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.