Cooking with Salt: Part 1

Hello Dear Heart,

how have you been? As you know, I have been away traveling this past month and have had awonderful time. It is so very important, Hon, to make the effort to find the simple and happy things around you every day. This autumn has been outrageously sweet and I do not recall the markets holding so many beautiful vegetables so late into the season. I think of you often, Hon, and hope that you are well. The fall leaves have been sobeautiful, but most of them are now gone. I am certain that I can see winter just on the horizon. I did a delightful drive along the shore of Lake Michigan into the Door County peninsula. The apples are crisp and delicious, just like the clear, clean autumn air. 

With the holidays soon to be on our doorsteps, Dear Heart, I want to talk to you about salt. It is such a staple of cooking, that we must understand it so that we can properly respect it. Aren’t we all like that, Hon? To begin, you will need to know the chemical properties of salt. As peculiar as it may seem, common salt is made from two very common elements: sodium, a silvery-white metal that looks much like aluminum, and chloride, a poisonous gas. Wouldn’t it seem that you would want to keep that as far away from your food as possible? But, when they are combined and used in the proper way, they are magic for food. Be aware, Dear, that the word “salt” can mean several things. In cooking, what we mean is sodium chloride. The mineral, which can be found in natural deposits, is also referred to halite. The term “salt” or “salts” in chemistry can refer to a number of other compounds and not just sodium chloride. I won’t talk about those any further here.

Salt can come from many sources, but it is essentially the same thing. Except, Dear, for the impurities. Now, I wish to stop at this point to say that I do hope that I am not frightening you. All this talk about salt being made up of dangerous substances and impurities can make it seem to be the last thing you would want to cook with. But the magic of salt is that it is essential for life in all animals, and the impurities can add certain color and taste that improves the taste of food.

Salt can be made by evaporating salt water, usually from the sea. This kind of salt is often called “sea salt” or “fleur de sel”. Salt is also mined from underground deposits, but this is usually sold as common table salt. Salt obtained from evaporated sea water is usually sold as gourmet, or specialty salt, because of its unique color or origin. Most mined salt deposits originated from evaporated ancient sea water. 

Unrefined or rock salt, may be found in a range of subtle blushing hues. I have a precious little bag of coarse pink salt from the island of Kaua’i where it was made locally from evaporated sea water. 
The local reddish volcanic clay gives it its distinctive color. They are like semi-precious stones. It also has religious significance to the Hawaiians; I use it sparingly and only on special occasions. Rock salt is not always used for food, but is refined to make it better suited as a food seasoning. Table salt is usually white and has been pulverized into smaller grains. Some “refined” table salt also contains additives to prevent it from caking or are necessary nutrients (such as iodine) that humans need as part of a healthy diet. Kosher salt and canning salt lack these.

When you are purchasing salt, you may wish to consider the size of the crystal, the source and how you will be using it. Coarse salt packs more of a punch when your tongue hits it, but it also tends to keep its flavor concentrated in one place around the salt crystal. Fine salts rapidly dissolve and spread their flavor throughout the dish. Very fine salts are best used on dry foods, like popcorn and nuts. Coarser salts are best applied to a wet or sticky food surfaces, so that their flavor will be strongly assertive and in one place on the food. For example, a few grains of coarse salt on top of a pastry or frosting.

Next time, Hon, I will chat with you about how to use salt in cooking. Until then, Kisses!

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