About 8100 years ago people began using the most important ingredient in any kitchen; salt. Salt has a rich and varied history. It has been used as a seasoning, a preservative, a currency, and reasons to go to war. In most Slavic countries offering someone salt and bread when they come into your home is a sign of hospitality; in some cultures salt is used in funeral rites. Fun fact: Salt is the only rock we eat. Getting enough salt in our diet is very important for staying healthy, as long as we don't over due it. But, it is the culinary use of salt I am interested in today, more specifically, the use of salt to season our food.
Recently I had lunch at a local eatery and, as is usually the case with most restaurants I go to, the food was bland, which is the reason for today's post. I cannot overemphasise the important role salt plays in making a dish taste good. I heard one chef say that cooking without salt is like eating in black and white; whereas cooking with salt is like eating in color.
The 5 primary tastes of the tongue are: 1) Sweet, 2) Bitter, 3) Sour, 4) Umami, and 5) Salty. Every dish the cooks makes must find the right balance of all of these tastes in order for the dish to be made well. Since this is a post on salt I'll just stick to that. I don't how many times I have heard cooks, both professional and amateur, proudly proclaim to me that their food is so good that they don't need to add any additional salt; that the natural amounts of salt present is just enough. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and bullshit! You can make a masterpiece of a dish. You can make the best dish the cooking world has ever known, but if you don't salt it properly, the world will never know. The dish will be bland and boring. I would guess that 90% of flavor problems can be solved with proper salting. Salting is the first problem to be solved when adjusting the seasoning in a finished dish. You simply cannot move onto the other problems if the salt issue has not been dealt with.
So, how do we know when there is enough salt in the dish? This is one of the most difficult techinques to learn in all of cooking. It takes 1000's of dishes and years of practice to master. It helps to learn it from someone who has mastered it, but I'll try to give you the basics here.
First there is the matter of what kind of salt to use. I am partial to the bigger flakes of kosher salt. I like the grain size, the taste, and the versatility. The bigger grains don't dissolve as quickly and so form sort of a nice crusty-crunch on the outside of meats. If I want smaller grains I just have to grind the salt gently between my fingers as I sprinkle it on whatever I'm salting. Kosher salt also has a nice clean taste. Some people prefer sea salt and I can't argue with them on this. I actually prefer grey salt, which is a salt that comes from the north of France that is made by evaporating the water out of the Atlantic Ocean, for seasoning fish as the natural brininess of the salt pairs well with the fish. But I do not like, and strongly council you against using, iodized salt.
Second, salt throughout the entire process, not just at the end. All you want to do at the end of the process is adjust the seasoning to it's final state. By seasoning throughout you are ensuring a more rounded seasoning because the salt is allowed time to cook out it's sharpness. Sometimes a salty sharpness is welcomed in the finished dish, which is a different problem, but not every time.
Third, when it comes time to adjust the final seasoning here is what you do: As you taste the dish you are looking for a lack of flatness. This might sound a bit strange, but I think of it as licking cardboard. When something is flat, cardboard is the first thing I think of. I know it's no longer flat when that imagery is gone. For you it might be something different, but that's what works for me. Lack of flatness is the best way to describe it because sharpness is a completely different problem to be tackled once the dish has been salted correctly. Look for this lack of flatness towards the back sides of your tongue; if it needs more salt you will feel it there. You will know that it is salted correctly when you no longer taste the flatness there. A word of warning, however. You don't want to taste the dish more that 5 or 6 times in the final seasoning process. After 6 or so tastes the palate begins to go numb and if you are not careful you can over season without realizing it. Try to keep it under 5 tastes if possible.
Under salting is a problem that a vast, vast majority of cooks out there do not tackle, but it is the most important problem if you want you food to taste amazing. Proper seasoning is one of those characteristics that separates great cooks from mediocre cooks. Learn to adjust the salt correctly and you will automatically be cooking better than most.