What do we mean when we say salt to taste? Salt, like the water we obtain it from, surrounds us. We find numerous types stuffed on supermarket shelves with differing salinity or saltiness levels. For example, a teaspoon of flaked sea salt may taste less salty when added to boiling water for pasta compared to its more tightly packed ground counterpart. It’s simple maths; more salt means more saltiness. Ground salt may be king in seasoning, but a single gram of flaked sea salt can add textures as a slight crunch you could never achieve with however many teaspoons of ground salt you use. So, how do we know how much salt we need if our only measurement is to taste?
The Importance of Salt
Salt is the common name for the mineral sodium chloride. It’s one of the basic human tastes that allows us to dissect flavours and understand the foods we eat. It’s also used to brine, pickle, and salt foods. This improves flavour and preserves foods during the historically long winters without refrigeration.
Medical professionals have advised us against excessive salt intake in recent years. However, this appears to align with the rise of processed salty foods and prepackaged meals. Salt, though consequential in excess, is vital to the human body. The body can’t store much, so it must be obtained from other sources, such as food.
The body uses salt to maintain blood pressure, help ensure water distribution and the movement of our muscles. Too much salt may negatively impact these tasks, but so can too little. Fortunately, for humans, salt cravings, like sugar cravings, are biologically hardwired into our primitive human brains. Unfortunately for us, the excessive use of both salt and sugar could kill us.
Despite its negative impact, we can’t give it up due to its importance. Its importance stretches beyond our essential health and into another vital part of human survival, food. It’s no secret that salt helps improve the flavour of near enough everything. Just a few pinches of salt can transform the blandest tomato into a juicy extravagant flavour bonanza.
So that’s why we need to add salt to our food, but it’s difficult to determine how much and how little because it’s subjective. A good recipe or chef will always call for salt to taste.
Salt to Taste
We’ve established the importance of salt on the body for health, but it’s equally important in our food. Salt reduces bitterness, one of the tastes we usually find unpleasant. Thus, this allows salt to do what salt does best by bringing out the flavours our palates value. If your next meal tastes flat, as if it doesn’t contain any ingredients, even though you’ve tossed in half your spice rack, try it again after adding a generous pinch of salt.
But that brings another question, who’s doing the pinching? My pinch will be larger than my girlfriend’s. Yet, my friend, who stands nearly half a foot taller than me, has an even larger pinch than mine. My point is with all these types, levels of coarseness, and size of human hands, it’s impossible to determine how much salt is required. That’s why we need to taste the dish over and over again. Every time we add salt, we should taste the dish. Once it tastes good, it tastes right.
Be careful with the amount of salt you add to a dish since salting to taste is supposed to bring out the flavours, not add to it. It shouldn’t taste salty at all. And that’s what the blog means when we call for salt to taste; add enough salt so your food tastes the way it should.
A New Problem
The problem now is determining what right tastes like. And the only answer to that burning question is you. No matter how much salt I put in a dish, it will not taste as nice as you might expect if you’d prefer less or more. Salt to taste is a technique, an idea, a potential problem, an opinion, a preference, and a philosophy that aims to serve delicious food worth eating.
And this philosophy is true of all foods because our taste buds differ in their likes and preferences. After all, no amount of salt will allow my brother to like mushrooms. In contrast, no amount of salt can mask the musky flavour of the overcooked Brussel Sprouts that my mother loves. The best, most expensive cut of wagyu beef, roasted to perfection, can taste bland without a liberal sprinkling of salt. The slowest cooked, melt-in-the-mouth Lamb can fall apart in another way without the seasoned broth. Vegetables and pasta in plain water will taste uninspired and cause many Italian chefs to decry the murder of a dried foodstuff made of nothing but water and flour. Salt isn’t just another ingredient on a list of foods that make a recipe. No, it might be the only one that matters.
Salt to Taste in Many Forms
There a numerous types of salt that come in a variety of shapes, colours, sizes, tastes, and textures. However, a comprehensive list deserves an article of its own. Still, the fact remains each salt has its own place in cooking. As I mentioned in the introduction, flakes of crunchy sea salt can add crunch to a salad of tomatoes, and ground salt will season pasta water perfectly as it dissolves quickly. Pink Himalayan salt, Red Hawaiian salt, and black salt may add colour to dram dishes but smoked salts. Flavoured salts will add more complex flavours that should complement and not overshadow the taste of a meal.
The best way to determine which salts work best for you and specific dishes is to try them. Season with different salts and discover the difference between a fresh juicy tomato seasoned with ground or flaked salt. You’ll experience the same taste with both salts but lose that delicious crunch. And while you’ll still get salted water from flaked salt, the cost of cooking a simple paste will rise significantly. Yet, despite the unlimited salt options available to the modern cook, it’s not the only way to season a dish.
Every family has recipes, and every culture has a different taste profile. Cuisines worldwide vary considerably globally and locally, with every family, village, or farm having its own method of making such classic recipes. Yet, there’s one commonality in it all. They all have salt. These recipes may vary their ingredients and inspire debates among the passionate, the proud, and the perfectionists. Still, they’re all served at their best well-seasoned. Below are five examples of different dishes from around the world, all seasoned with salt in some form.
Parmesan in The Classic Italian Bolognese
A classic Italian Bolognese is a meat-based sauce from bologna in Italy famously served with pasta. Salt is essential to seasoning a traditional Italian Bolognese at the start when softening the sofrito vegetables and when salting the water to boil the pasta. However, Italian Bolognese is finished with a good sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan, an Italian hard cheese famous for its strong savoury taste helping to bring out the flavour of the meat sauce.
Soy Sauce in a Marinade for Teriyaki Chicken
Teriyaki is a Japanese-style barbecue sauce used to marinate chicken, beef, pork, vegetables, and fish. A classic teriyaki marinade commonly consists of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, miring, rice vinegar, and sometimes ginger. It has a strong umami flavour on its own. Still, it mellows when combined with other ingredients, leaving a strong savoury taste with a hint of sweetness. The salt in the soy sauce reduces bitterness, boosting the marinade’s sweetness.
Greek Feta in Classic Spanakopita
On paper, the recipe for a classic Greek Spanakopita can seem simple, and indeed it is. It comprises spinach, feta, melted butter, filo pastry, and select herbs and spices. However, the secret to a delicious spanakopita is the copious amounts of salty feta used to make this dish. Feta cheese is strong, sharp, and very salty compared to other cheese. It’s crumbled over salad for the same reason it’s used here, as its saltiness mellows out as it comes into contact with other ingredients helping to boost those flavours of the vegetables in a classic Greek salad, just as it does in a spanakopita.
Anchovies in a Classic Caesar Salad
Canned Anchovies are packed with salt before being preserved in oil as they spoil quickly. Many consider the Caesar salad an American classic, but it originated south of the border in Mexico. The classic salad utilises anchovies in the dressing as a seasoning, but the final sauce tastes very little of anchovies. Still, an explosion of savouriness coats each crisp romaine lettuce leaf.
Shrimp Paste or Fish Sauce in A Spicy Thai Green Curry
Thai cuisine combines pastes with coconut milk to create fragrant, spicy curries. These recipes are rarely vegetarian as they contain shrimp paste or fish sauce. Like anchovies or Worcestershire sauce, fish paste adds savoury notes that help bring out Thai curry paste’s fragrant, spicy flavours and aromas. Some Western recipes replace shrimp paste with fish sauce, which usually contains anchovies instead of the shrimp used in a shrimp paste.
The Worcestershire sauce in Shepherds Pie
We British might not be famous for our culinary traditions, but Worcestershire sauce adds a depth of flavour to recipes such as shepherd’s pie or cottage pie. It’s made with anchovies and fermented over a long period. It’s said that the inventor made a batch of Worcestershire sauce and found it so disgusting that he abandoned it in his cellar, forgetting about it. A few years later, he rediscovered it and found that he enjoyed this new sauce, having taken on more mellow flavours with a salty edge.
You can follow every recipe featured on this site word for word or use it as a guide, deleting and adding ingredients at your pleasure. You can cook it longer or slower if you please. I’ve posted them as they are and how I’ve enjoyed them myself. However, change them, improve them if you must, but I promise none will taste delicious without a few crystals from the sea. This applies to any approach, whether you weigh out every ingredient or if you thrive on your instincts. After all, the measurements here are guides; the only one that matters is the one listed for salt. And that’s always to taste.