In the next episode of our series about pantry staples, we look closely at one of the most loved (and feared) ingredients in our kitchen: salt.
Alongside pepper, salt is the king of all seasonings in the kitchen - the pair rarely leave the counter and go into pretty much every single dish we enjoy. But while it is sometimes feared for its potentially detrimental effect on our health - too much of it can be harmful - salt is essential for life in general.
What is salt?
Salt is a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl). It is present in vast quantities in seawater, where it is the main mineral constituent. The earliest evidence of salt use dates back to 6,000 BC in central Europe (what is nowadays Romania), where people boiled spring water to extract salts. Salt was then used by most ancient civilisations, from China to the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Egyptians, and the Indians. Throughout the centuries, salt has been an important article of trade, was used to raise tax revenues, and has also been an essential ingredient in food preservation.
There are different types of salt, starting with the ubiquitous table salt, which is made using underground salt deposits. It is finely ground and treated with an anti-caking agent to keep from clumping. Most table salt is iodised in order to provide the trace element iodine to the diet (in order to prevent goitre, a disease of the thyroid gland). Kosher salt is coarser-grained and flakier than regular table salt, and usually less processed. Sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater. It is usually unrefined and contains minerals such as zinc, potassium and iron, giving it more depth in flavour. Mined from the Punjab region of Pakistan, Himalayan pink salt is rich in minerals, resulting in its distinct hue. Fleur de Sel, which literally means flower of the salt, is a thin, delicate crust that forms on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. This salt crust is then manually skimmed off. Fleur de Sel brings a refined taste, and while it is quite expensive (around €20 per kilo), just a small pinch is needed to produce an intense flavour.
READ MORE: Pantry Staples: Soy Sauce
The health issue
Salt is said to be an important factor in the development of hypertension in industrialised countries such as Ireland. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the average daily salt intake in the island is approximately 10g in adults, which is well above the physiological requirements. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is about 4 to 5g per day for adults.
However, while it is estimated that about 15-20% of total dietary sodium intake is from salt added in cooking and at the table, 15% comes from naturally occurring sodium in unprocessed foods and about 65-70% from manufactured foods. Meat, fish, and bread account for over 50% of salt intake from foods, with the remainder coming from various other processed foods, including dairy products, soups and sauces, spreading fats, biscuits, cakes, pastries, confectionery and breakfast cereals. It means that cutting down on processed foods is the first and easiest way to reduce our salt intake.
How to choose and store salt
As with olive oil, you need to have different types of salt in your kitchen to fit the different purposes and make the most of the money you spend on it. Add inexpensive table salt to boiling water before you cook pasta or vegetables. Use Himalayan or sea salt for seasoning and fleur de sel just before serving, as a last-second garnish.
To keep your salt in its best shape, there is one enemy that you need to protect it from: moisture. Salt is a mineral that is water soluble, which means that moisture in the air will cause it to stick together. The best way to store salt is to place it in an airtight container.
What to do with salt?
We are not going to state the obvious; everybody uses salt (unless otherwise advised by a doctor), and not many people can say they don’t like salt. While salt is essential is most savoury dishes, it is also a key ingredient in most baked goods, highlighting the flavours and preventing them from being sickly-sweet. Salted caramel is a great example of how salt can bring a sweet food to a whole other level of tastiness.
Many recipes mention “season to taste” and don’t advise for a precise amount of salt. It is because the need for salt depends on your palate, and while some people cannot eat without adding it before they even taste a dish, some others don’t need much of it to get the flavour of the food. That’s why it is probably best to season your dishes to a minimum, place the salt on the table and let your guests decide whether it is needed or not.