortillas. Weeks later, there wasn’t a speck of mold on them. Try that with the homemade version and see how far you get.
Salt has also been creeping into our cut meats as “seasoning” as well. This isn’t the cold cuts, but the stuff like T-bones and roasts. The chef in me balks at this. How much salt is used? What kind of salt was it? Was it done properly, since doing it at the wrong time can dry out your meat when cooking. For those reasons, I won’t touch pre-seasoned meats.
When I go to the grocery store, anything in a package I try to buy with the lowest sodium content possible. In my kitchen, I should be using salt to boost ingredients, not trying to figure out how to mute it.
Salt is vital in my kitchen without question. However when it comes down to my food, I want to control how much of it is used.