Thursday, May 19, 2011

To shake or not to shake, Salt

     Sea , Kosher, pickling and good old iodized,  our most common seasoning, salt.  It has a long history as a preservative and a taste enhancer. There are not a lot of recipes out there that don't call for at least a pinch. So what exactly is this substance we put in so many of our dishes? What does it do? Why all the fuss?

     Salt, sodium chloride, is a naturally occurring mineral and is essential to life as we know it. Found all over the world, it has many tastes and colours that it picks up from different trace minerals. It is a natural part of all our food and water. Salt regulates water content/fluid pressure in the body and sodium is one of the electrolytes that facilitate electrical signaling in our nervous system. Too little is almost as bad as too much. Here's the rub, how much do we need to stay healthy?

     The consensus among most of the world's health agencies is about 1500 mg/day. A teaspoon of salt is about 2,300 mg. The upper limit of consumption before it poses a possible health risk is 2,300. The average Canadian uses about 3,400 mg, more than double what we need and well over the upper limit. This increases the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and obesity just to name a few.

     Why does salt pose such a problem? Most people consume 75% of their salt/sodium from hidden sources, not the salt shaker. Google sodium based food additives, you'll be amazed just how many there are and where they show up; sodium nitrate, common preservative, sodium bicarbonate, baking soda and baking powder. It is in everything from fruit juice to baked goods.

     What does salt do? It's main function is as a preservative. It extends the shelf life of a product. It accentuates taste, saltiness is one of our basic taste senses. In baking it toughens gluten, providing a better crumb. It also regulates rising in dough, apparently you can't make bread with out it.

     Personally, I've never been a huge fan of salt. It isn't that I don't like the taste (crispy salt skin chicken from Chinatown hmmm), just not all the time in everything. Many recipes and cooks are too heavy handed. If you have read through the recipes, you have noticed I omit/reduce it in most of my cooking. I have sea, Kosher, pickling, iodized and a little bag of some designer stuff Ferd picked up in my cupboard and I use all of them.

    Reading on the subject, there are all kinds of opinions on the use of salt in cooking. Some claim it enhances all the sweet tastes in dessert cooking, I disagree. I have never had anyone miss it in my desserts. They have never noticed a difference if I use it or not. Yes, I occasionally use my friends as guinea pigs.  No one has ever described my "sweets" as bland, flat or oily tasting and trust me, my friends aren't that nice LOL. If they didn't like it. I'd hear about it.

     I have read chocolate isn't the same with out it, huh? I like a little heat with chocolate, some chile pepper but I'll pass on the salt.

       In savoury cooking, I find many people over do it. It's so easy, prepared marinades, salad dressings, soup bases, tomato sauce etc are all heavy on salt. Once it's in there it is next to impossible to get rid of. I use a little because there really is a taste difference between cooking with or adding after but I like to have the option. I'd rather add a bit than scrape that salty feeling off my tongue.

     Where do you weigh in on salt? Are you a shaker? Is your cupboard full of tiny bags of designer multi coloured crystals? Leave a comment and let me know what you think on the subject of salt.

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