Alt Fats for Baking

 

Alert reader Christy, (always wanted to use that…), writes, “What kinds of fats can be substituted for each other when baking and how do you do it? You used lard for the piecrust, which does make the best crust. Leaf lard is hard to find around here, though. I made a pie crust the other day using butter instead, but it turned out pretty tough. And then there are liquid fats such as olive oil and canola oil, etc.?”

Great question, so let’s wade in. For the record, I bake with butter, lard, and coconut oil pretty exclusively. I believe firmly that neither butter or lard are bad for you, eaten in moderation, and in fact, are healthier than most highly manufactured fats. I’ve covered this in other posts, so I’ll leave my position at that. Christy is a wonderful, agile cook, and if she or any of the rest of you want to know stuff like this, or need to for health reasons, then I’ll honor it and answer as best I can.

The primary issue when substituting oil for butter in a cake, cookie, or pie recipe is to fully understand the chemistry the fat facilitates within such things. In the broadest sense, fat contributes tenderness, moistness, and mouth feel to baked goods. There is also a flavor aspect involved, the rich nuttiness of butter and the salty tang of lard. Fats also contribute significant textural qualities to baked goods. Consider a recipe that has you creaming butter with a sweetener, like the gingerbread or the Nanaimo bar recipes we just posted. In both recipes, I wrote about whisking the sweet and fat ingredients together until a notable lightening of the texture is achieved; this is possible because the semi-solid fat traps tiny air bubbles in the matrix and physically lightens it, something that liquid fats don’t do very well at all. Similarly, consider something that depends on a loose matrix of fat and flour to derive a light, flaky texture, like a pie crust; again the property imparted by the semi-solid fat is an absolute necessity. The second consideration involves proportions, as virtually no alternative fat is a straight 1:1 substitution for butter or lard. Take muffins or pan breads as an example in this regard; reducing the amount of fat will will allow gluten to develop more freely, resulting in a notable tougher product.

A closer examination of the most commonly used baking fats will help to better understand what we need to emulate with a substitute. Fat content is the key in this regard. Butter is 80% + fat, with the rest made up of water and milk solids. True lard is virtually all fat; when I say true lard, I’m speaking of lard you yourself have rendered from pork, or lard you’ve bought that was kept in a dairy case, the leaf lard Christy referenced above. I know excellent chefs who swear by duck fat and schmaltz for baking as well, which is certainly food for thought.

If you’re buying the lard that sits out next to the shortening, stop doing that and don’t do it again. Those are vegetable or animal fats heated under pressure, with hydrogen gas introduced into it, usually with some form of nasty, toxic catalyst used to make it all happen faster. This process forces hydrogen atoms to latch on to carbon bonds in the fat in a crossways configuration, generating what’s commonly known as a trans fat. This is done not for our wellbeing, but so that said products can remain in solid form on an unrefrigerated store shelf and not go bad. That, for my mind, is reason enough to ban them from your kitchen.

In any case, the good news here is that the overall fat content of most of the healthy cooking oils and a few interesting non-oil alternative are comparable to butter, so successful substitution is certainly viable.

 

The first rule of subbing for butter or lard is that there is no hard and fast rule; it varies by recipe, and you need to experiment a bit to land on the winning formula. Here are some general guidelines to get you started.

Subbing liquid oil for butter works best in recipes that call for melted butter.

Subbing coconut oil, with its more solid form, works best in recipes that call for chilled butter. Keep in mind that coconut oil will go to liquid faster than butter will due to its lower melting point, so keeping it well chilled will serve you best when working with it in a recipe that calls for creaming, or in pie and tart crusts.

Start by subbing half the butter with your chosen alternative in a cake, muffin or cookie recipe; stick with butter or lard for pie crusts until you get a good, solid feel for how your alt choice behaves, then brave onward.

When you’re ready to 86 all the butter,

For olive, avocado, peanut, macadamia, walnut, or coconut oil, use .75:1 for the amount of butter called for.

For canola, grape seed, or hemp seed oil, use .625:1 for butter.

 

Consider these non-oil alternatives as well.

Applesauce, especially fresh, homemade, makes a fine butter alternative; it works best in cakes, muffins, and quick breads. Here again you can opt for the 50% butter, 50% applesauce route, or simple replace all the butter; doing so will yield a denser, moister product, but that’s rarely a bad thing.

Avocado is great in the same category of recipes. Avocado lowers the calorie content and yields a softer, chewier baked good.

Full fat Greek yogurt also makes a fine replacement. Use it in a 1.5:1 ratio for butter and again, you’ll lower the calories and saturated fat count of your recipe.

Closing thoughts on that tough pie crust made with butter, Christy. My first questions are; how old was the butter and the flour, what kind of flour did you use, and how cold was the butter and water? Next would be was this made by hand or machine assisted?

I like whole wheat pastry or whole wheat white flour for pie crust. Much better results than AP in my experience.

I make crust by hand, exclusively. Flaky crust requires pretty big chunks of fat and a relatively loose dough; I get the best feel for that by hand.

Machines can and will heat up your ingredients, and cold is kind when it comes to flaky crust.

Finally, keep in mind that butter has a lower melting point than lard, so it will break down to smaller sizes faster. Cut your butter into 1/4″ cubes and stick it in the freezer for about 15 minutes before you combine flour and fat.

MSG, by any other name

 

So, hopefully you’ve read our artificial ingredients primer, Ranch Revolution. It covered most of the fairly nefarious artificial ingredients and additives you find in processed food pretty well.

I’ve said before and will again that most of the health and dietary issues folks are saddled with come from these ingredients, way more so than gluten. If one did actually become gluten intolerant, I’d think of these as the gateway ingredients that make it possible. So many of these things negatively impact the GI tract, it’s no surprise that such maladies abound.

One of the most pervasive additives out there is MSG, MonoSodium Glutamate. In that referenced article, I noted the following:

“Onward; next we get ‘natural flavor (Soy)’. Sounds pretty harmless, right? No such luck. Manufacturers these days are acutely aware that a whole bunch of us don’t want Monosodium Glutamate, (MSG), in our food. Even if they say ‘No MSG’ on the label, they well may be lying to us flat out. Why? Because MSG is cheap, and very effective at adding umami taste, that mysterious savory note. Unfortunately, MSG just ain’t good for ya. Side effects can include burning sensations, weakness of the limbs, headaches, upset stomach, and hives or other allergic reactions. Ingredients labeled like the one we found here, as well as ‘yeast extract,’ or ‘hydrolyzed soy protein,’ are nothing more than MSG in disguise. And there’s another example of things the FDA lets manufacturers get away with that they maybe shouldn’t.”

My revisit comes as a result of my encountering yet another pseudonym for MSG recently, AKA the ubiquitous ‘Soy Protein’ moniker. I found this at a restaurant that offers a very comprehensive ingredient and additive list to customers. What caught my eye is that this list had a line for MSG, (and none of their stuff had that box checked), yet many did have Soy Protein as an ingredient; so, why is that an issue? Because Soy Protein is one of the many potential pseudonyms for MSG. Take a look at this chart from truth in labeling. It’s interesting to note that this page states that “everyone knows that some people react to the food ingredient Monosodium glutamate;” frankly, I don’t think that’s true, but read on…

All this prompted me to dive a bit deeper into MSG. As I noted above, MSG is famous for adding the Umami taste, the je ne sais quoi savory flavor that us humans dig big time, (I admit, however, I am not one of them; I can taste it and I don’t like it – it has a cloying metallic quality I find most unsavory indeed.) It was and is used in many Americanized versions of Far Eastern cuisines. On the other hand, it’s also accused of contributing to many maladies, so that’s where I started delving deeper.

Probably the best synopsis came from the Mayo Clinic. Their info regarding the deleterious effects of MSG pretty much mirrored those I wrote of, but their article included one vital word I did not; anecdotal. Meaning, of course, that MSG was accused but not proven to have caused or contributed to these ills. The article went on to note that research had been unable to definitely tie additive to malady.

Then I found this piece by Rachel Feltman in the Washington Post. Feltman, for the record, has a B.S. In environmental science and an MA in science reporting from NYU, and has also written for Popular Mechanics, Quartz and Scientific American, (AKA, she ain’t no hack journalist.) Feltman notes the natural root of MSG, (first derived from seaweed in Japan decades ago), and that its many glutamate cousins are predominantly naturally derived as well.

Back to that Soy Protein I found; look up this ingredient and you’ll find a broad school that touts its health benefits, including the Journal of the American Heart Asociation, which noted, “increasing evidence that consumption of soy protein in place of animal protein lowers blood cholesterol levels and may provide other cardiovascular benefits.”

Conversely, there are plenty of sites who label this stuff dangerous, but in all fairness, they generally tend to be poorly researched and lacking definitive sources for their claims. Fact is, when it comes to the science of food, proof matters more than the claim.

So there you have it. Rather than adding anything definitive to the debate, my further research generated more uncertainty.

I maintain, however, that my overarching premise regarding artificial ingredients and food additives remains sound. The fact is, there are far too many processed foods with far too much of this stuff in it. In all likelihood, MSG in moderation is probably fine. The key word, of course, is moderation; if a significant percentage of what you eat is processed food, I’ll bet you dimes to dollars that you’re getting way too much of a bunch of things that are not good for you in such volumes.

You always have been and always will be much better off using fresh, local, basic ingredients without additives of any kind, and making as much of your food as you can from scratch, at home. From granola to mustard, and mayo to tomato sauce, you’ll eat better and feel better. There’s really no debate about that.

Flour Power

 

So, I got an online message thanking me for the Wondra post, but asking where the scoop on all the other common varieties of flour was. I went and opened the flour cabinet in our pantry area and saw… Seven variations on the theme – Hard White Whole Wheat, All Purpose White, Semolina, Whole Wheat Pastry, Wondra, White Pastry, and Cake flours. Looks like the writer was right; time to clarify things a smidge.

That said, the real question of course is, whataya got in your pantry? I’ll bet most home kitchens out there have All Purpose and maybe one other variety at most, and that’s a shame; more to the point, it may be a good reason why your stuff isn’t as good as the stuff you eat elsewhere, and nowhere as good as it could and should be, so let’s fix that, eh?

I’m sure most of us have stood in the aisle, gawked at all those flour varieties and wondered, ‘Do I knead that?’ (Sorry, couldn’t resist…) Nowadays, it’s even more complex, ’cause there’re far more varieties than ever before. Take Bob’s Red Mill, my favorite source for flours and meals. They make sixty eight varieties at last count, from Almond to Whole Wheat with a bunch of letters in between, (Garbanzo, flaxseed, green pea, amaranth, and coconut, just to name a few). Some of those are riding the Anti-Gluten train, but many are things that may be new to us, yet have been around for many moons.

For this post, I’m just gonna cover the wheat-based scene; we’ll save the others for another day.

First things first, let’s talk about the ‘bad’ stuff, AKA, white processed flours. Should these be the only flours in your kitchen? My answer is a firm NO. That’s for three very good reasons, so allow me to elaborate.

One: Regular Old White Flour, by definition, means that the bran and the germ of the wheat kernel have been removed. As such, it contains significantly less fiber than its whole-grain counterpart, (in the neighborhood of 10 grams less per cup), and notably less of the nutrients you want from grain, (like folate, riboflavin, niacin, and several B vitamins).

Two: Then there’s bleaching. Some white flour is white because it’s, well… whitened. Is that done in this country still, you might ask? Answer; oh yeah it is, and it’s commonly achieved with a variety of organic peroxides, even chlorine – yummy huh? Bleached white is far and away the most commonly used flour in processed food, by the way. As such, even if you don’t buy it for home, if you do buy that stuff, you’re still screwed. Need any other reasons on your list to look for ‘Unbleached’ on the label? I don’t use cheap iodized salt, I sure ain’t using this…

Three: ‘Enriched‘, just what the hell does that mean? Well, here again, it can mean a bunch of things. Now, I bet you thought ‘processed’ flour just meant that its milled and sifted to make it a uniform flour, right? Nope, there’s more. See, with the white stuff, since they remove a good chunk of the wheat berry to make it whiter, they gotta do stuff to compensate; this is euphemistically referred to as ‘Enriching’. One of those things they do is called ‘Bromating’, meaning treating the flour with Potassium Bromate. This is done to strengthen the dough and encourage rising, because they have to compensate for proteins they removed, and by the way, they do not have to tell you if they did this in most U.S. States… Enriching also means putting back other stuff they removed, like folate, riboflavin, niacin, and several B vitamins. U.S. Law required this since around the start of WWII, to counter rising health issues caused by diets deficient in… Wait for it… The very same essential nutrients that were in the whole wheat berries they started with in the first place but removed. Ya got all that? Catch 22 anybody?

Now when you’re gawking at bags and read ‘Bleached & Enriched’, you got the full scoop, yeah? My final advice on this crap is to avoid it like the plague…
BIG FYI: In the United States, ya can’t enrich any flour or meal certified and labelled ‘Organic’, so if you want an end around all that B. S., there ya go.

The obvious next step is to say yes, it’s best to use whole grain as much as possible, but before ya do, know this: Most of the Giant Flour Companies here in the U.S. do not grind whole wheat flour from whole grain: They separate everything and then, almost as an afterthought it would seem, put ’em back together to make ‘whole wheat flour’. Why on God’s green earth would they do that, you ponder? Economics, that’s why; the lions share of their sales is white flour. The caveat here is to know who makes your flour, out of what, and how, before you buy. Up there where I said that what you make probably isn’t as good as it could or should be? The where and who of your flour is damn well as important as the which.

I like and recommend Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon and Arrowhead Mills down in Texas, because they’re conscientious folks that make good products. They’re transparent about what goes into it, where it came from, and what they do to make it what it is. Just as with any other thing you eat, the fresher and better the quality, the better off you are, so find out if there’s a local mill near you and try their stuff. If you don’t have one, or you can’t find the varieties you want, check out my guys.

White Flour Caveat. I’m not saying you should only use whole wheat flours. We don’t… Some things, for our taste preferences, simply need white flour. If you feel thus, fear not, there are options. If you can and do go all whole grain, more power to ya.

Alright, ALRIGHT, you say – we get it; on with the show!

As you wish…

Looking back above, I mentioned white versus red wheat in two different kinds of flours. Well, fact is, there are six generally recognized types of wheat, and all of them have different best uses. If you’re gonna truly grok flour, you gotta know your wheat. Here they are in a nutshell.

HARD RED WINTER is the Mac Daddy of U.S. Production and export. This variety makes most of our bread, rolls, and All Purpose flour out there. Hard Red Winter grows in the Great Plains, from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, and Canada to Mexico.

HARD RED SPRING is the protein content winner, which makes it the U.S. Baking champ. It’s grown in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

SOFT RED WINTER is the go-to wheat for flour that ends up as cakes, pastries, crackers and flat breads. This low protein variety is grown mostly east of the Mississippi River.

DURUM is the hardest U.S. wheat and is famous mostly for making Semolina flour; that goes into great pasta. Roughly 80% of our Durum hails from North Dakota.

HARD WHITE is the youngster variety of U.S. Wheat crop. It’s closely related to the reds, but sports a milder, sweeter flavor. Hard White is used for bread and rolls, bulgur, tortillas and Asian noodles, (and my favorite Whole Wheat White Flour). Kansas and Colorado lead U.S. Production.

Finally, SOFT WHITE WHEAT, is a low protein variety that yields flours used for crackers, cookies, quick breads, muffins and other snack foods. It’s grown mostly here in The Pacific Northwest.

Alright, there’s the wheat, let’s get on to flour. If we talk flour, we gotta use The G Word. Yep, Gluten. Now first and foremost, gluten is not a dirty word, ok? Unless you’re genuinely gluten intolerant, gluten is a necessity; its what gives the things we make with flour structure, strength, and texture. Without it, many things just don’t work; without it, bread just ain’t bread. So what is Gluten; fundamentally, it’s a protein matrix that develops in dough when it absorbs water and is subsequently manipulated by kneading. Gluten forms strong, flexible strands which, as yeast produces gases, (mostly CO2), in the dough, traps the gas in bubbles of various size, depending on the flour and what you’re making. That is the essence of what allows dough to rise and expand. When we finally bake it, the gluten matrix solidifies, providing the end result with its desired structural qualities.

My friend Holly is a great cook with a fine food blog, (check out her link to the right of this post). She has family members who are genuinely gluten intolerant, so she’s found ways to build most things without it, but she’d be the first to admit that many substitutions just don’t work very well. It’s genuinely hard to make good bread from flours other than wheat. Heck, you gotta add wheat flour to rye to make bread out of that common grain. If you think you have genuine issues with gluten or would benefit from a gluten free diet, read up before you act to exclude it from your diet. Fact is, if most folks stopped eating the shit food that contains the lions share of bleached, white flour in this country, they’d likely solve their dietary problems right there…  If you are genuinely intolerant, I’ll recommend Bob’s again for a wealth of organic, gluten free flours and meals, including a great A.P. Flour Blend.

So, here’s the lineup, and this will answer the ‘why so many flours in your pantry’ question. I think you’ll find that these all do a couple things really well, and by golly, if you’re out to produce the best food at home that you can, that’s what you need! Fortunately, you can find small bags of many of these, and for the most-used varieties, you’ll want more anyway. Flour varieties are ranked by protein content, high to low.

Vital Wheat Gluten isn’t really a flour, per se. It’s made from wheat flour that’s been washed to activate the gluten, then dried and ground back into a powder. At 75% to 80% protein, it’s seriously concentrated stuff. Unless you do a bunch of baking, you’re not likely to have tried it, but you might want to. Just a little bit added to a yeast-risen bread recipe can yield great results. Try it in breads containing dried fruit and nuts for a higher rise and better volume. Some bakers who regularly use bread machines add it to all their doughs.

Whole Wheat Flour, most often made from that Hard Red Spring Wheat we talked about, is the highest protein content you’ll find at 12% to 14%, about the same as bread flour. The caveat for this stuff is that quality really matters. Don’t bother with the mass produced crap, get good, locally milled organic flour.

Bread Flour is made from hard wheat and as such, also has a high 12% to 14% protein content. This yields very elastic doughs that are great for bread and pizza; it’ll give you that chewy texture you’re looking for. You’ll find bread flour milled in everything from relatively coarse American stuff to very fine Italian, (Antimo Caputo ’00’, designed for pizza dough).

Semolina is a high protein flour, (give or take 13%), prized for pasta making. Milled from Durum wheat, Semolina is also great for old style varieties of Italian bread, like pugliese and altamura. This variety can be found milled from coarse to fine. The finer milled stuff does better in extruding pasta makers, like the attachment for KitchenAid mixers, while the coarser versions do great for hand rolled pasta and breads. NOTE: coarser milled Semolina can take notably longer than the finer stuff to absorb water.

All-Purpose Flour, (called plain flour outside the U.S.), is a blend of hard and soft wheat with a fairly high 10% to 12% protein content; many have a touch of malted barley flour added as well. I’ll remind you once again of the B.S. that gets perpetrated on flour in general when I state without reservation that an Organic Unbleached White Flour like Bob’s is what you want to find. All Purpose flour is great for pie and quiche crusts, cookies and bars, and as the white component in mixed flour uses like corn bread. NOTE: There is some significant regional variation in A.P. Flour; southern U.S. bleached brands can be as low as 7% protein.

Self-Rising Flour is a medium protein flour (about 9% to 10%), that has had salt and baking powder incorporated into it. There are quite a few Southern cooking recipes that’ll call for self-rising flour, especially for biscuits, quick breads, muffins and pancakes. I hope I don’t need to say that one does not use this stuff to make yeast breads with, but I will just in case…

Pastry Flour is a soft wheat flour with a relatively low protein content, about 8% to 10%. This makes pastry flour perfect for stuff that demands a light and flaky consistency, like biscuits, tart crusts, pastries, (of course), and many cakes. It spans the gap between cake flour that’ll yield a crumbly end product, and the higher protein varieties that’ll make things too hard and chewy. Here again, this stuff ain’t made to build bread with.

Instant Flour, like Wondra, is pre-gelatinized, meaning a fine ground, low protein, (7% to 9%), soft wheat flour is steamed, dried and then has a bit of malted barley flour added to it. The result is a flour that doesn’t need cooking or a whole lotta time to blend seamlessly with liquids. That is its primary claim to fame, but there are other good uses for Instant, so check out that post I did a few days back.

Finally, there’s Cake Flour, which is a very finely milled, soft wheat product with a high starch/low protein make up, (6% to 8% protein). Know, however, that 99% of the cake flour out there is bleached, because among other things, that process makes cake flour more acidic, which aids in rising delicate batters; the low protein content also helps produce a light and fluffy cake.
King Arthur does make an unbleached cake blend that they claim doesn’t have any added chemicals; I’ve yet to try it. Grain Brain has an organic cake flour, unbleached, unenriched and very nice indeed, along with a bunch of other well done flours. 
If you don’t make a lot of cake, you can also build a very workable homemade alternative. Toss 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch in a measuring cup, then top it up to an even 1 cup with pastry flour. Use a sifter or a fine mesh strainer and sift the mixture at least 3 times; this helps incorporate, aerate and homogenize the blend. Pastry flour is about as close to cake in protein content as you can get and is almost as fine; the sifting will bring it even closer. The cornstarch inhibits gluten development in cake batter by competing for liquid absorption, thereby promoting a lighter texture. Give it a try, it works quite well!

Now, a few thoughts on subbing whole wheat for white flours. The main complaint in this arena, which I fully support, is that your baked goods come out kinda heavy. If you simply switch one flour for the other without further adjustment, that is pretty much what will happen, but there are some tricks to help makes things more palatable.

Try a high quality White Whole Wheat flour like Bob’s; you’ll get the whole grain nutrients and fiber with a taste you’ll be hard pressed to tell from white – Yes, it’s that good. You can sub this flour 1:1 for any recipe that calls for white.

Sub good quality Whole Wheat Pastry Flour for things other than bread. The stuff Bob’s makes is sublime. It makes incredibly tender, flaky biscuits, pie and tart crusts and the like. It has yet to disappoint me.

Try a 50% – 50% blend of wheat to white. You’ll get better nutrition and lighter results.

Use less whole wheat flour; if the recipe calls for a cup of white, sub 3/4 cup of whole wheat.

Try a little Vital Wheat Gluten in whole wheat and other heavy grain bread recipes; it can really help give you a better rise and a lighter loaf.

For cookies and brownies, reduce the fat content by 20%, which will encourage a softer end product.

For cakes made with all whole wheat flour, add a couple extra tablespoons of liquid; this’ll help produce a lighter cake.

When subbing whole wheat for white flour in a bread recipe, add an additional 1/4 cup of liquid to compensate.

So there ya go. Just like your spice cabinet, I just removed a bunch if free space from your pantry, huh? Go shopping!

Great Moos!

We’re making some cheese this weekend, and moving heavier into hard cheeses. This has necessitated some purchases of supplies and the making of a cheese press. If you’ve considered doing your own cheese, you’re gonna want a press eventually; look into them and you’ll find that anything decent is kinda pricy, and that many of the home made examples are kinda hokey. I’m very pleased with the one we’re building, and as soon as I know for sure it’s working as it should, I’ll share the design and the parts list with y’all.

Of course making good cheese requires, first and foremost, good milk. It’s a safe bet that more processing that milk gets, and the farther it travels to get to you, the less satisfying your home made cheese results will be.

Therefore, the closer, the fresher, the better, and that, thankfully, is pretty easy to find. Just jump over to the Campaign for Real Milk website, and you’re good to go. Click on the Real Milk Finder, and you’ll get state and town specific sources for the good stuff. There’s also a very informative section showing state by state and national status for raw milk accessibility.

Enjoy, and stay tuned!

Salted WHAT?!

Easy answer; almost everything.

No, really; why do y’all think that salted caramel, chocolate and a hundred other deserts are hot right now?

One of my favorite authors, Mark Kurlanski, wrote a great book all about salt. Think that’d be a boring read? Think again, it’s a page turner. Salt has been used for money as well as for food, ya know…

So, naturally, the next logical question is, “I thought salt was bad for us?”
Answer: All things in moderation, Grasshopper!

We’ve been told that line, but is it true? Turns out the answer is, probably not.

The whole sodium leads to high blood pressure thing has never really been proven. Again, moderation is the key; high sodium diets aren’t any good for you, but neither is much of anything else, when taken out of balance.

Besides that, there are bunches of good things salt does for us, including;
Aids blood sugar control by improving insulin sensitivity.
Helps maintain the proper stomach pH.
Helps lower adrenaline spikes.
Aids sleep quality.
Helps maintain proper metabolism.
Supports proper thyroid function.

Look any of those claims up; there’re ample sources of support for them.

More to the point for our purposes here, salt makes food taste good. You might be shocked at how much salt is used in a professional kitchen. They don’t go crazy, mind you, but they sure do salt, and the primary reason is that proper salting makes food more enjoyable, and specifically, it enhances quality over quantity. In that light, you could argue that proper salting helps encourage weight management, too.

Next, you ask, “OK, let’s say I buy that, why is it so.”

Ahh, I nod sagely, it’s science time! (And if you enjoy this side of food study, you’ll want to look up Harold McGee)

Chemically speaking, table salt, is sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-).

Why do humans dig it so? Well, we came from it, in a very real sense; The Earth is made up of lots of minerals that get continuously washed into the sea, and sea water is, therefore, salty. Sea critters get raised in that, and they are from whence we came, si? As land-based critters who evolved from sea-based critters, we still rely on water and salt for many of our basic biological processes, as described in the last paragraph. Salt plays a crucial role in allowing water to diffuse throughout our bodies properly, and as such, being relatively intelligent, we’ve developed taste buds that dig what we need to survive. Neat, huh?

Now, taste wise, research suggests that salt has the effect of flavor suppression for what we perceive as bitter tastes. By doing that, it’s thought that salt thereby allows us a greater perception of sweet and sour. It’s not really clear why it is that salt lets us taste the caramel or a green bean more distinctly; there’s supposition that the presence of the salt suppresses water within the chemistry of the food, and thereby allows volatile aromatics to become more noticeable to us. As to whether or not salt actually does something like that, or just gets our brains to perceive it as such, your guess as good as mine; that might just be a dandy PhD subject.

“Alright,” you concede, “I’m in; so how do I do this right?”

Well, first off, use the right salt. For cooking, there’s a couple things to consider, source and grain size. For my mind, sea and kosher salts are best and anything that says ‘Iodized’ or ‘Table Salt’ I avoid like the plague. As for grain size, keep in mind that the larger they get, the slower the salt dissolves. If you’re doing rubs, big grains are fine, because that nice slow, time-released salting goes great with that process. If you’re making brine, you’d like the salt to dissolve pretty quickly, so smaller is better. And keep in mind that the same thing will happen on tongues as well.

Getting the idea that you might want more than one kind of salt in your pantry? I just went and looked at ours; we have 9 varieties of sea, kosher and various finishing salts. The latter has become popular lately, and they are, in fact, pretty cool. If you’re gonna finish a dish or garnish a hand made chocolate, why not Hawaiian black, Chilean pink, or Fleur de Sel? If you’ve never tried fish quick cooked on a heated block of Himalayan Pink Salt, you aughta; it’s not only cool, it’s seriously delicious.

We use kosher and sea salts as our primary cooking varieties, flaked for canning, pickling and brining, and the various others for special touches here and there. Once you get one you like, stick to it. All salts do not weigh the same, so for baking, brining, or any other recipe where the ratio really matters, you’ll want to know where yours hits the scales. The other great thing about kosher is it’s uniformity; you can grab it and send it to a dish with great control and repeatable uniformity, and that’s important.

So, how to use the stuff like a pro?

First and foremost, the rule is, do it, but don’t overdo it. You want to taste the food better, not the salt. The best way to achieve this goal is to salt throughout the cooking process, and taste what you’re making at every step. If what you’re adding is already salty, (bacon, olives, capers, etc), taste before you salt.

Do keep in mind that salt levels will change as your dish develops. If you reduce a liquid that’s salty, it’s gonna taste saltier. Ditto for stuff you make and then shove in the fridge for a spell. On the too light side, dairy sucks up salt like nobody’s business, so multiple checks are warranted with, say, a cream soup or stew.

Do it like this and your dishes will properly develop flavor as they cook, with the added fringe benefit that, if you screw up and hit it too hard at an intermediary step, you have time to fix it.

OK, so if you do screw up and over salt, whataya do? Adding cream and or butter, as mentioned above, reduces saltiness, so do that if your dish warrants it. Starch can do the same thing, so a piece or two of bread, soaked in milk for about 10 minutes, squeezed dry and added to the dish can help; note it also acts as a bit of a thickener though. The great Julia Child advocated grating a raw potato or two into a dish, allowing it to simmer for about 10 minutes, and then straining them out, noting that, “they’ll have absorbed quite a bit of the excess salt.” Anything good enough for Julia is certainly good enough for us, right?

 photo image-9.jpg

Now, one last tip, helped by this New Yorker cover; I know y’all have watched Food Porn TV and seen a bunch of chefs do this: get a nice pinch of that kosher salt, and raise your hand about a foot above the pan or bowl, and ever so slowly, release a dusting of salt from that lofty height. You didn’t really think those chefs do that just to look cool, did you? The increased drop height will allow you to better judge the amount of salt you’re adding, as well as allowing the salt granules to spread more evenly over the food.

Oh, and you’ll look cool when you do it, too.