Salt has been essential to cooking - and the human existence - for thousands of years. Our bodies can't function without it. Our food is often tastier with it.
Because salt is relatively inexpensive and universal, it's easy to take this kitchen staple for granted. Your eyes may glaze over those instructions to season to taste, or you may decide to leave it out of a recipe where it doesn't seem important.
That would be an oversight, because salt is actually important in more ways than you may realise. Sure, it's crucial for flavour. But salt plays key roles in ensuring your food has the right texture and even colour, among other things.
And yet its very ubiquity is part of what concerns many home cooks attentive to their health. We know that consuming too much sodium, an element in salt, increases the chances of high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. For many of us, though, there's an achievable middle ground between using no salt and pouring it into our food with reckless abandon.
Part of getting there is understanding what salt does and does not do in cooking. Unfortunately, plenty of myths and misconceptions about this staple are often repeated as conventional wisdom. So, as I've done with persistent baking myths, I'm tackling some of the biggest ones to sort salt fact from fiction, from both food and health perspectives.
1. Salt only makes food taste salty
Not only is salt one of the five tastes, it also impacts others. Salt reduces bitterness. It enhances aromas, which play a big role in our perception of flavour aside from just taste. It can also add texture.
Salt performs other functions that don't have to do with flavour. When added to boiling water, it keeps pasta from sticking to itself by "reducing the gelatinlike layer that forms on the surface of pasta as it cooks," Nik Sharma writes in "The Flavour Equation." For blanching vegetables, "Properly seasoned cooking water encourages food to retain its nutrients," Samin Nosrat says in "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat."
What else can salt do? It can ward off rubbery scrambled eggs by buffering the proteins from bonding too tightly and squeezing out water. In brining, whether wet or dry, salt helps meat retain moisture; in the case of a dry-brined turkey or chicken, it can contribute to crisp, golden skin.
Salt has long been valued as a preservative and an important element in fermented foods. It's also key in baking bread and sweets; see below.
2. Different types of salt are interchangeable
Does a recipe call for one type of salt but you want to use another? Before you substitute, think, because the size of salt grains can vary. A teaspoon of one type might not be the same as a teaspoon of another.
Fine sea salt and table salt boast a similar texture of small grains, so they are about equivalent in volume. They are also very close in terms of the amount of sodium. That makes them largely interchangeable. Kosher salt has larger grains, but even that varies depending on what brand you're using.
Here are the equivalencies to keep in mind:
- 1 tablespoon fine sea or table salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Morton kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
3. Adding salt to home-cooked food is a major source of dietary sodium
Keep in mind that by cooking at home you are already well on your way to managing or even reducing your salt intake, because you can control how much you use. Salt in homemade food is less of an issue than prepared and processed food, where it may show up in large quantities or in unexpected items.
More than 70 per cent of sodium in American diets comes from restaurant and packaged food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - in other words, "not the salt shaker."
4. Salt isn't important in baking
It's easy to assume that the contribution of salt to baking is limited to salty flavor. Nosrat makes a compelling point: "The foundational ingredients of sweets are some of the blandest in the kitchen. Just as you'd never leave flour, butter, eggs, or cream unseasoned in a savory dish, so should you never leave them unseasoned in a dessert."
Salt can bring other flavours into focus, such as the chocolate in brownies or the corn in cornbread, Lauren Chattman says in "The Baking Answer Book." It is even more effective at counteracting bitterness than sugar, Shirley Corriher says in "BakeWise," citing research conducted by Gary Beauchamp at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which studies taste and smell.
Salt also lowers the point at which starches absorb water, swell and set, which is crucial in baking, Harold McGee says in "On Food and Cooking." With a few exceptions, salt is essential for properly risen and flavored bread, Chattman explains. Dough without salt will rise too fast on the counter and collapse in the oven.
Salt slows down yeast activity, which has another welcome outcome: browning, a key to color and flavor. Yeast thrives on sugar in dough (it's generated by the breakdown of the flour even if the recipe has no added sugar), and if left unchecked, there would be no sugar left to brown in baking, according to King Arthur Baking.
5. Salt makes water boil faster (or slower)
The timing of when you add salt to water will not alter how quickly it boils. Adding salt to water actually raises the boiling point, McGee says, because it competes with the water molecules for the absorption of energy.
In theory, that means salted water takes longer to boil, but you need 1 ounce of salt per quart of water to raise the boiling point by 1 degree Fahrenheit - an unrealistic amount for everyday cooking.
Don't be fooled by the sudden appearance of bubbles when salt is added to simmering water, J. Kenji Lpez-Alt says in "The Food Lab." That is not a sign of boiling, but rather a result of having a new spot for steam bubbles to form on. It can happen any place there's an irregularity in the water, including scratches in the pot.
6. Using salt without iodine is bad for your health
Iodine is a trace element, or micronutrient, important for regulating thyroid function, says Michele Smallidge, a registered dietitian and director of the exercise science program at the University of New Haven. Without it, people can develop a goiter, or an enlarged thyroid gland. To address iodine deficiencies that were common in areas away from the coasts (iodine is found in soil and water near the ocean), manufacturers started iodizing table salt in the 1920s.
Some home cooks are therefore concerned when recipes call for sea or kosher salts, which are generally not iodized. While long-term studies are underway to determine whether and why there may be an uptick in iodine deficiency on a global scale, Smallidge advises home cooks not to panic about which salt they use, though she notes that pregnant individuals and people with other specific health needs may require more special attention. You only need about 150 micrograms a day, and if you consume fish, dairy and even seaweed, you're probably set. Iodine also shows up in some fortified foods.
"Testing of the general population indicates that most Americans consume sufficient levels of iodine through their diets," the Mayo Clinic says. If you like using sea salt for other reasons but want the benefits of iodized table salt, you can use a blend of the two, Smallidge says. Or use the information above to substitute iodized table salt as desired.
7. Fancy salt will make your food taste better
If you have some pink Himalayan or other specialty salt hanging around, you may assume it will elevate whatever you add it to. Not quite.
When used to season food before cooking or stirred into a batter or dough, the unique textures and flavors of your fancy, more expensive salt will probably be lost. Save the nice stuff for when it can shine as a finishing salt, sprinkled on top of a completed dish. Even as a garnish on a slice of bread and butter, you'll appreciate it better.