Using salt is one of the three most important skills in cooking, the other two being good knife skills and the proper use of heat. For many, hearing that salt is a basic cooking skill will come as a surprise. Given the linkage been salt and high blood pressure and other heart diseases, many home cooks have started to limit the amount of salt in their food. These same cooks wonder why food at restaurants tastes better.
Salt does a number of very important things in cooking and baking. First, salt helps to draw the juices out of meat and vegetables. For proteins, this promotes crust formation when they are and it is why so many recipes state that meat should be liberally sprinkled with salt several minutes before cooking.
For vegetables, drawing out the juice does several things. First, in sautés, it causes them to cook faster and more completely. When adding them to a sauce, the salt will cause the vegetables to release their juice and add it to the surrounding liquid. This will make the resulting food have a richer flavor.
In baking, salt has a number of useful functions. It provides structure to baked goods by strengthening gluten (wheat proteins) and it helps to brown crusts. Salt also prevents staleness by inhibiting or killing yeasts that are present in the finished product.
While all of this is crucial to preparing good food, the most important thing that salt does is fire the taste buds. The tongue has different sets of taste buds, each of which are specifically designed for one type of taste: sweet, bitter, umami (savory), sour, and salty. Without salt, one entire category of taste bud is underutilized or not utilized at all.
The common saying is that salt makes things taste more like themselves. In a roundabout way, this is accurate. Because the salt causes an additional set of taste buds to fire, the taste signals to the brain will be both clearer and stronger.
It bears repeating that the primary skills of a home cook are the use of heat, good knife skills, and the [i]proper[/i] use of salt. Seasoning food is a balancing act. The cook should strive to find enough salt so that the food tastes good without it tasting salty. There is not a great margin of error when using salt in food: a little too much tastes as bad as far too much. Still, in most cases, food can take more salt than the cook might think.
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