All About Salt

Learn about the science of salt—along with the flavor and best uses of increasingly popular artisan salts.

| September/October 2013

  • Salt is a crucial part of our diets and our bodies, yet years of dietary advice tells us to limit our intake. Emerging science may suggest salt isn’t as bad as we once thought.
    Photo By Thomas Gibson
  • "There's no other ingredient except water that costs you less. And there's no other ingredient, period, that does more. High-quality, artisan salt is the most cost-effective ingredient on the face of the earth." —Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow, a gourmet food shop in Portland, Oregon
    Photo By Thomas Gibson

Salt is the only rock we eat. Nearly every recipe, from lentil soup to chocolate chip cookies, calls for salt. It is essential to cooking, and just as essential to our survival. Wars have been waged and international trade routes forged all because of the supreme value of an inorganic mineral. Homer referred to salt as a “divine substance.” The ancient Romans called a man in love salax, or “in a salted state.” Its value is evident in its linguistic progeny: The Latin root word has spawned sauce, salad, sausage, salacious and even salary—but is it worth its salt?

All About Salt

Guide to Artisan Salt Types
Make Your Own Gourmet Salt Blends
Gourmet Cooking Salt Resources

Salt In Our Cooking

Salt is an essential component of many of the world’s greatest foods, including bread, cheese and cured meats. In recipes, it performs vital functions from thwarting bacteria to regulating yeast. As sodium chloride dissolves in liquid, it splits into individual atoms. Because these molecules are small and mobile, they penetrate other ingredients and cause cellular changes. For example, they draw water out of cells. If enough salt is present, the kinds of bacteria that spoil foods are suppressed, and those that create new flavors thrive. Until modern times, salt was the primary means of making food last longer. We still use salt in preserving foods from bacon to pickles.

In fact, salt has more than 14,000 known uses. Paramount is its ability to amplify flavor in almost all foods. Salt also helps retain color in cooked vegetables, makes water boil faster, helps freeze ice cream, and makes bitter and sour foods taste less so.



Salt In Our Bodies

Salt is 40 percent sodium, 60 percent chloride. The sodium and chloride ions in our bodies mostly hang out in plasma and other extracellular fluids. There, they carry electrical impulses and, by osmosis, regulate the amount of potassium and other ions inside cells.

The relationship between salt and blood pressure is this: Our bodies retain water in order to maintain a stable concentration of sodium in our blood. The more salt in our bodies, the more water. This, in turn, expands blood vessels, causing blood pressure to spike at least briefly until the kidneys eliminate the salt and water. Many experts believe that continued high blood pressure leads to heart disease, stroke and eventually premature death.



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