When You Add Salt During Cooking Matters — Here’s Why
There are three basic elements that distinguish professional cooking from amateur cooking: Fat, heat, and seasoning. And by seasoning, I mean salt. One of the interesting things about salt is that when you apply it to food can be just as important as how much you use.
First — what is salt? Well, salt is a mineral, an essential nutrient that the body requires to function. Salt can either be mined or processed from seawater.
When I was growing up, it was common for many people to salt their food at the table before even tasting it. I'm very happy that we're shifting away from that habit because, if food is seasoned properly along the way, it simply tastes better. Sprinkling lots of salt over the top of cooked dishes often makes it taste… just outright salty.
Every ingredient will react a little differently to salt — and to when you apply it. So here are a handful of foods where I find that the timing of your salt application really makes a difference.
Pasta boiled in unsalted water tastes flat and, honestly, pretty awful. But if you try to remedy that by over-salting the cooked pasta, the harsh overpowering salt flavor just makes it worse. Salting the water allows the seasoning to penetrate the pasta, flavoring it from the inside. When it comes down to dropping salt in the pot, remember that a very large percentage of the salt will go down the drain. So don't be afraid to add a tablespoon or two to your pasta water. The same principle applies to boiling potatoes.
Salting some meats (especially beef and pork) a few hours before cooking allows the salt to draw out some of the internal moisture, which is then reabsorbed into the meat WITH the salt, thus seasoning from the inside out. That's also basically the same science behind brining. In fact, it's called "dry brining."
Related: How to Cook Steak
I'm generally not a big fan of salting meat 10 minutes before cooking. I like to give it at least an hour or so, even overnight. You can salt right before it hits the pan, but the flavor won't really penetrate much at all. I am, however, a very big fan of a light sprinkling of great sea salt just before serving a cooked steak. Not a shower, just a few grains — that way, it's a perfect final flourish, not an actual attempt to fully season the meat.
I feel almost the very same way about salads as I do a steak. Adding a reasonable touch of salt to the dressing is great, but JUST before serving, I like to top a salad with a few flakes of "finishing" sea salt to really help the flavors pop.
I'm all for salting the water I'm cooking dried beans in. I know, most people tell you never to do that. But I disagree. My beans come out tender and well seasoned. You can even salt the water you soak your beans in overnight; in essence, brining the beans.
Mushrooms & Other Water-Dense Ingredients
When sauteing a water-filled ingredient, like quartered mushrooms, I don't salt right away, because the salt would draw all of the moisture out. Instead, I let them brown a bit, and only salt just before taking them off the heat. The result: beautifully browned mushrooms that are still moist, but not swimming in water.
Bread & Baked Goods
Have you ever forgotten to salt your dough when making bread? Not a mistake you'll make a second time. And no amount of salted butter will help. In baking (especially savory baking projects) skimping or forgetting the salt on the front end can hardly be helped at the finish line.
Soups & Other Multi-Element Dishes
An idea that I practice (but that I know confuses some folks) is seasoning all elements of a dish while cooking. For example, if I start off sauteing onions, I add a bit of salt. Then, when I add tomatoes, I salt those a bit too. And so on. Am I positive that each element then tastes objectively well seasoned, more so than if I only salted the completed dish once? While I'm not sure it would hold up in court, or a lab, I do truly believe this method yields tastier food. Just remember to use smaller amounts each time you salt
Salt is a great partner in the kitchen. But like any partnership, it's important to learn about your teammate… learn how they behave in different situations, and learn what exactly you want from them. The real information I'd like you to take away from this is: Unless you have a medical issue with salt, don't be afraid to season your food. Try salting at different times and see what YOU like. What works for you is what's right. I obviously have ideas, but only you know what tastes good for you.
You may also consider trying to gently convince those for whom you're cooking to take a taste before they add more salt. They'll find that beautifully seasoned food won't need a snowfall of salt at the table.