Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Salty Paradox

If you're someone who actively endeavors to scope out the best of eats wherever you go like I do, you would often come across near perfect plates of food that transform your existing notions of gastronomic grandeur. Whether it’s an amazing burger or a slurpy good bowl of Ramen, what makes a dish great is usually a delicate balance of flavors, textures, and tastes that work in synergy to produce a wonderful end result.

Every once in a while, there also happens to be a certain secret ingredient that makes a noticeable difference in the way a dish tastes--one that is hard to identify unless revealed.

Whether it is jaggery in a wholesome sambar, nutmeg in creamed spinach, or even cayenne pepper in a smoky delicious brownie, secret ingredients offer completeness to dishes that would otherwise be mediocre in comparison. Most such ingredients today are in fact not very obscured in secrecy. I believe the internet, mass media, and globalization are to blame.

A true secret ingredient then must be one that lends itself to being a very crucial factor in affecting the taste of a dish without being the obvious guess in the list of ingredients.

The romantic gastronome would cornily argue that the best ingredient is 'love'. A pleasant state of mind or a general want to cook good food definitely helps to produce something that's worth serving to others, but does it have that significant an impact? The realist in me begs to differ.

I've learnt over the past several years of cooking and learning about food that the greatest ingredient of them all is, in fact, also the most common one used in cooking--salt.

If you've been cooking for a while, you'll realize that minute differences in salt quantities can have dramatic effects on the outcome. I learnt the importance of properly seasoning food when I started out at Le Bernardin in New York City as a garde manger cook and was not allowed to add salt and pepper to anything for the first two weeks. It was only after a detailed demo on seasoning from the Chef that I (and every other cook that works there) was allowed to start seasoning food.

Sadly, many other chefs and cooks do not realize the significance of proper seasoning and in fact, hardly taste as they cook which in my opinion is culinary blasphemy.

The tricky part about using salt, however, is that its perception is very subjective to the palate of the person eating it. What is perfect seasoned for me might be a tad too salty for someone else. This is precisely why every good savory recipe will specify salt 'to taste' as opposed to mentioning an exact quantity.

So as a cook, how do you combat this diverse subjectivity in the discernment of salt in foods? For starters, know who you’re serving it to. Often, judgments can be made just based on a matter of common sense. For example, children under the age of 10 usually would be content with less salt in their foods primarily because their palates are still young and very sensitive.

Different salts also have different densities which have a marked impact on the saltiness of the final product. Even geographic locations and cuisines also play a part. I am quite sure that the acceptable level of salt in dishes is lesser in India as compared to New York simply based on my experiences in kitchens in both places. Other factors that will play an important role in deciding are the temperature the food is served at, the type of dish, the time of day, etc.

When using salt while cooking, add small quantities at every stage as opposed to only adding it at the end. Salt happens to have the incredible ability of drawing out the flavors of other foods because of its osmotic properties, so it does make a difference.

Salt is crucial for maintaining the fluid balance of our body and therefore, for our very survival. But excess consumption has been linked to various health conditions including stroke, high bloog pressure, and osteoporosis. Did you know that you could possibly die if you consumed 1 g of salt per kg of your body weight in a short span of time?

It is safe to say that salt is perhaps the most important ingredient used in cooking and perhaps the only one in the pantry that is truly indispensable. It is immensely hard to make a dish taste good without adding salt. Ironically, it also has the potential to make a dish practically inedible if added in excess. This is precisely why one needs to take care while using it.

So season as you go and taste at every stage of cooking. The next time a dish doesn't turn out as delicious as you'd hoped it would, try adjusting the seasoning. Maybe, just maybe, all it needs is a pinch of salt.


  1. exactly why eggs are never seasoned and you
    got a cruet set at the table for guests to add more
    which usually mallus would prefer.
    you fucked if its too much
    no turnin back

    mallus like everythin in the extreme
    ha ha ha live life king size but do also think about ya subjects
    gastronomy is a baby alchemy
    and you pretty good at it bro

    shower baby shower
    let the salt rain down


  2. about cookin with love
    trust me it works
    it all boils down to vibrations(quantum mech)
    and if ya in a stress full kitchen
    the same energy will go to ya guests
    its not about the ephemeral taste after
    finishin ya dish but more so about the lastin after effect.

    exactly why there no other substitute to mommy's
    a good lovin mommy i.e


  3. Hello Chef,

    You have a very nice blog. Hope to catch up with it over the weekend.


  4. @Jeeth: You make cooking sound very complicated, buddy. It's really not. You just have to use your common sense and your palate and just go with it!

    @Gaayathry: Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. Any feedback is much appreciated. You can mail me at

  5. hey tomma

    i aint makin cookin any complicated
    than it is AS simplified

    as it a baby science nevertheless

    you speak of using common sense
    how Common is it bro

    every bugger likes just a little more/less
    mexicans like more spice, while the french
    non chewable fluid pureed food,
    who ll fart fire if there too much spice

    more than finding a balance
    its about knowin
    that which ya REPEAT CLIENTELE loves repeatin

    if ya in b'lore
    stoned/drunk as they are
    trust me
    exactly whats gonna save Mother Earth

    not an obsession for more(toiletries & gadgets)
    but an accentuated
    FEELING of More

    you need to bring in more texture to taste
    think about it
    in all the slurpy pureed feeling
    a crunchy bite will awake ya senses

    exactly why
    telguites love crunchy mixtures as side dishes
    and malyalis a THICK FAT CHILLI by the side

    it more about the side dishes
    that can COMPLIMENT

    than the objective MAIN COURSE


  6. sugar make it rich and salt make it tasty both are luxurious.
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  7. How I love reading your blog Chef!

  8. How I love reading your blog Chef!