Salt gets a pretty bad rep, thanks to diet magazines, the internet and that bearded guy with a feathered hat and glitter Speedos we’ve all met at every festival, ever. It’s really a bit unfair on this humble and generous mineral. Sure, over-salted vegetables make you so thirsty that you wonder if you should change your name to ‘Sahara’, and there is an unnecessary addition of Monosodium-Glutemate (otherwise knowns as MSG) in just about everything with a wrapper. We’ll be dropping some science bombs on that later, but first, let me tell you a story.
Are you sitting down? Ok. Let us begin.
Once upon a time, there was a king who had three beautiful daughters. They wanted not for gold nor love. The King wanted to know how much each of them loved him too, so he asked them: “My dear daughters, I crave to know how much you love me. Pray, tell.”
“Father, I love you more than gold or silver,” said the eldest daughter, and the king was pleased; he knew the value of these precious metals.
“I love you more than sapphires and rubies, diamonds and pearls. I love you more than any jewel, father,” the second daughter professed, impassioned. The king was pleased; he was moved by his daughter’s expression.
Then, the third daughter said in a simple, sincere and quiet voice: “Father, I love you more than salt.” The king was not pleased; salt was so… common!
“Salt?” the king said, incredulously.
“SALT?!?” the king bellowed, his confusion dissipating and morphing into fury.
“For the beautiful silks with which I have lavished you, for all the jewellery with which I have adorned you… you dare compare me with SALT?! Be gone, child! You are banished from my kingdom!” Enraged, the king’s finger trembled as he pointed at the palace gates.
Dutifully, the girl left and travelled to the neighbouring kingdom, taking with her nothing but a small box of salt. Having watched her patiently knock on every door, just for it to be closed once more, the cook of the palace took pity on her and offered her lodgings in exchange for work as his assistant in the kitchen. The girl was grateful and was diligent in her work. For several years, all was simply how it was.
One day, the prince was suddenly taken ill. Healers, shamans and mystiques visited the kingdom promising cure, but he only became weaker and thinner as each day passed.
“Please, let me make a broth for the prince,” said the little girl to the cook, begging.
The kingdom was desperate. So, despite his reluctance, the cook agreed. The girl opened her little box of salt and sprinkled it bit by bit into a simple broth and it was sent to the prince. With each sip, the prince gained strength and colour in his cheeks. At the last drop, the prince came and to his feet.
“Find me the soul who healed me with this broth, and they will be rewarded handsomely,” he proclaimed.
The cook put himself forward, fearing for any repercussions for the girl who was banished from her kingdom. The prince tasted his broth but was disappointed.
“No. Tell me who made my broth,” he commanded fiercely.
The cook had no choice but to put the girl forward. She made the soup, just like the one that rejuvenated the prince. He took a sip and looked at the little girl for a long time, falling in love with each passing second.
“I can offer you nothing but my life. Let me be your husband and you will want for nothing,” said the prince.
And so, a week of dress-measuring, linen-choosing and wine-tasting commenced. The princess spoke with her previous master, the cook, and asked there to be no salt to be used on the first dish of the wedding.
“I don’t understand!” he said, confused.
The princess simply smiled and said, “Please, for me.”
The big day has arrived and as the guests walked into the palace hall and took their seats, at the highest table sat the princess’ father, the king. Excitement in the room rose as the food arrived. The sound of clinking cutlery and happy chatter throughout the hall was suddenly replaced with gasps and wretches as people recoiled from their dinner. “What on Earth is this?” hissed some queen or other of somewhere.
Amidst the chaos, the king ate his food in sober silence, beads of tears rolling softly down his cheeks and on to his plate. Silence blanketed the room as they all watched.
“My daughter said she loved me more than salt, and I banished her from my kingdom. Now, I truly know. If I find her, may she forgive me,” the king said quietly, looking only at his plate.
The princess stood up and walked gracefully towards the king.
“Father, I forgive you. I love you more than salt.”
It’s quite a magical crystal that draws out every, last bit of flavour in any food and changes bread from something bland, to something mouth-watering. It is also important to our bodies’ functionality (lest we forget the sick prince!); high quality sea salt and Himalayan pink salt contain trace minerals that the body needs, and these are increasingly more difficult to obtain from our usual food sources because our soil is less nutrient-rich. Major electrolytes such as magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium present in salt also play an important part in regulating muscle movement – from your pumping heart to your running legs; a loss in sodium can cause extreme dehydration (conversely, an excess in sodium leads to water retention and bloating).
Monosodium Glutamate is different from naturally occurring sea salts. It is a chemically prepared salt – the sodium that is extracted from glutamic acid. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with its basic existence; it is simply a concentrated salt. However, its cheap production and property to preserve just about anything has led to its use in almost every product in the supermarket, which means that we consume far more of it than we need or realise. When cooking from scratch, it’s impossible to even come close to the amount of sodium used in pre-prepared meals or ingredients.
On that note, let’s get cooking!
Whether we’re roasting, sautéing or soup-ing, we use salt at every stage of the process – but never at the end. Here are some of the ways that we use salt in our kitchen, and why we are so enamoured with it!
When the vegetables are freshly chopped (especially ones that contain a lot of water – courgettes, carrots, tomatoes), they are salted. As if by magic, the juices start to come out and the flesh gets softer – all within seconds, happening before our eyes! Then, we taste the juice – it doesn’t taste of salt at all! It’s sweet and flavoursome. After this stage the vegetables might be roasted or sautéed, flipped or stirred, and there’ll be another tasting and an addition of salt. During the cooking process, the salt continues to draw out moisture and flavour from the food, and once it’s work is done its own salty taste simply disappears.
Salt is also a very important component for blanching vegetables – it is the difference between a satisfying broccoli, or a bland-bitter floret. For blanching vegetables that we intend to eat, salt is first dissolved in the water; this retains the flavour and moisture within the vegetables’ cells. When making stock, plain water is used.
Both processes work based on osmosis; fluids like to live in balance, so when one environment contains less moisture or minerals, water goes there – simples! (To some at least, I had to read the same paragraph on osmosis like… 12 times).
Simply put, salt is a natural preservative. For centuries, it has been used to cure meat, fish and dairy. Salt dehydrates bacterial cells (osmosis!) and inhibits its growth.
Technically, sourdough bread has only two ingredients: water and flour. But salt makes one hell of a difference. It aids the texture of bread by strengthening the binding properties of gluten in the dough, making the grain more uniform and allowing the dough to rise without tearing too much. As the bread rises overnight, salt in the dough helps to control the fermentation process by slowing down the growth of bacteria and yeast a little, making the resulting sourdough bread a little more predictable. It is also responsible for that delicious gold colour of bread crust; salt reduces the destruction of sugars in the dough and allows it to caramelise in the hot oven.
So, there you have it. Let us know what you think! In the meantime, we’re going to go home and tell our mothers, fathers, wives and husbands that we love them… more than salt.