how to cook 101 – SALT

I found this super-amazing gem of a book this weekend at Powell’s titled How to Taste by Becky Selengut. The author is so hilarious, I was reading it aloud in the car with bae and we were laughing at all her little jokes and puns throughout the very educational content. I can already tell this book is going to be a game-changer for me! She goes over how the elemental tastes (salt, acid, sweet, fat, bitter and umami) affect each other, our perceptions of flavor, and the balance of the dish as a whole. AND there are food experiments! Yas to hands-on learning, because otherwise, I. will. forget.

Today I learned about the vitality of salt. Salt is VITAL. Salt is a flavorant, which means (according to Becky) that it doesn’t contribute a flavor of its own, but rather it brings out and elevates the flavor of other ingredients. This is apparently why there is salt in desserts! She says it is so important to salt “early and often” when cooking. If you go off the deep and and put too much salt in a dish, you can either bulk up or dilute the dish, add sweetness, add acidity (like lemon juice or vinegar), or add fat (like olive oil or coconut milk) to “coat the tongue” so you taste less salt in the dish. GENIUS!

Today’s experiment showed the importance of salt to bring all the flavors together in perfect balance and highlight each ingredient. I made a Spiced Carrot Salad, but in stages to taste along the way how different tastes (bitter, fat, vinegar and finally salt) affect food and flavor.

  1. Raw (organic unpeeled) Carrot – tastes earthy (like dirt) and pretty bitter/spicy. There is a tiny hint of sweetness buried deep below its strong bite.
  2. Seasoned Carrot – (pulverized carrot with toasted cumin seeds, cinnamon and red chili powder) lost almost all of the bitterness/bite. It really doesn’t taste that bad just with the dry seasonings, sort of like crunchy seasoned dry carrots.
  3. Added Fat – olive oil added to the experiment caused the overall earthiness to decrease. I could taste more of the cinnamon and the oil coating the carrots definitely made it easier to swallow.
  4. Added Acid – lemon juice added the ability to now taste all the flavors – the warmth of the cinnamon, the aromatic cumin, the carrot itself is now coming through with a hint of spice alongside the brightness of the lemon juice. It’s starting to taste like a real salad now.
  5. Added Salt – after adding about 3/4 tsp salt, everything really tastes MORE like itself. Everything that was detectable when the acid was added is now shining through in all its glory. It’s so crazy that salt made the carrot taste more carrot-y, the spices taste more like their aromatic goodness, and the lemon juice taste even brighter.
  6. Grand Finale – topping off the creation with herb goat cheese, fresh toasted squash seeds, chopped parsley and minced serrano pepper made this dish so unbelievably yummy! Did I really create this master piece!? The carrots taste sweet, the goat cheese tastes creamy and tangy, the herbs and spices taste so fresh and lively and the toasted squash seeds give a grounding nutty flavor. The sharp kick of heat at the back of the throat from the chile that sneaks up after eating a bit of the salad brings a pleasant warmth to this refreshingly cool dish. Look at me – I sound like I know what I’m talking about (hehe!)

The whole dish is bright like a salad, but well-balanced and filling. Which is exactly Becky’s point throughout her book – you need to balance the tastes to achieve a satisfying meal.

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