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Just a pinch of salt

Without intending to, I’ve managed for years to run a functioning household without saltshakers. I realized this while dining at a restaurant with my family one evening, when the server stopped by to ask if we needed anything else. My son, who was about 6 years old at the time (and a native English speaker, I feel compelled to add), brightened. “Yes,” he said. “I would like one of those — what do you call it? — a can for salt, a can with holes, for salt?”

The server turned to me, her eyes wide with bafflement.

“Do you mean a saltshaker?” I asked my son. He nodded happily. “He means a saltshaker,” I translated. The server shot me a suspicious look and scurried back to the kitchen.

To clarify, it’s not that we avoid salt at our house. Au contraire! As any food critic worth her salt (sorry) will tell you, this mineral is a critical component of good cooking and good eating. In fact, some years earlier, while researching an article about all the different sorts of salt in the culinary universe, I acquired quite a collection: finishing salts, gray salts, sea salts, and salts with residues of interesting clays and minerals. My family has been slowly working its way through my stash ever since.

Rather than passing around a can with holes, we keep our salt of choice heaped in a silver-dollar-size bowl in the center of the dinner table.

Salty Lessons

I’ve learned a few interesting things about salt in my years as a professional foodie, including the fact that salt is the only rock we eat. (Just look in your spice cabinet; everything else comes from a plant.) And that, from a health perspective, we avoid salt at our peril. (To learn more about this — and the ever-heated debate among experts about how much is enough and how much is too much — visit “Is Salt Bad for You — Or Not?“)

You probably know about early Roman leaders paying their troops with salt, which is where the words “salary” and “soldier” come from. European cities are also chock-full of salty history. Visitors to such places as the salt-trading citadel Venice and the river port Salzburg — which literally means “salt castle” — can tour mines and travel along ancient “salt roads” to better grasp the mineral’s social and economic importance.

And did you know that Buffalo, N.Y., is the site of an exposed natural salt lick that once attracted herds of buffalo?

But reducing things to a purely personal level, I’d say the most important lesson I’ve learned about salt is that seasoning food by hand is preferable to casually wafting a saltshaker around or measuring it out by the spoonful.

A Sprinkle of Love

Adding salt to taste is a process that is both mindful and intuitive. The very act of drawing salt between your fingertips drops you deeper into your experience of food. You can feel the salt granules, sense their weight and texture, and anticipate how much flavor each grain will confer.

There’s nothing automatic about seasoning your food this way, no unconscious dashing, and no oversalting — especially if you use sea salts or finishing salts, which are less concentrated than the bleached and refined stuff in the iconic cardboard canister.

And if you’re doing any kind of cooking — even if you’re just boiling water to make spaghetti — using salt well is your key to success. Michael Ruhlman puts it this way in his technique-focused tome, Ruhlman’s Twenty: “How to salt food is the most important thing to know in the kitchen.”

Salt can make or break a recipe. When something goes wrong in a dish, the most common problem is salt, either too much or too little of it, Ruhlman explains. “Salting is an inexact skill, meaning there is no way to describe in words how much salt to use in any given dish,” he writes. “Instead, it is up to the cook, a matter of taste.”

Lest the imprecise nature of salting scare you away from the kitchen, however, another acclaimed food writer, Karen Page, views salt as an invitation to invention and discovery.

In her new book, Kitchen Creativity: Unlocking Culinary Genius — With Wisdom, Inspiration, and Ideas From the World’s Most Creative Chefs, Page outlines three basic stages to unleashing artistry and joy in the kitchen: First, learn the basics; then, play and tweak; and, finally, head out on your own.

Salt is one of the best ingredients you can use in the playing-and-tweaking phase of your creative cooking journey.

“Salt is the miracle ingredient,” Page tells me. “It’s a flavor enhancer, and it can be a flavor itself. If you’re salting something delicate like salad or vegetables, the difference in the texture and flavor of the salt can be profound.”

To illustrate, she advises home cooks to experiment with vinegar and salt.

“Make the same green salad two nights in a row, once with mild champagne vinegar and a fleur de sel sprinkled on the greens, and once with balsamic and a flakier sea salt blended into the dressing,” she says. “Those salads will taste completely different.”

Season Things Up

If all this salt talk makes you want to add a little flair to your seasoning repertoire, start by buying a light finishing salt, such as fleur de sel or Maldon. These are made by slowly evaporating sea water that produces blooming flowers (in the case of fleur de sel) or flaky crystals (in the case of Maldon). They’re soft in the mouth and not very salty compared with the mined salt you get in a cardboard canister.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, buy a heavy, wet sel gris, a gray sea salt that still smells of the ocean. Use it in your next batch of chicken soup or clam chowder — it will add a more interesting flavor, in the way a filter on your camera makes everything pop. (You will get some mineral residue at the bottom of the pot. Simply rinse it away later when you wash up.)

And next time you go out to eat, don’t fret if you don’t see the common saltshaker on the table. That might just mean your chef encourages seasoning to taste with natural salts.

Back to my family’s night of salt consternation: Our server returned with a little bowl of sea salt. “We don’t have a saltshaker,” she admitted, shrugging, and placed the bowl in the center of the table. My son grinned and reached for a pinch.

This originally appeared as “Just a Pinch” in the May 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Paul Hostetler

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