A short tale of four chefs and their salt cellars

by sophie on June 12, 2012 · 6 comments

Salt pans, Gozo

This little article in the Independent caught my eye a few weeks ago Tips with everything: Chefs reveal their craftiest kitchen tricks.  There was a theme threaded through the tips of salt and the skill of seasoning food perfectly. The variation in the attitudes of different chefs interviewed to using salt and other seasoning techniques was fascinating and got me thinking both as an eater and a nutritionist.  Here are a few of their approaches:

Yotam Ottolenghi experiments with different seasonings

In his tips Yotam describes using dried chilli heated briefly in olive oil or butter as the finishing touch for many different types of dish. Even if you aren’t already familiar with Yotam’s imaginative cooking, his choice of words are a dead giveaway that this is only the latest in a long line of experiments; “this is something that I’ve been doing quite a lot recently for finishing dishes. You can use it over roast vegetables, or if you want over fish, meat, or even soups.”

“It starts to cook and it spreads its flavour in the oil, but they also give it a slightly red colour, so it looks pretty good to finish a dish and also improves the flavour as it gives it a bit of a kick, as well as a very slight smoky aroma”.  He’s right too, it works beautifully in these baked eggs with yogurt and chilli which is a regular in our house.

Angela Hartnett uses sugar as a savoury seasoning

Angela’s tip is one I’ve used many a time, adding a tiny pinch of sugar to bring out the best in canned tomatoes.  A tiny pinch of sugar isn’t enough to add significant calories or damage anyone’s waistline, but it will make the tomato flavour sing and take away any strong acidity.  Using other seasonings often means that you don’t have to add as much salt to get a tasty dish.

Rowley Leigh uses salt, but at just the right time and with other seasonings

Rowley explains that it’s important to add your salt at the right time in cooking, for example to bring out the flavours in a risotto the salt needs to be in there from the start.  I like this philosophy – if you’re going to add salt to a dish then make sure it has the right impact.  He’s also always got a lemon up his sleeve to bring out flavour.

Jacob Kenedy adds as much salt as he can, and has a wealth of strategies ready to kill the salty taste if he adds too much

For Jacob “Correct” seasoning, to a chef, is as much salt as you can possibly get into the dish without it tasting too salty.”.  He follows this up with three different tips on how to disguise the salty flavour if you happen to go to far and make it too salty (starch, acid or fat).  What a shame you can’t disguise it from your blood vessels too.

salt beds, Marsalforn, Gozo

If we eat out, we don’t know how much salt has been added

I’ve cheekily chosen the extremes of the article but it’s a good reminder of the difference in the control and knowledge that we have regarding our salt intake when we eat out compared with eating at home.  I think I know which of these chef’s restaurants I’d rather eat in, but the truth is that we rarely know how much salt has been added to meal cooked for us by somebody else.

The interesting message from this article for me was that when you eat out you rarely know what the chef’s approach to seasoning food really is.

For most of us around three quarters of the salt we take in is from the processed foods that we buy, with a much smaller amount coming from the more obvious salt added at the table or when we’re cooking.  If you eat out a lot then it’s definitely worth counting salt added by the chef into this equation too.

If you’re cooking at home, there’s plenty to experiment with

Our kitchen at home is full of seasonings – chilli, garlic, lemon, lime, pepper, miso, fresh herbs, mustard, horseradish, pickles, jars of all manner of pungent pastes and strange spice sachets. I do add some salt when I’m cooking, but I keep an eye on how much I’m adding and use plenty of other flavoursome seasonings alongside.  It’s all too true that our taste buds get used to having more salt, and so once the amount of salt you eat has creeps up a little it takes a while to get used to having less again (three months in fact, while you grow a full new set of taste buds).  When you get used to eating less salt you can spot an overly salted dish at home or out much more easily.

On a related note is Bee Wilson’s article ’Tis the seasoning: the difficult art of adding salt  and this from Kathryn Elliott on what to do when a recipe calls for stock, a particularly high salt ingredient

How do you use salt and seasonings in your kitchen?

 (p.s the photos are a couple I took at the salt flats at Marsalforn on the island of Gozo)


Elaine June 14, 2012 at 19:15

Hello, Sophie. I’ve read your engaging post a couple of times so far, and think I’ll make my (first) comment. (There may be more as your writing has inspired many thoughts and questions.)

First, I do like the way you’ve thoughtfully summarized the Independent article. And yes, excellent take-away message about eating out. Coincidentally, today an article in a popular magazine caught my eye: “5 Myths About Salt.” It counters the recent controversial and confusing headlines in the popular press about the ineffectiveness of reducing one’s sodium intake and echoes your cautionary advice about restaurant meals. (Sorry I can’t provide a link because there isn’t an online version. However, I’ll take a cue from you and try to write a blog post about it soon).

And to answer your question – instead of a salt cellar, I have a herb garden on the balcony. It’s my source for seasoning. As for salt, I have a low threshold for it & use minimal amounts in cooking — but confess I occasionally indulge by using Asian sauces.

Lovely photos, by the way. The salt in that form, setting & quantity is very soothing and certainly not a health risk.

sophie July 1, 2012 at 22:09

You’re right Elaine, there are a lot of myths around about salt – I would be interested in hearing more about your magazine article if you get chance to write about it.

Salt as an indulgence rather than the norm is my way of cooking too – you enjoy it more when you don’t have it every day I think

kathryn elliott June 15, 2012 at 23:38

Great piece Sophie. I found the article on the different way chef’s approach seasoning really interesting. I’ve changed my approach to salt considerably over the last few years. I used to follow the standard line of adding it during cooking and then at table, and automatically salting pasta water, rice, potatoes . . . everything really.

However concern over how much salt, combined with growing in confidence and knowledge as a cook has made me change this approach. Now I’m much more judicious about when and how much salt I add. I’ve found a little pinch, added when sauteeing onions, garlic, carrot etc, makes a big difference to the overall flavour and cuts back on the need to add lots of salt at the end. I’ve “re-trained” my taste buds to be comfortable with less salt. Plus I’ve started using more salty ingredients like shoyu, miso, capers, instead of straight salt. I’ve found these add so much complexity and depth of flavour, that you can cut back on the overall salt in a meal, while still making something which is delicious.

sophie July 1, 2012 at 22:15

Hi Kathryn, I think you’re right, salt on its own means you have to use more, but if you use other robust flavours and more complex sources of that salty tang you do need less. The nicest example I’ve made recently has been a tomato salsa with sultanas and capers – delicious!

I’ve been experimenting with adding salt to pasta water and now add it if the pasta is going to be very plain but then don’t bother if I have plenty of sauce to coat it.

Ruby August 24, 2012 at 00:20

Very nice. Thank you for all this wonderful info.

suze September 2, 2012 at 14:24

I don’t use salt in cooking, instead I choose to use herbs and sea vegetable seasoning. The sea vegetable seasoning adds an extra dimension to a savoury dish, with the bonus that they contain minerals not found in all the foods we eat as standard everyday fare.

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