Salt has been around since the beginning of civilization. Why is it we still can't agree on how to use it?
Almost every home cook I know has proudly declared, "I hardly use any salt in my cooking." But when I ask them what makes restaurant cuisine taste so good, they all agree: it's the salt.
I feel their pain. After all these years spent as a home cook, never once having made it through an entire box of salt, it's unnerving to make your first foray into confidently salting food. But salt truly is the one factor that will give your food the pop, pizazz and wow every cook craves. Doing it right just takes a little trial and error.
You don't need to go out to a specialty market and buy the most expensive, trendy, or rare salt you can find, or a special grinder. Your fingers, and whatever you have in your kitchen now is probably fine—that is, assuming it's kosher or sea salt, not table salt. (This pulverized kitchen sand tends to be, in the words of Deborah Madison, "harsh and not particularly interesting.")
Kosher salt is beloved among chefs for its texture and flavor. It has a jagged, rough shape which helps it stick to food and feel substantial between your fingers—you have more control of the amount you grab and release.
Sea salt works for the same reasons, and it's a great finishing salt because of its coarseness, which helps it dissolve at different rates on the tongue. (Translation: You're not hit with a startling, salty mouthful when you bite down.)
That brings me to my next topic: tasting saltiness. Sometimes this is nice, in the case of caramels sprinkled with sea salt or hot French fries covered in a dusting of the stuff. But, mostly, a proper salting results in being able to taste the ingredients better, not the salt.
The trick: Season along all stages of the cooking process (not just the end) and continue to taste, taste, taste as you go.
Each time you add something to the pot (unless it's an ingredient like bacon or capers that has a naturally salty flavor), go ahead and season it. You'll find you don't use significantly more salt, but that the foods will develop flavor as they cook in the proper seasoning. Plus, if you overseason it in one phase, you still have time to compensate.
To avoid overdoing it: Keep in mind that saltiness can change as food sits or shifts in temperature (as in the case of preparing something in advance and storing it in the fridge), or can concentrate as liquids reduce. It also tends to be absorbed or counteracted by adding dairy—keep this in mind when finishing a soup with heavy cream or a sauce with butter.
If you've ovedone it: You can add a splash of cream or a dab of unsalted butter at the end. Starch, too, can have absorbing powers. Julia Child wrote that if you grate raw potatoes into a dish, let them simmer for 7 to 8 minutes, then strain, "they'll have absorbed quite a bit of the excess salt."
A final trick, and this will feel posery at first, practice salting food at a height of about 10 or 12 inches above it. The distance gives a better sense of just how much salt you're trickling, and the granules will spread more evenly over the food's surface. It gives the cook a certain sense of confidence, too. Chances are you won't overdo it when salting in this fashion. But, I suppose that's debatable.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.