The Salt Story
Salt is a white crystalline odourless sharp-tasting substance, which is used as a condiment, and preserving agent. Of all flavourings, salt is the most elemental.
The importance of salt can also be demonstrated by the fact that it has been used instead of money. The word "Salary" is derived from the Latin word Salarium, referring to the direct payment of salt as wages to soldiers.
The careful use of salt for seasoning is one sign of a good cook. Salt is usually added at the beginning of cooking, but with discretion; if too much is added at the end of cooking, the raw salt taste will be dominant. In soups or sauces that are boiled to concentrate the flavour, the salt will become stronger as the quantity of liquid reduces. Salty ingredients such as bacon or cheese can also be a trap since they will indirectly salt a dish. A dish that has been over-salted is hard to remedy. The effect may be balanced by adding a bland ingredient such as cream, milk, rice or potatoes. A soup or sauce can be diluted at the last minute with milk or water, and then thickened with arrowroot or corn flour.
Salt is almost indispensable in baking bread and pastry and can improve the flavour of cakes by highlighting their sweetness. Salt is sometimes used to draw out liquid, which is why meat is soaked in brine to preserve them. Watery vegetables such as cucumber are sprinkled with salt to draw out liquid and soften them; others like aubergine are salted to remove the bitter juices. The cut surfaces of meat, especially red meat, should never be salted in advance of cooking, or the surface of the meat will be too moist to brown.
Salt is used in the manufacture of pickles, and cheese, and in the preserving and curing of fish and meat products. Brine is used extensively in refrigeration and cooling processes. Water softening equipment uses salt, which exchanges sodium ions for those of Calcium and Magnesium in the water being treated.
Salt changes food, by drawing out water, blood and other impurities. In doing so, it preserves them.
Uses for salt
The basic processes in which salt plays an important role are:
It is the movement of a solvent (water) through a semi-permeable membrane in order to equalise the concentration of a solute (salt) on both sides of the membrane.
When you apply salt to a piece of meat, the fluids inside the cell travel across the cell membrane in an effort to dilute the salt on the other side of the membrane. Once there is more fluid outside the cell than in, the fluids return to the cell's interior, taking with them the dissolved salt. Once the salt enters the cell, it can kill off harmful pathogens, and that is the essence of salt-curing foods.
In order to keep food safe, and appealing to eat for long periods of time, it is important to remove as much excess water as possible. Applying salt to food can dry them effectively, since the salt tends to attract the free water, making it unavailable to microbes.
When left unchecked, the process of fermentation would completely break down the food. Salt is important to act as a control in this process since it affects how much water is available to the enzymes. Like bacteria and other microbes, enzymes cannot live without water. Salt uses up the water, and thereby prevents fermentation from getting out of hand.
Curing: Cure is the generic term used to indicate brines, pickling or corning solutions or dry cures. When salt in the form of a dry cure or brine, is applied to a food, the food is referred to as cured, brined, pickled or corned.
Types of salt
Seasoned salt: This is refined salt containing several spices including Oregano and Black Pepper. It can be used in all savoury and meat dishes.
Himalayan salt: This salt is procured from the east Punjab, Pakistan, and often used to cook seafood on top of the salt block.
Table salt: Rock salt, obtained from underground deposits, is usually refined and especially treated to prevent caking - magnesium carbonate is added to help make it run more easily.
Crystal rock salt: Obtained from underground deposits, this salt is less refined than table salt.
Sea salt: This is produced by evaporating sea water. The process is more expensive than salt produced from mines. Sea salt comes in fine-grain or large crystals. Many of these salts are refined and use some of the same additives as table salt.
Sour salt: Sour salt, or citric salt, is not salt at all but crystallised citric acid extracted from lemons or limes; it gives tartness to some Middle Eastern and Jewish dishes. It is used to add an extra tart flavour to sour dough and rye breads. It may be used in canning to prevent fruit from turning dark.
Kitchen salt: This is refined rock salt, with no additives, most commonly used for pickling or curing meats.
Rock salt: This is a salt that is purified by a process similar to sea salt, boiling down and crystallising the saline to varying degrees of fineness to produce cooking or kitchen salt, and table salt. It is a large crystal salt that has a slightly grayish colour. It is less refined and still contains minerals that are removed from normal table salt. Rock salt has a few culinary uses such as in mechanical ice cream makers, and is sometimes used as a bed for serving certain types of shellfish.
Black salt: Named Kala Namak in India, it is really a blend of minerals characterised by a strong sulfur odour. It is commonly used in snack foods in North India.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG):
It is flavourless in itself but adds flavour to other foods. It is used as a salt substance.
Tenderising salt: Ordinary salt containing 2-3 % papain. It is for tenderising meat, and for domestic use only (prohibited in butcher's shop, delicatessens and restaurants).
Iodised salt: A mixture of table salt and Sodium Iodide, and sold as table salt.
Kosher salt: Pure refined rock salt because it does not contain Magnesium Carbonate, it will not cloud items to which it is added. Kosher salt is required for "Koshering" foods that must meet Jewish dietary guidelines.
Some useful information:
Adding salt to water will raise the temperature at which it boils and lower the temperature at which it freezes.
Though we need some salt in our diet, excess consumption is unwise. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure.
Salt is a terrific flavour enhancer, helping to reduce bitterness and acidity, and bringing out other flavours in the food.
Adding salt to bread dough controls the action of the yeast and improves the flavour. Bread made without salt will have a coarser texture and a blander flavour than bread made with salt.
Try sprinkling salt on citrus fruit, melons, tomatoes, and even wine to enhance flavour.
Adding a little salt balances, the flavour of sweets like cakes, cookies, and candies.
Boiling eggs in salted water makes them easier to peel.
Adding a pinch of salt (preferably non-iodized) to cream or egg whites before they're whipped increases their volume and serves as a stabiliser.
Salt is a mineral, so it can be stored indefinitely without going stale. It won't taste any fresher if you grind it with a salt mill.
Salt has been used for millennia as a preservative for meats, fish, cheese, and other foods. It works by absorbing moisture from the cells of bacteria through osmosis, which kills them or leaves them unable to reproduce.
Salting slices of eggplants helps draw out the bitter juices.
Sprinkling salt on meat before broiling or grilling it draws moisture from the centre, making it browner on the outside, but less juicy on the inside.
Whole Baked Fish in Sea Salt
I know, reading the article and the name of the dish, one might be hesitant at first, and it might seem a little unappetising. But let's put scepticism aside and move ahead in the interest of trying something new.
So what is a salt crust, and how does it work? It's a mixture of salt crystals and egg whites. You completely surround the fish—or chicken or beef—with the salt mixture, creating a hard crust that traps moisture. This effectively steams the meat, making it tender and moist.
To prepare the salt-crusted fish, first have the fish cleaned and gutted.
2 lemons; 1 zested and juiced, 1 sliced into thin rounds
1 bunch fresh thyme, half picked and half left whole, plus a pinch extra for garnish
4 fresh bay leaves, coarsely snipped using scissors
3 cloves garlic, smashed
9 egg whites, 8 cups salt
1 whole fish (roughly 450g)
High-quality olive oil
Preheat the oven to 230°C. In a food processor or blender, blend together the lemon juice and zest, the picked thyme, chopped bay leaves and garlic (add a bit of the egg whites if it needs more liquid to blend together); blend it until it becomes a thick paste. Add the rest of the egg whites and blend again until foamy and well incorporated. Then combine this mixture in a large bowl with the salt and mix well. In a baking sheet or roasting pan, spread less than half of the salt-cake mixture on the bottom, then place the fish on top. Stuff the inside of the fish with the lemon rounds and whole branches of herbs, and cover the top and sides with the remaining salt mixture. Press firmly to create a crust encasing the fish, ensuring there are no gaps or air bubbles. Roast the fish for 25 minutes; use a thermometer to poke through the salt cake in a few places to confirm the internal temperature of the fish is at a minimum of 62.8° C. Use a wooden spoon or mallet to crack open the salt cake and carefully remove the fish. Use a brush or clean towel to remove any excess salt and then transfer the fish to a cutting board. Fillet the fish by first removing the skin on top, then using a butter knife to slide under the top, fillet right above the spine and transfer that fillet to a plate. Remove the spine from the tail end, then use the knife to remove the bottom fillet, leaving the skin behind. Repeat for second piece. Drizzle just a bit of olive oil, lemon juice and lemon wedges over the fillets, garnish with a pinch of fresh herbs, and enjoy with some butter tossed asparagus/kalian/pak choy.
Photo courtesy: Subhabrata Maitra