You probably use it every day: From seasoning a steak to sprinkling flakes over a chocolate mousse, salt is one of the most hardworking ingredients in the kitchen and can be used in as many ways as there are grains.
In addition to having its own unique flavour, salt is able to manipulate bitter and sour components, and play with sweet and umami taste profiles. Salts can preserve and cure food and make meat juicier through the process of brining. To put it simply, it’s pretty darn amazing, and it’s no surprise that we use the expression “salt of the earth” when we’re paying someone a big compliment.
To find out what makes the mineral so special, we chat with Eric Pateman, a chef, world leader in culinary tourism, and the man behind Amola Salt, a line of globally inspired and infused salts. He gives us a taste of what the condiment is all about.
What is salt?
To get technical, salt is a mineral made mainly of sodium chloride. According to Pateman, though, it’s so much more than that. “Salt is the ultimate flavouring agent — it brings flavour to food,” he says. "There are many different kinds of salt and other salty seasonings, but all of them have the same goal of elevating food. And whether it’s sea salt, mined salt, or salty things like fish sauce and anchovies — all of them are about accentuating flavours within food."
Why is it so powerful in cooking?
“If you take the most amazing, perfectly ripe tomato, and you eat it as it is, it’s really good. Even with balsamic vinegar and basil, it’s great. But if you just sprinkle a little bit of sea salt on it, it makes the flavours pop … that is what makes salt special. Although most people wouldn't think of it as a texture base, the right salt can really add a cool texture to things."
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What does salt do chemically?
Salt reduces water activity, heightening the concentration of flavours. It also improves the volatility of flavour components. Salt plays well with others, too. “Salted caramel and chocolate have become so popular over the last couple of decades,” he says, “It’s not something you would have seen 20 years ago, but they’ve really figured out a way to work with sweet flavours and provide balance.”
How is salt harvested?
“For Amola Salt, we have used the same salt since we started, which comes from Portugal, in the Algarve,” says Pateman. “It’s a hand-harvested sea salt, naturally evaporated, from the same family who has been doing it for three generations. The tides come in, filling little pools, and the warmth of the sun evaporates them. Then workers go out into the salt pools with rakes, taking the salt from the top layer as it dries and moving it into other shallower pools. Then it dries a little bit more, and so on."
Does hand-harvesting salt produce the best quality?
"Absolutely. There are certainly mechanized approaches now, as many salts are made in greenhouses or artificially harvested and dried. Then, there are mined salts like Windsor Salt, and you’re seeing more things like Himalayan salts, which are coming out of the earth and not out of the ocean. There are a lot of different salts available, but hand-harvested salt is unique."
Is salt bad for you?
“Too much salt definitely has some negative health effects. But I go back to what my grandparents would’ve said: everything in moderation. Look at a lot of the ancient food cultures: Italian, Greek or Japanese. Salt and salty flavours have been a part of cooking culture for centuries. We get into the negatives of salt with everybody eating processed foods like chips. It’s not salt that’s the problem, it’s the way we’re processing things."
Tips for tasting as you cook?
A pot of water that you cook in should be wildly salty — "Saltier than you would ever think is reasonable. If I cook crab, I literally take the water out of the ocean to cook, and it creates amazing flavour.” When cooking pasta, he suggests tossing a handful of salt into the water, not just a couple of pinches.
“On the other end of the spectrum, I typically won’t salt [dishes] until the very end.You want to taste the food for what it is: If you salt at the beginning and then your sauce reduces, salt can become overpowering as the moisture content evaporates, so the intensity becomes too much.” He’s a fan of finishing with salt at the end, which is one of the reasons he created finishing salts. “You wouldn’t necessarily use any of our salts to cook with — they’re all based on that sprinkle at the end to make the flavours pop,” he adds.
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How do you use different types of salt?
“It comes down to the size of the grain. For me, it’s about playing around with textures: If you’re cooking with it, and you’re going to dilute it, you can use just a really cheap sea salt.” He likes to keep one or two salts on the counter (aside from flavoured salts) that are two different textures: one, a finer texture for cooking with, and a finishing salt to sprinkle over a dish before eating.
Made from evaporated saltwater, sea salt comes in a variety of shapes: fine, coarse or flaked. Crystallized versions, like Maldon Salt, are irregular and pyramid-shaped, which gives food a nice crunch and allows you to sprinkle the salt more precisely. “Typically, your finishing salt would be Maldon Salt or any of the ones that have a bigger flake. I wouldn't finish with fine salt. It kind of gets lost,” he says.
Smoked salt imparts a flame-grilled flavour when sprinkled onto food. “It’s my go-to for meats,” says Pateman. Typically, trays of salt are laid over the top of fires or put into smokehouses, where the salt absorbs the smoke. “There's everything from cherry wood to cedar — people are using all kinds of different woods to impart different flavours,” he adds.
Perfect for brining or making pickles, kosher salt is a type of sea salt with big flakes. Don't let the name fool you — not every kind is certified kosher. It’s a versatile salt that can be used to season meat and vegetables and is easy to control with your fingers.
With its metallic taste and lack of minerals, this type of highly processed, often iodized salt has fallen out of fashion in recent years. “It's really good for putting on your driveway to melt ice,” scoffs Pateman.
Yulia von Eisenstein
Himalayan pink salt
A millennial’s dream, this pink salt is harvested in the foothills of the Himalayas. It gets its colour from minerals like iron. It’s another finishing salt that can add flavour to a dish.
How do you adjust when food is over-salted?
"There are a few things you can do easily; add sugar or any acid like lemon juice, or rehydrate by adding liquid."
Any killer salt combos?
“I love a spicy sea salt on watermelon. Amola’s Molten Hot Salt is the one I use the most — I love that little bit of spice with eggs or fruit.”
Any tips for the final flourish?
“If I can start charging the same prices as Salt Bae for my food just by holding my arm a bit higher, I’m all over it. But no, I don’t think it matters how you sprinkle it. I think it just accentuates food as it is.”