Martha Stewart Living, February 1999

Salt is the secret ingredient if ever there was one. Although it isn't always visible in a dish, we know when salt is or isn't there. The ways of salt run deep. It does not just add "kick" or "heat" the way spices do. Salt penetrates, drawing out juices and absorbing the water in food. It overrules all things bitter.

Salt makes food taste more like itself. It also makes us hungry, so we relish whatever we're eating more. Salt affects all foods, both savory and sweet. A recipe for spice cake recorded in a 1653 cookbook by the Countess of Kent admonishes readers "to forget not the salt," as if to omit it is to commit a cardinal sin. And it is!

Commonly paired with pepper, salt really has a life of its own. It is found all over the world, dug from the earth or harvested from the sea. And although it is fair to say that all salts taste "salty," that quality may be the only thing salts have in common. Salt runs the gamut of color: white, red, gray, pink, orange, brown, and beyond. It can be used as it's found, in large coarse crystals, or ground to a powder. The variances in taste are significant, as tangible to a connoisseur as the thread count of cotton sheets. Some salt, like the French fleur de sel, tastes clean and pure, almost sweet. When dissolved, fleur de sel transforms into the delicious briny water from which it was made. By comparison, refined table salt can taste acidic and feel shrill on your tongue.

Salt is special -- fantastically so. It can treat sore throats, absorb red-wine spills, and keep winter sidewalks from freezing. But to call something salty is hardly a culinary accolade. Overly salted foods literally hurt to eat and can leave you headachy, parched, and swollen; they neither taste good nor are they good for you. The way to avoid consuming too much salt is not, luckily, to banish it from our food or cooking altogether. Instead, we must show salt some respect. Not only can we use salt as an ingredient, but we can also use it to actually cook food. Salt cookery can be traced back to ancient Egypt, when salt was used to dry or, technically speaking, to "cure" food. Curing is really a scientific process. It involves using salt to draw the moisture out of food and create an environment hostile to bacterial growth, thereby preventing food from spoiling. Curing was essential in the days before refrigeration. The method is no longer the means of survival it once was. In fact, "cured foods" such as gravlax, prosciutto, and pickles are now delicacies rather than staples of our diets.

If it was necessity that first caused man to cook with salt, then it is the quest for perfection that makes us continue. Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City, buries red snapper in a coarse sea-salt paste infused with thyme and chopped rosemary, then bakes it. He likens the recipe to cooking en papillote, the French method of baking food in parchment paper. The analogy is quite apt. Like parchment paper, salt, which absorbs steam and becomes a hard shell when baked, seals flavor into food. But Ripert says he likes salt better because "it makes the fish taste much more complex and sweet, like the flavors of the ocean." Salt crusts are not to be eaten, but even when baked and discarded, salt works its magic.

For that is what salt is pure magic. Unlike diamonds or gold, salt is intrinsically valuable -- we could not exist without it. Not only does salt sustain us, but it also gives life and character to the food we eat. Add it to fresh seasonal ingredients, use it to make salt dough and crust, marvel at the way it makes food taste. Salt is precious. Treat it as you would anything you cherish.



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