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Thoughts from the Farm: The Most Important Ingredient

Hey there local food eaters,

Just wanted to start out by saying that if you haven't signed up for the CSA yet this season, signups are still open and prorated monthly. You could still get an August delivery at most locations if you sign up today!

Last week, I wrote about my thoughts on Samin Nosrat's book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.

Today I will share the lessons I've learned from this book on SALT.

Samin writes, "James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, 'where would we be without salt?' I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. If only one lesson from this book stays with you, let it be this: Salt has a great impact on flavor than any other ingredient. Learn to use it well, and your food will taste good."

Amen to that!

So how do we use it well? Samin repeats over and over in each section, that it's not about using more of something, but using it better. So she doesn't want us to salt more, but salt better. What does that mean?

First, she goes over the flavor of salt, and the various types of salt. If you buy from North Mountain Pastures, you know that we have always been purists about the salt we use, choosing high quality unrefined himalayan sea salt in all of our sausage, bacon, and other naturally cured meats. That choice was made for health reasons, as we wanted to use a salt that had a range of naturally occurring trace minerals. Samin's primary concern is the taste and texture of the salt, and how it behaves in the cooking process. She goes over how different types of salt are made - "though all salt crystals are produced by evaporating water from saltwater brine, the pace of evaporation will determine the shape those crystals take."

While I was reading this book, we were at the beach. It was my kids' idea to fill a quart jar with sea water, and try to make our own salt. Leila kept saying, "then we can make our own cured meat with our own salt!" We brought it home with us, intending to leave it in a pan in the sun to evaporate, but after a few days of high humidity and no change, we had to use technology, so I put it in the dehydrator. The kids were fascinated to check on it multiple times a day, until all the water was gone. We scraped the quite coarse chunks off of the plate, and got approximately 3 Tablespoons, from one quart of sea water!

This was interesting because Samin talks about tasting the salt that you use, and make sure that it is "clean" tasting, free of any unpleasant flavors. This homemade sea salt did NOT taste clean to me, very minerally and strong. Hmmm... what is in you, Atlantic Ocean water of the Jersey Shore?

Samin really likes kosher salt because it dissolves quickly in water, and is inexpensive for every day cooking. More on that in a minute. This is interesting - she recommends Diamond Crystal brand over Morton kosher salt. She explains the significant differences in the way the are processed (Morton: rolling vacuum evaporated salt, Diamond Crystal: evaporation and crystallization in an open container of brine). She says that diamond crystal readily adheres to foods, crumbles easily, and is less dense than Morton's. She says that by volume, Morton's is almost twice as salty! Who knew that "kosher salt" is not even consistent from one brand to the next.

The reason that she likes a quick dissolving salt, as is emphasized repeatedly, is that you can taste it right away, which makes over-salting less likely. In this way, it is more forgiving, and user friendly.

She explains that salt affects the way a food tastes, because our tongue can detect saltiness. But also, it affects the flavor, which is a nebulous combination of taste, aroma, and sensory elements such as texture, appearance, and temperature. "Since aroma is a crucial element of flavor, the more aromas you perceive, the more vibrant your eating experience will be. This is why you take less pleasure in eating while you're congested or have a cold. Remarkably, salt affects both taste and flavor. ..salt unlocks many aromatic compounds in foods, making them more readily available as we eat."

Here is an experiment in salting: she suggests tasting unseasoned chicken broth, and really experiencing its flatness. Then, add salt a little bit at a time and taste to sense the salt and other flavors: "the savoriness of the chicken, the richness of the chicken fat, the earthiness of the celery and the thyme. Keep adding salt, and tasting until you get that zing! This is how you'll learn to salt 'to taste' When a recipe says 'season to taste,' add enough salt until it tastes right to you."

Listen to this: "Salting isn't something to do once and then check off your list; be constantly aware of how a dish tastes as it cooks, and how you want it to taste at the table. At San Francisco's legendary Zuni Cafe, chef Judy Rodgers often told her cooks that a dish might need 'seven more grains of salt.' Sometimes it really is that subtle; just seven grains can mean the difference between satisfactory and sublime. Other times, your polenta might require a handful. The only way to know is to taste and adjust."

She goes over the science of osmosis and diffusion, to explain the way that salt works in food. Both chemical processes are naturally occurring crossing of cell walls by water and salt to seek equilibrium. This is the why and how behind brining, wet or dry. She writes, "sprinkle salt on the surface of a piece of chicken and come back twenty minutes later. The distinct grains will no longer be visible: they will have started to dissolve, and the salt will have begun to move inward in an effort to create a chemical balance throughout the piece of meat. We can taste the consequence of this diffusion - though we sprinkle salt on the surface of the meat, with the distribution that occurs over time, eventually the meat will taste evenly seasoned, rather than being salty on the surface and bland within." With time, she explains, salt also dissolves protein strands into a gel which allows them to absorb and retain water as they cook, which makes for more tender and juicy meat. This effectively also slightly protects against, or at least gives a greater margin of error for overcooking.

I just have to throw in here, that I experienced something new over the weekend at our awesome Silver Spring MD site host Steve's house - salting thick steaks (not from NMP) with super coarse himalayan sea salt. We have this salt around sometimes, just for eating, because I never thought you could cook with it other than dissolving it in water. He used these big salt chunks to salt the steak a couple of hours ahead. The salt dissolved and was absorbed into the meat, and what salt that hadn't disappeared left a little bit of textural crunch and flavor on the outside. Brilliant, right?!

Samin goes on, "Now I can tell every time I taste meat that hasn't [been salted in advance]. The best way to experience the marvels of pre-seasoned meat for yourself is with a little experiment: the next time you plan to roast a chicken, cut the bird in half, or ask your butcher to do so for you. Season one half with salt a day ahead. Season the other half just before cooking. The effects of early salting will be apparent long before the first bite hits your tongue. The chicken salted in advance will fall off the bone as you begin to butcher it, while the other half, though moist, won't begin to compare in tenderness."

There are so many more nuggets of info and wisdom, that I recommend checking this book out at your local library.

Here is a summary of my favorite practical tips about using salt:

  • Salt meat ahead of time for optimum flavor and texture. The time ahead is determined by the size of the cut. So a whole chicken would be 24 hours or more in advance. If it is broken down into pieces, you can salt for 8-12 hours. If you want to eat the chicken now, break it down into small pieces and salt for an hour, or simmer in salted broth. Many well known chefs and food writers including Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan have sworn by salting ahead as the key to cooking delicious meat.

  • Dissolve salt in the cooking liquid (water or broth) for soup, pasta, rice, beans, potatoes or any vegetables right at the start. This allows the vegetables to maintain more of their nutrients, and absorbs salt into the food. I used to salt rice or soup at the end, to taste, and I've been playing around with salting at the beginning instead - seriously, there is a difference.

  • Choose the type of salt to fit the food. With salt that will mostly go down the drain, as in cooking water for pasta or boiled vegetables, use cheaper and quick dissolving kosher salt (Diamond Crystal brand), and experiment with using more than you think you need. For other salting, use unrefined sea salt of the variety that you prefer.

  • Pay attention to when you salt and with how much, and adjust with experience. "The next time you're seasoning a pork loin for roasting, pay attention to how much you use, and then take a moment when you take your first bite to considewr if you got the seasoning right. If so, commit to memory the way the salt looked on the surface of the meat. If not, make a mental note to increase or decrease the amount of salt next time."

  • Learn to salt to taste. "Abandoning precise measurements when using salt requires an initial leap of faith. When I was first learning how to cook, I always wondered how I'd know when I'd added enough. I wondered how I'd avoid using way too much. It was discombobulating. And the only way to know how much salt to use was to add it incrementally and taste with each addition. I had to get to know my salt. With time, I learned that a huge pot of pasta water required three handfuls to start. I figured out that when I seasoned chickens for the spit, it should look like a light snowstorm had fallen over the butchering table. It was only with repetition and practice that I found these landmarks. I also found a few exceptions: certain pastry, brine, and sausage recipes where all of the ingredients are precisely weighed out don't need constant adjusting. But I still salt every other thing I cook to taste. You already possess the very best tool for evaluating how much salt to use - a tongue. Conditions in the kitchen are rarely, if ever, identical twice. Since we don't use the same pot every time, or the same amount of water, the same size chicken or number of carrots, measurements can be tricky. Instead rely on your tongue, and taste at every point along the way. With time, you'll learn to use other senses to gauge how much salt to use - touch, sight, and common sense can be just as important as taste."

  • Use your hand to salt, not a shaker, for more nuanced and even salting (with practice). Think pinches, palmfuls, and "wrist wagging" to spread evenly.

  • Salt early and often. This doesn't mean MORE total salt, just earlier in the cooking process, and possibly more frequently. I've been trying this out with stir fries and salads, adding a flicker of salt with each ingredient, instead of all at once as an after thought at the end. Cucumber salad has never been better in our house :)

Have fun salting!


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