Everyone loves salt. Chefs love salt. Cooks love salt. I love salt. Even some of my zealous colleagues love salt as long as you don’t use too much.
But I am not going to discuss the usual list of salt problems. Why? Because this post is about salt, which is a molecule, and not about sodium, which is one of the elements that makes up the salt molecule.
When health professionals address “salt” problems, they are talking about sodium problems. Don’t get me wrong. These sodium problems are important and include health risks, conflicting expert research, and medical costs. But my problem with salt has nothing to do with sodium or health risks. My problem with salt is that it is hard to measure
Pictured above is my beam balance jeweler’s scale with the required 5.8 grams salt needed for a batch of my own artisan vinaigrette. I make up a batch every 10 days or so and I weigh the salt every time because it’s the only way to get an accurate measure.
The measurement issue really hit me earlier this year when I listened to a talented chef tell some colleagues how bad he had messed up. But let me start this story at the beginning.
I was doing data collection work for a Manhattan restaurant. One of the perks of working with restaurant folks is you get to schmooze a little with chefs. Now I know chefs love salt and I’ve watched them through handfuls on foods as they cooked. I also know chefs don’t always like to measure stuff. Most chefs don’t even want to talk to an RDN about salt, but since I was there to do some work, the atmosphere was relaxed and salt did come up in the conversation.
“You know just the other evening I was cooking at a friend’s house and I put in way too much salt … like I’m the professional and I lost so much credibility … talk about embarrassing … I don’t know what happened but wow was it a disaster … ” Those words got everyone’s attention. When the chef de cuisine said he messed up, everyone listens. Now this chef is so good at what he does no one believed him when he said he messed up. No one that is except me and I had a pretty good idea why he messed up.
The salt he used in the restaurant was different from the salt his friend stocked in the pantry. Mistakes like this one happen all the time. Why? Because depending on the grind, the type, and even the manufacturer, salt volumes can vary. Not just a little either. Salt volumes can very a lot!
Most really good cooks and probably all chefs do what I usually do which is salt to taste. That is what Julia Child said. It’s right there in black and white in all her books. As she put it “adjust seasoning.”
The technique works just fine as long as you use the same brand, the same type, the same grind, and you are cooking for the same people. Salting to taste works great when all those variables are stable. Maybe you use a little more than my zealous colleagues would like to see on a plate, but if you know what you’re doing and you know your customer, the amount you use will taste just fine.
So given how variable salt volumes can be, what is the best method when you use a different grind, or change brands, or cook for a different customer, or a family member has a health problem?
Here is what I do. I use my jeweler’s scale and I weigh salt. Gram for gram, different grinds or types of salt can be substituted one for the other by weight. Coarsely ground red sea salt or fine evenly ground table salt or translucent flakey kosher salt, no matter which you use, if you measure by weight you will get the same amount of saltiness. That is why I weigh salt for my vinaigrette. I want just the right amount every time.
Try to visualize how variable salt volumes can be with these different kinds of salt. Oversized large grains of sea salt take up one size space. Light flakes of fluffy salt take up another size space. And evenly ground small grains of table salt take up yet another size space.
In other words, using a teaspoon of table salt instead of a teaspoon of flake salt means twice as much salt. Yep, you read that one right. Put another way, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon salt and the developer used flake salt but you use table salt, the result will be twice as salty. And twice as much sodium. Oooooops! Said I wasn’t going to mention sodium. Oh well …
Anyway, that is the reason why nerds like me get a scale for measuring salt. A good digital jeweler’s scale costs over at least $100 or more. I would love to have one, but even I can justify that price. So what I use is a beam balance jeweler’s scale and this works just fine for the types and grinds that I need to measure.
These are guidelines I use when accurate measurement is required:
- If you salt to taste, always use the same grind and the same type. And if you cook in someone else’s kitchen, be cautious.
- If you use spoons to measure salt, keep in mind that 1 teaspoon of the flake version like diamond kosher salt weighs 3 grams (1/10 ounce) but 1 teaspoon table salt weighs 6 grams (1/5 ounce). Sea salts and colored salts and exotic salts will vary but most will fall much closer to the table salt than the flake salt.
- When you try out a new recipe, always try to determine what type and grind the recipe developer was using. Most recipes use table salt but not all. And be cautious. You can always add more salt. Taking it out once you have added too much is virtually impossible.