You’ve probably heard the term “salt to taste.” It’s a catch-all phrase that illustrates everybody’s tastes are a little different. The tongue has been shown to recognize five main taste sensations (though, recent studies suggest it is capable of picking up on many more flavour ‘categories’. The five basic tastes are: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. You know umami better as glutamic acid, or MSG flavour. But the fact that salt is one of the five basic tastes doesn’t fully explain why we use it more often than any other of the basic tastes. It’s how salt interacts with the four other basic tastes that make it such a staple in the kitchen and on virtually every dining table we sit at.
Taste vs. Flavour
It may seem confusing, but taste and flavour are two different terms – at least in scientific terms. At lower levels, salt can counteract bitter and sour taste properties of foods and even mask their less-desirable metallic or chemical attributes. By adding the taste of salt, the flavour of the food improves. On the other side of the salt flake, salt also serves to enhance, or heighten, sweet taste properties of foods, thus, also improving their overall flavour. When used more liberally, it will also suppress sweetness and let umami taste properties take over. A previous study of salt used a bowl of soup as a test dish for how salt impacts flavour. It found that tasters perceived the soup to be thicker, more aromatic, fuller and better balanced overall than it was on its own or with the addition of potassium glutamate. That may not come as a big surprise, but it does show that salt can also provide additional enhancements beyond just taste. Those enhancements can extend to aroma and texture as well.
Chemically Treated or Additive Free?
Regular table salt doesn’t come out of the earth the same way it is packaged. It is chemically processed, or refined, and bleached to remove impurities and create the bright white colour. This chemical processing eliminates as much as 80% of the essential minerals found in natural sea salt. Iodine and anti-caking agents are then added before it hits your plate. Take a look at the table salt label and you may or may not find food preservative and anti-caking additives such as:
- Sodium ferrocyanide
- Magnesium oxide
- Tricalcium phosphate
- Sodium aluminoscilicate
- Silicon dioxide
Or a host of others additives that help give regular salt a bad name. These chemical additives and preservatives help table contribute to ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, muscle cramps and even anxiety and depression according to some studies. Sea salts, even those mined from deep beneath the earth from ancient seas, are typically additive-free and all of those extra minerals help balance blood sugar, aid in digestion and in regulating the body’s fluid levels, and can help prevent muscle cramps. As a bonus, unrefined natural sea salt simply tastes better and is more appealing on the plate. It’s why you’ll find it a well-stocked item in almost every quality chef’s pantry.
High-quality sea salts and flavour-infused salts can also add dynamic appeal to a dish on many levels. A pinch of Maldon’s Sea Salt, with its crunchy pyramid-shaped flakes, can add instant texture in addition to a sea spray of taste and transform a dish from ordinary to extraordinary. In short, “salting to taste” can help balance all of the competing and complex flavours of a dish, make a single ingredient more palatable or assist in showcasing its inherent flavour properties. As with most things, though, moderation is important. A pinch of salt may be vital to a dish’s overall flavour, but be mindful of how big your pinch is. Because salt is such an intense taste property, there’s a definite point of no return before a dish can become unpalatable due to the salt itself. When brought to the forefront, salt can easily overpower every other taste property. Sure, there are always a few kitchen tricks and gimmicks that might be able to salvage a slightly over-seasoned dish, but the reality is that it’s hard to recover from. It’s best to under-season when cooking and finish off with a little pinch so you can “salt to taste.” See our entire line of high-quality, natural sea salts here. feature image via flicker: Amanda Slater