What Chefs Know... About Salt
Turns out there really is a secret ingredient. Whether you like it flaked, smoked, pinched, poured, or shaken, there’s no flavor without NaCl and no spice to life, either. Think about it. Are you worth your salt? Might you be considered the “salt of the earth” or perhaps the fun-but-somewhat-suspect “salty?” Salt is the alpha and the omega of seasonings, turning plain broth into ambrosia, as elemental to our being as water. Having evolved from primordial marine life, the human body, with its blood, tissue, and bones requires a certain amount of daily salt in its diet to thrive. In cooking and preparing food, as in health, salt plays a fundamental role. Before the advent of refrigeration, salt was used to dry, preserve, and cure meat, vegetables, and fruits, and kept a great many of us from starving.
All salt was once seawater, even the vast deposits mined inland, and despite the many different varieties, colors, preparations, and grains being sold on the market today, it is universally composed of sodium and chlorine with other trace mineral elements. Natural salts contain differing ratios of one element to the other, depending on their origin, which does affect the pitch of the flavor, hue, and the size of the granule. In its native form, salt can be chunked off in slabs or cakes, making it flakier than commercial table salt and more subtle in flavor. Table salt is the most refined form and contains chemicals, such as calcium silicate (for anti-caking) and iodine. Kosher salt is somewhere in the middle and has a pleasing granular texture that makes it a favorite, especially for those who like a “pinch.” In cooking, nothing ruins a dish faster than using too much or too little, and learning how—and when—to properly season a dish with salt is a benchmark of a chef’s prowess.
So what do Maine chefs know about salt? Let’s find out.
Salt has played a huge role in Greek history, sometimes in trade, as payment, or in hunting animals that went to salty brooks for a quick drink, or in fermenting and preserving proteins. Salt is used in almost every dish at Emilitsa, though you won’t find it on our tables. We strive to have each dish properly salted and seasoned to perfection. We use kosher salt because it is the most versatile. It's great for seasoning before, during, and after cooking, and is easier to measure by hand when adding it to recipes because of the coarseness. Personally, I go light on salt at home. I try to use naturally salty food when I create new dishes before I even consider adding more.
—Niko Regas, Executive Chef, Emilitsa, Portland
At Fuel, we use large-grain kosher salt exclusively. It is cleaner-tasting than common salt, and easier to distribute evenly. The most important advice I can give when using salt in a dish is layering. As an example, we season our braised pork shank before searing, then we season the aromatics (carrots, onions, celery, garlic) as we sweat them. We then add red wine and balsamic to the aromatics, add the shanks, then season again before braising, all to create depth of flavor. [Just] before plating, we adjust the seasoning. Although we don't add a lot of salt, it is important to season each step.
—Eric Agren, Fuel Restaurant, Lewiston
We do a lot of curing with different salts at Union. Recently, we roasted and ground ancho chili peppers and combined the grind with Maine sea salt. Now we are curing eggs in the mixture. This spring we’ll grate the cured eggs over bucatini pasta for this delicious smoky, salty flavor. It’s important to remember that varieties of salt have very different qualities. I’ve tested different kinds trying to find out what feels really good in the hand. Now, depending on the variety, I can sense by the weight how much to use. It’s a tactile thing. Salt has so much personality.
—Josh Berry, Executive Chef, UNION, Portland
Salt, fat, and acid are the main additions that chefs use to elevate and enhance flavor, but in our restaurants we look to salt, particularly salt with a bigger crystal, to also add another quality—texture. It turns something smooth into something lightly crunchy. Often when new people come into the kitchen, Steve will give them a piece of plain lettuce and then the same kind of lettuce dusted with Maine sea salt, which is a completely different taste and texture experience. Here, we are lucky because good salt is one of Maine’s natural products. We’ve been taught that too much salt is bad for us, but it’s not actually the salt that is unhealthy—it’s the kind of salt (iodized) and the way it’s dumped into pre-packaged, processed snack foods. Cooking with kosher and natural salt is not the same thing. The key to salting food properly is to season with it in the beginning and as you cook. It’s much easier to overdo it at the end.
—Michelle and Steve Corry, Chef and owners of 555 and
Petite Jacqueline Restaurants, Portland
Salt plays a major role in Japanese cooking, both for seasoning and for cooking. The two major types of shio (salt) produced are Japanese sea salt, from the Ishikawa prefecture, and yaki shio, a slightly burnt or toasted sea salt. Soy sauce (shōyu), miso, and shio koji are other salt-based Japanese ingredients used extensively in Japanese cooking. At Miyake Fore Street, we are very particular about which types of salt, soy or miso we use. For example, I season our tempura with a green tea salt, and more delicate white fish with a yuzu salt. For shellfish, such as lobster or scallops, I use a suzu shio, a specialty sea salt. For stronger fish, I may use a bamboo black charcoal salt. For nigiri shōyu, pieces of sushi fish with a sauce but without rice, I use a slightly sweeter soy sauce with bonito flakes.The sushi is brushed with the sauce, the shōyu, just before serving, which is traditional ‘Edomae style,’ referring to sushi's origins as a food one could eat standing up (no dipping as it is already seasoned). Miso, a seasoning made from fermenting soybeans with salt and kōji, we incorporate into anything: salad dressings, soups, marinades for fish, and sauces. We even serve a miso caramel sauce with our chocolate cake at dessert.
—Masa Miyake, Miyake Fore Street, Portland
When thinking about Italian cuisine, we all mentally leap directly to "pasta." Never mind learning how to make pasta fresca, at the very least we should all learn how to cook even store-bought pasta correctly—the water must be slightly less salty than seawater. Pasta cooked in unsalted water is pasta not worth eating. We use a good handful of sea salt to get us off on the right foot.
Italian cuisine is also a humble cuisine with many instances of "cucina povera"—peasant cooking—now finally coming into the mainstream of Italian / Italian-American foods. At the Enoteca, we use many savory items—capers, olives, and anchovies. Salt preservation allows us to use some of the very same products here in Maine as in Italy, without no loss in quality.
—Tim O’Brien, Enoteca Athena, Brunswick
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.