How “salt” can be the kiss of life (or death) in cooking

What is your favorite salt to cook with?
What was your worst salty mishap?

Go to Quick Reference: Common Salt Weights & Substitutions

On Christmas Eve a few years ago, I made a creamy roasted cauliflower soup. It was that sacred hectic time just before dinner is served, when I was trying to get all of the food cooked perfectly, seasoned properly, and ready to be served at the right time. What a juggling act! As wine was poured and kids squirmed in their seats, I was stirring, tasting, and readjusting.

I was happy and relieved to finally sink into my chair to enjoy the meal. We raised our glasses, reaching to the furthest corners of the table to clink with every last one. After a generous swig of wine, I gave the bowl a half-stir, pausing to take in the aromas, and took a sip.

The velvety soup should have been a triumph. Instead, it was knocked off kilter by a jolt of saltiness.

Ugh… What happened? The flavors had been so nicely balanced just moments earlier! The soup turned on me. I suppressed my rising feeling of dread, trying not to dampen the festive mood. My mind raced … I thought of one of my favorite shows, Top Chef. Misjudgments with the salt used in the Top Chef kitchen had bitten more than a few competitors.

On the new show format for Top Chef Masters Season 3, judge James Oseland said:

“… we were giving them the chance over the course of multiple episodes to become more…familiar with the kitchen, to know where the salt was kept, to know that……the kind of salt that’s used in the Top Chef Masters Kitchen is…a coarse-grained kosher salt versus a fine-milled kosher salt, so we weren’t tasting food that was…aggressively awfully salty.”

In the case of my cauliflower soup, the large irregular grains of sea salt from the grinder were only partially dissolved when I did my rushed final adjustment of seasonings. I didn’t account for their size, which made them slow to dissolve. By the time we were actually eating the soup, it was over-salted.

Salt has such a profound impact on heightening the flavor of food and does so in droves before ever tasting too salty. It is the most basic and most humbling seasoning — it enhances rather than adds additional flavors to foods, but its misapplication can easily bite any of us, from the most novice cook to world-renowned Top Chef Masters competitors.

1/2 ounce, by weight, of different salt types

Salt can take the form of tiny grains, hefty crumbs, thin crystalline flakes, and many other shapes and densities. Kosher salt is a favorite of cooks because its coarse texture makes it easy to grab in different sized pinches to season as we cook. After using the same salt for a while, we acquire a sense for how salty these rudimentary measures will make food taste and can go along our merry way without fussing with measuring spoons. Switch up the salt, however, and you can get vastly different results.

Just give it to me straight

Most of us use lots of different sources for recipes and, unfortunately, many recipe authors do not specify clearly what type of salt they mean. Does simply “salt” mean kosher salt, table salt, sea salt, or something else? Does it even really matter?

For recipes that salt to taste, the type of salt and the amount is a matter of personal preference. However, for measured amounts, it really does matter; Especially when the salt is added early in the cooking process, or into foods that aren’t easy to taste as you go (such as the raw egg mixture for a frittata).

When developing recipes at the meticulous test kitchen where I interned, “salt” without any other qualifier was defined as table salt. I learned this on day one (along with a formal list of other “measures & equivalents” used to decode recipes unambiguously). It was empowering information. I have since translated measured amounts of “salt” to mean fine-grained salt when I encounter recipes that don’t specify, with good results. The fine-grained salt can be measured by volume the same as table salt, but doesn’t contain additives, which can lend a harsh or chemically taste.

Worth its weight in salt. Literally.

With so much variance in saltiness between different forms of salt, it is surprising that more recipes do not specify clearly the type, or at least the weight, of salt called for in the recipe. After all, recipes are generally meant to lead us to successfully reproduce a dish! If you’re stuck, some recipe authors do provide more detail on the salt they use on an Ingredients or Sources page of the website or cookbook, so you might want to check there.

Looking just at kosher salt, the two most ubiquitous brands are Diamond Crystal and Morton, but a one cup dry measure of Diamond weighs about 60% as much as the same measure of Morton. When a recipe calls for a volume measure of kosher salt, using Morton will be almost twice as salty as Diamond. The one you use can be the difference between “aggressively awfully salty” and perfection.

Weight is a much more consistent measure for salt than volume. From McGee’s On Food and Cooking, edible salts contain anywhere from 98% to 99.7% sodium chloride (pure salt), depending on how they were processed and what’s been added. Regardless of what shape it takes, the same weight will contain virtually the same amount of pure salt. So, if you substitute the same weight of a different type of salt as called for in your recipe, rest assured you should get equivalent results, and you won’t need a table to guide you!

As I’ve learned from my cauliflower soup, be mindful that different sized grains will dissolve at different speeds. Adjust accordingly. The coarser the texture, the harder it is to measure by volume consistently and accurately, especially in small amounts. When in doubt (or just to avoid it), use a scale.

I’ve created a quick reference for common salt types and their weights, and included some other handy conversions. I hope it will make it easier for you to scale salt amounts for substitutions.

Go to Quick Reference: Common Salt Weights & Substitutions

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