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Archive for August 28th, 2007

The Subtleties of Salt

I’ve been experimenting with pesto lately, and tonight I finally succeeded–that is, except for its overwhelming saltiness.  True, I wasn’t exactly following the recipe, but I distinctly remember adding precisely the amount of salt prescribed.  Perturbed, I scrutinized the recipe again.  Oh.  There it was: 1 tsp kosher salt.  Argh!  I used my special, fine sea salt.

You may already know why my dish turned out too salty, but I bet you don’t know all of the cool stuff I just learned on the internet about kosher salt.  I certainly didn’t, and I’m generally familiar with different salts.  So, here’s a little primer:

Lesson #1: Kosher salt, by volume, is less potent than regular table salt (or any other finely ground salt).  As you may have noticed before, it’s much coarser, which means that it doesn’t pack as finely.  When a recipe calls for 1 tsp of kosher salt and you need to substitute table salt, you should only use 1/2 tsp.  Likewise, if you’re using kosher salt instead of table salt, simply double the amount called for in the recipe.  (By the way, if a recipe doesn’t specify a kind of salt, it’s asking for table salt.)  This is precisely why my pesto turned out entirely too salty.  I substituted finely ground sea salt for kosher salt without adjusting for volume.  <beating head against wall>

Lesson #2: Kosher salt isn’t called kosher because it’s safe for Orthodox Jews to eat.  This was news to me!  Actually, all salt is technically kosher.  We should really refer to kosher salt as koshering salt, because it is used to draw the blood out of meat during the koshering process.  The koshering technique requires larger granules of salt that will not dissolve too quickly–thus, the coarse, flake-style salt we call “kosher.”  (Incidentally, this reveals an oft-ignored principle of cooking: you should always salt your meat after cooking it; otherwise, the salt will draw out too much moisture.)

Lesson #3:  Chefs prefer kosher salt.  Well, I knew that, and you probably know that too, but here’s why.  They have two good reasons.  First, unlike table salt, kosher salt does not have any additives, like iodine or caking agents.  Many insist that these pollutants, particularly iodine, add a metallic overtone to salt, so they prefer the pure stuff.  Second, chefs generally measure with their fingers and hands (a pinch of this, a handful of that), and kosher salt is much easier to grab with one’s fingertips and disperse evenly.

Of course, despite its many advantages, kosher salt doesn’t do every job equally well.  Generally speaking, you should not use kosher salt when baking.  Unless it is a recipe that gives ample time for mixing wet and dry ingredients together (which is rarely the case, as this usually results in tough cookies or pancakes or pastries), the salt won’t fully dissolve, and you’ll end up with distinct granules in your finished product.  I have definitely made pancakes like this.  First bite: Mmmm….sweet.  Second bite: ewwww….salty.

It’s also nice sometimes to finish a dish with a fancy sea salt, rather than kosher salt.  Sea salts have different flavors, depending on where they’re harvested, and this can add a special touch if you use it just before serving.

Finally, one note of caution: you absolutely should NOT stop eating iodized salt altogether unless you take an iodine supplement.  Iodine is a necessary nutrient, and, unless you eat lots of sea vegetables, table salt is likely your only source of it at present.  Even the iodine in your salt is likely not enough, but I’ll save that for another post.  😉  

 I hope you found this information helpful and, perhaps, interesting.  Maybe not.  I could be the only one I know interested in the subtleties salt.  That wouldn’t surprise me, really.  In any case, thanks again for reading!

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