If there’s a dietary issue we’ve heard more about in recent years than the danger of consuming excess Sugar, it’s the danger of consuming excess Salt. I think it’s time to explore the role of Salt in our diets and bodies, and learn how to use it properly in our daily culinary routines…
Back around 1980, I worked for a guy who personified the proverbial ‘picture of health’. He was tall, built like a football wide receiver and seemed to glow when he smiled. Well, maybe that last part was just my imagination, but you’ve no doubt heard the expression ‘the glow of health’. Anyway. When he dropped dead from a massive stroke at the age of 52, everybody was shocked – everybody but me. I remember how he’d stand next to the coffee machine in the break room with a Granny Smith Apple in one hand and a Salt shaker in the other, eating the Apple, Salting each bite before taking it. He said it made the Apple taste sweeter. But even then, the scientific and medical communities were warning that too much Salt raised one’s risk of heart disease and stroke.
How Salt works
Humans have evolved, as a species, to need a certain amount of Salt to live. It has a role in regulating a number of biological functions as well as maintaining the fluid content in our systems. Crucially, Salt is an electrolyte, which means that, along with potassium, calcium and magnesium, it has a central role in the transmission of signals in our nervous systems.
But, as skilled cooks, we have an overriding interest in the role Salt plays in the flavouring of our culinary creations. And therein lies the rub, as Hamlet would have said.
Our taste buds have evolved to respond to Salt by telling our brains that the food we’re eating is more desirable than the same food unaccompanied by Salt. In ancient times, that assured that we would consume enough Salt that our bodies would function normally. But that was before Salt was commonly available. As late as the Biblical era, Salt was so rare that it was prized and even used as a trading currency across cultures and between vastly-separated geographical regions. Everybody knew it was important.
Salt is not a Spice
Many folks – even serious non-pro cooks – think that Salt is a Spice. Not true. Spices are biological compounds made from the stems, seeds, dried pods or roots of plants. Salt is a mineral, composed of Sodium and Chlorine, both fundamental elements found in the chemists’ Periodic Table. We get it from the Sea and by mining it from the ground where ancient oceans laid it down in orderly strata.
Salt does have a flavour of its own, as well know, but it’s main function in adding flavour to our foods comes from the way it activates our taste buds to taste the food more efficiently. And it takes only a small amount of Salt to do that. One of my instructors at culinary school used to say, if you can actually taste the Salt in your dish, it’s too Salty. Ideally, you want to detect only the flavour-amplifying effect and not the Salt, itself. This is why we differentiate Salt from Spices and Herbs by calling it a ‘seasoning’, rather than a flavouring in its own right.
Even Caramel and Chocolate taste better with a little Salt added, to heighten the effect of their flavours on our palates.
Salt is a ‘necessary evil’ but should be carefully moderated in our diets. To fall back on another old, tired but nevertheless true adage, ‘Less is more’. Just because we have free and easy access to Salt in our modern world, we need to be conscious of what Salt does and resist the temptation of using too much…
~ Maggie J.