Worth One’s Salt

by Rebecca Robison

When Thomas Keller, chef and owner of the famed French Laundry Restaurant was asked, “What’s the most important thing for a cook to know?” He didn’t wait long to answer: “Salt, and how to use it.” The first thing he teaches new cooks is how to season food. *

Even the Romans valued salt to such a great extent it was an item of trade and was also used to pay wages. Thus the expression, “He was worth his salt.”

I recently purchased a new cookbook that is becoming one of my favorites, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman. Included in his book are “twenty techniques that will make you a better cook.” This book is worth its weight in salt and a “must have” for anyone who loves to cook and eat. Not surprisingly, the topic he selected to begin his book is salt, and how it “heightens flavors in all cooking across the board… and may be the most influential factor in the overall impact on meat.”   I was elated that he addresses how simple yet crucial this step is.

I prepared a Tenderloin Boneless Roast from Double R Ranch Co. this Easter. I salted it with coarse kosher salt while it was coming to room temperature on the counter (and I might add, bringing the meat to room temperature ensures even cooking). Salting the meat early will season the meat inside and out.

When it came time to put my tenderloin in the oven, I patted it dry, brushed it generously with Dijon mustard, and rolled it in a mixture of crushed garlic, a bit more kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper and fresh herbs. I reflected on how the process of seasoning correctly is such an essential part of being a good cook. I am frequently asked questions about the use of salt. “When should I salt?” “Will it dry out the meat?” “What types of salt should I use?”  “Should I salt at all?

I couldn’t agree more with the techniques in this book, especially on seasoning, and now I have someone else to back me up when these questions arise. Thank you Michael!

Here are a few of the recommendations from his book:

  • Salt meat as soon as you bring it home from the grocer. Salting before storing allows the salt to penetrate the muscle completely and acts as a preservative keeping the meat fresher longer.
  • Use coarse kosher salt, it is easier to hold and easier to control than fine salt.  It’s best to measure with your fingers and eyes, not with measuring spoons.
  • Always salt to taste, that means if it calls for a tablespoon, maybe your taste is only a teaspoon, so start small, and taste as you go.
  • Sea salts are heavy and can weigh twice as much a coarse kosher salt, so one more reason to taste as you go. If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of kosher salt and you use a tablespoon of fine sea salt, you will have added twice the amount of salt.
  • Salting meat does not suck out the juices; it is mainly water that’s being drawn out, thus concentrating the meats flavor.
  • Salt should be used at the outset and throughout the cooking process to build flavors. Use salt by thinking about the end result, tasting and comparing and tasting some more. This one skill will do more than any other to improve your cooking.
  • Do not use iodized salt. It has a chemical taste that’s not good for your food. Salt companies added potassium iodide to salts in the 1920’s to prevent iodine deficiencies, which is no longer a concern in developed countries.  Don’t use regular, granulated table salt for the same reason; it has additives that don’t taste good.

* from Ruhlman’s Twenty, A Cook’s Manifesto

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