The next time you're looking to stir things up, ask food-savvy friends what happens when they are directed to "season with salt to taste."
Seemingly noncontroversial, the topic is as loaded as a baked potato at a steakhouse chain. Everybody's got an opinion. Recipe writers see the phrase as a nod to individual preference, while that very lack of specificity is viewed by others as a scourge on modern, everyday cookery.
One thing it isn't, scourge or no, is a recent development. In the mid-18th century, English cooks making gravy were told to "season it to your Taste with Salt" by Hannah Glasse's "The Art of Cooking, Made Plain and Easy." Go back in the time machine, via Larousse Gastronomique, and you'll learn that the Greek poet Homer described nations as poor "when they did not mix salt with their food."
One thing culinary professionals can agree on is that home cooks of this era don't have the touch for efficient salting. Chalk it up to the salt bombs inherent in so much processed food or to health studies that have scared the salt cellars off our dinner tables, but we all need help -- especially those who must monitor their intake. If salt is to be limited, better learn the best ways to maximize its impact. But don't go without it.
Why? Shake any serious treatise or article on salt, and something along these lines will fall out: Humans need the stuff to live. It's a fundamental taste sensation. In "What Einstein Told His Cook," chemistry professor Robert L. Wolke calls sodium chloride -- salt, at his house -- our most precious food, the only natural rock intentionally consumed by our species. And it has "the magic ability," he writes, "to enhance other flavors."
Salt entrepreneur Mark Bitterman crystallized a take-away message in 2011 when he wrote in the Guardian that "the simple act of salting food is so ancient, varied and essential that we have been lulled into believing we know how to do it, but most often, we don't."
Case in point: the handsome 2009 cookbook "Salt to Taste." A good place to get granular, you might think. Author-chef Marco Canora of Hearth restaurant in New York invokes the title phrase even in basic pasta recipes. He encourages cooks to follow their senses. But we're not going to be sampling raw dough. Give us a starting point, as exasperated food-writing coach Dianne Jacob says.
Many cookbook authors do just that, in their introductory chapters, by explaining what their "pinch" of salt entails or describing how to establish a salt baseline. (For ways to salt efficiently at home, see the accompanying sidebar.) The problem is, such reading material is seldom reviewed every subsequent time the page is turned to a new recipe.
Some practitioners who used to sling "salt to taste" have seen the light.
"I didn't use to specify amounts or types of salt in my savory recipes," says beloved cookbook author and master baker Dorie Greenspan. "I always did for my sweets. But my thinking has changed, in part because I find many cooks are too timid with salt. The old pinch of salt is always too little and often the 'to taste' is, as well."
The actual taste of salt is not what's in play here, nor is catering to the hand that showers salt crystals on french fries. It's getting back to a place where we come to realize how much salt -- or how little -- it takes to elevate the foods we cook at home. Proper seasoning with salt takes practice; the addition of a few grains while ingredient flavors blend in a pot can make a huge difference.
"Salt to taste" is what you might say when you're trying to dodge the issue, according to Sara Moulton, host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She has been teaching people how to cook since the 1980s and says questions about salt come up in every class and in every cooking demonstration. The Gourmet magazine alum is upfront enough to admit that some salting advice she has dispensed should be taken with a grain of, well, regret.
"I told people during my live show that kosher salt has no additives," Moulton says. "That's not always the case. I said boiled rice and pasta and potatoes could correct oversalted soup ... Then I experimented with chicken broth and found out how wrong that was." (Diluting with water is her preferred method now.)
Because her focus is on how home cooks can get the most flavor out of the food they make, Moulton emphasizes seasoning as you go and tasting often, common practices among culinary professionals. "Vegetables or meat, I don't season differently," she says. She goes for a light sprinkling, not always for every ingredient added to the pot.
"It is something that people at home are afraid of," says Serious Eats managing editor J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. "You can add salt but not take it away. But the flavor you get from the salt shaker at the table is not the same as the flavor you get from salting as you cook."
Lopez-Alt, who will publish in the fall a two-volume, technique-based guide aimed at home cooks, marvels at salt for what it does to food physically, such as breaking down muscle proteins in meats and charcuterie, and for the way it helps food taste more like whatever that food is. When he hears talk of substituting, say, lemon juice, for the sake of reducing the quantity of salt in a recipe, he's not convinced.
"Acid doesn't behave the same way," Lopez-Alt says. "Increasing one variable doesn't compensate for not having enough of the other."
Still, between accounting for the hidden, naturally occurring salt we consume in foods daily -- in business lunches downtown, say, and the occasional nacho chip binge -- getting stingy with added sodium in your home kitchen has become a default of its own.
"I've trained myself not to add salt," and "I'm not using as much salt as I used to" are familiar cooking-class comments that make instructors secretly wince. Once we really learn how to season with salt, our efforts in the kitchen will be all the better for it.
"People should reduce their salt a little," says Paul Breslin, a Rutgers University professor of nutritional sciences often consulted as a guru of taste (receptors, not trends). "But when they use salt at home, it's possible they will punish themselves by withholding salt from their diets. Not necessary." The amount of salt from a shaker is trivial compared with what can be ingested from processed/prepared foods, he says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree, citing that more than 40 percent of Americans' sodium intake comes from a mere 10 foods we buy or order at restaurants: bread; cold cuts/cured meats; pizza; fresh and processed poultry; soups; sandwiches; cheese; pasta dishes; meat-mixed dishes such as meatloaf with tomato sauce; and the snack trinity of pretzels, chips and popcorn.
Breslin is in the salt-food-at-the-end camp, interestingly. Studies show that people tend to use less salt when they apply it at the table, he says.
Still, humans just plain crave salt, don't they? There is no clear evidence of that, Breslin says -- at least they don't crave it as fervently as salt-lick-seeking animals do. The slightly addictive properties of the late Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe cuisine could qualify as Exhibit A that we hunger for the proper use of salt, at least. The San Francisco chef was an early adopter of pre-salting meaty proteins as well as vegetables -- to glorious effect. Thousands of chickens were roasted a la Rodgers, salted a day in advance, in honor of her passing in December.
Which raises the issue of salting that goes on in restaurants. Thanks to open kitchens and endless cutthroat competitions on TV, we can watch chefs regularly toss in enough salt to handle an icy stoop. More is more! Salt equals flavor!
Some attribute the heavy hand to chefs' palate fatigue. West Coast cooking teacher Linda Carucci has an additional theory. On this occasion, however, just about everything she tasted was too salty. As she was leaving, she saw chefs on a cigarette break in the alley.
"I thought, 'Smoking dulls the palate. How many chefs do I know who smoke?'"