Monday, June 22, 2009

Why my cooking tastes better than yours. Volume one. Salt.

Does this blog title piss you off?  Don't worry, I don't think I'm a better cook than you.  This isn't a my food tastes better than yours does nah nah nah nah nah nah!  There are a few simple reasons why a trained chef's dishes might taste different or better than yours even while following the same recipe, and these blog postings are here to enlighten you.  Much of the reason might simply be your pantry, and what's inside of it.  So this posting is all about my favorite ingredient, and one of the most important of all ingredients.  Salt.  

You may not know it, but that dark blue container with the cute little girl on it is only good for about one thing.  Defrosting the ice on your steps.  I'm sorry, but Morton Iodinized Salt is not a great culinary ingredient.  Yes, it's salt, yes it tastes like salt, but not all salts are made the same, and once you learn the differences in their unique flavor profiles, the can of salt you have that hangs out in your pantry, and fills your salt shakers will hopefully become a thing of the past.

There are two categories of salts.  One to use during the cooking process, and the other is what we will call finishing salts.   Cooking salts have a deeper and more robust flavor, while finishing salts are meant to add just a little extra flavor to the dish, and are very light and mild in flavor.  Some can have a mineral flavor, some can have a very soft flavor.  For cooking I really like kosher salt.  When I'm seasoning meats like beef, pork or lamb, that's what I reach for.  Kosher salt is generally mined, and has a nice robust flavor.  When I'm seasoning fish, or poultry which has a milder flavor I like to use sea salt, which is a salt made from evaporating sea salt.  A heavy table salt like a kosher salt which generally has a larger grain than sea salt can overpower fish, and sea salt goes with fish well.  Perhaps using the salt from where a fish actually comes from might contribute to the harmony, since most commercial fish comes from the ocean, and not from a mine in the ground.  

For pasta water, soups, braising, grilling, etc., I use kosher salt on the first application.  I find that kosher salt when added to sauteing vegetables, onions, mushrooms, etc., will cause the liquid inside to evaporate a lot quicker than a sea salt.  This is important when you want to caramelize onions or mushrooms, since the quicker you can achieve a good browning the better.  Longer cooking times can turn your vegetables to mush rather than give it the texture you desire. 

When a dish is finished, and you are ready to season it a final time, that's when you use a lighter salt.  Sea salts are best for this.  Overly salted food can ruin a dish, and you can always add more salt, but you can't take it back.  My favorite is a grey sea salt from France.  You can find this in any whole foods, or most specialty gourmet shops.  Or you can get it online.

I also like fleur de sel which gets it's name from the aroma of violets that emerges as the salt dries.  It gives an incredible flavor to a dish, but can be very expensive.  It doesn't take a lot however.  If you are on a budget, just plain sea salt can be purchased at any mega mart, and gives a nice flavor for about $3 a container.

Please throw your iodinized salt away, and buy some kosher salt at least.  It will make a big difference in the flavor profile of your dishes.

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