Salt thoughts

Discussion in 'General Culinary School Discussions' started by sgmchef, Jan 12, 2018.

  1. sgmchef


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    Retired Chef
    Salt thoughts

    Ever been served food that tastes really flat or a bowl of soup so salty you can’t eat it? Well, the following thoughts may be of some use.

    When I asked a Culinary student in the student forum section on this site what instructions / information he was given about salt. He described being taught a technique that had to do with how many seconds it took for the salt flavor to dissipate on his tongue as a means of measuring a good salt level. I wanted a more uniform standard that can apply to ALL the cooks in the kitchen so everyone has the same salinity target. So here are some of my thoughts on the subject of salt which may be helpful to some of the culinary students out there and yes…

    Take my thoughts with a grain of…

    As a 17 year old cook in Appleton, WI, USA, in a family style restaurant, I portioned up six cups of the soup of the day, for several different tables, out of the same pot, virtually simultaneously. One person said it was too salty, one said it needed salt, the rest thought it was delicious. WHAT? Those cups of soup were identical, served within seconds of each other! How can the exact same soup be too salty AND need salt? Here is the answer. You are cooking for the general public.

    Over the course of your career, you will indeed handle and use a great deal of good old NaCl, Sodium Chloride, salt! Since it is added to virtually every prepared food item, I found it helpful to spend a little time learning a little more about it, and then I shared those observations with the poor souls that had to work in my kitchens!

    As a general frame of reference for salt levels or salinity, I pointed to Campbell's soup as a reference point. Almost everyone, here in the states, has had Campbell’s Soup at one time or another and since they have been making soups for over 100 years, have a full time staff to taste test daily, and that particular company has spent many, many millions of dollars determining just how much salt satisfies the average palate in the group called “general public”. My guidance was to aim for 15-20% less than that saline level for almost everything you make as a starting point. It can be any level desired. I always thought Campbell’s soups were a little salty, but still a common reference point to start. If a group of students were to simultaneously taste Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and express what they thought of the salt level. Those thoughts are very revealing in that some will think it salty, some think it needs salt, and some that it is just right. Hmmm, the results are about the same as the general public. So, those cooks that think it is too salty and those that think it is just right need to use a little less salt in their products and those that think it needs salt actually need special attention!

    Please keep in mind that you are professionally cooking for others. You may have to adapt what you personally prefer to satisfy a wider audience.

    For me it is not much different from demonstrating that anything deep fried should never be darker than this or lighter than this. Chefs owe it to their staff to set and maintain standards.

    Now, what salt will always do.

    Salt will always “seek equilibrium” of concentration, which is time dependent. I describe it as migratory. Salt will always “travel” or migrate to an area of lesser concentration given enough time. The most relatable examples, to my cooks, are chilled potato and pasta salads. All of my cooks have indeed had these salads that were prepared and served by cooks that did not understand this peculiarity about the travels of salt. Those cooks have boiled the starch of choice in water that is only technically “salted”. Maybe One Tablespoon of salt for five gallons of water which, when tasted, salt can barely be detected. You need to taste a piece of the potato or pasta and ask “ Could I serve this as is without added salt?” If the answer is no, these under-salted starch items will “take” the salt from that delicious dressing he/she made given time. Resulting in a bland, severely under seasoned product because it was allowed the time to “equalize” during the chilling process for salt to do what it always, does, achieve a saline level that is uniform and homogenous. Salt always travels from an area of higher concentration to lower concentration given time. Think Virginia Ham, Gravlax, or anything pickled or salt cured.

    Evidently it all has to do with Osmotic pressure but I stopped researching the science at that point because I felt that I really just needed to understand, appreciate and apply what the salt is always going to do. Empirical data is OK with me. Feel free to conduct more in depth research. I wouldn’t take my word for any of this anyway! You could always do the experiment that follows…

    For my new cooks, I would have them do a little homework to prove it to themselves.

    Here, take home this little baggie of shredded cabbage so you know I didn’t have any impact on the experiment. Separate the cabbage into two bowls. Leave one dry and sprinkle a little salt on the cabbage in the other bowl and stir. Check on the two bowls in about an hour and tell me your observations! Oh wow, there is a little puddle of cabbage juice in the bowl of salted cabbage. Dry salt on dry shredded cabbage and the salt still found a way to penetrate the cell walls of the cabbage. So for you Americans that have seen Cole slaw that has a puddle of water now you know why. Raw cabbage, dressing and time = puddle. All this happens at a molecular level so my friends this is indeed molecular gastronomy to me! Insert chuckle here…

    Please understand that I am attempting to deal in generality even though I have described some specific products. The salt doesn’t care what product you are making, salt is always going to do what it wants to. If you end up in an operation that seasons every product to order, great, the time element is removed! But if it is just you and one other person feeding 150-200 covers a night or working in an even larger operation like a hotel or cruise ship, you may actually make some chilled items ahead of service where this principal applies.

    A different principal applies to all heated items. Something my cooks heard frequently- “Water evaporates, Salt does not” Salt is a mineral that does not evaporate. Water evaporates even at room temperature so what effect do you think holding a food item at serving temperature will have on the salt balance/ratio? Number one culprit- soups that are held for service and ignored get really salty. Just keep this in mind please.

    As a tangent to all of the above, I developed and taught what I called Component seasoning. According to me, every component in a dish need to have the issue of salt addressed. For the example of a common chilled potato salad the variables are broken down into components that draw/take salt like Potatoes, Celery, Onions, or hard cooked eggs and components that contribute salt like pickled items, olives, prepared mustards, bacon, or Mayonnaise. Just keep in mind how the different components affect the finished product. Some add salt and some take salt. Once I implemented these concepts, I spent a lot less time adjusting seasoning on any product because I knew at least I had the salt balance pretty well covered to about 75% of my “Campbells standard” of salinity. That just leaves the Herbs and Spices which, depending on quantity, do not affect the salt balance.

    This is my basic thought ,“If I was serving this ingredient on its own, how much salt would I use?” Translation- I am adding a pound/kilo of diced celery to a product. If I were serving that quantity of celery, for example, as a braised celery side dish, how much salt would I use for FINISHED VOLUME and not raw weight. I season as I build. Repeat for all components. Sort of like clean as you go.

    One of the other concepts I embraced was choosing which source of salt I used to better match the product I was making. Plain white salt is fine if you are dumping it down the drain, like pasta water, but for the product the customer will consume you can be more creative.


    Make your own finishing salt- a few Sun-dried tomatoes, thyme, ground Bay leaf, with sea salt blended, dried, and mixed with a larger quantity of fresh Kosher salt. I used this on crackers I made. (20% flavored-80% unflavored) Similar concept to making Vanilla sugar.

    Marmite is a natural in most Vegan/Vegetarian dishes

    Anchovy paste in seafood dishes (Anchovy Salt, technique above)

    Here are a few other options that add salt to products. Please use a little restraint as some of these items can overpower.

    • Marmite/Vegemite,
    • Any of the many different Misos
    • Olives, pickles and their packing liquids
    • Soy Sauces
    • Cheeses- Parmesan, Feta, Roquefort/Blue Cheese
    • Anchovy / Anchovy paste
    • Ham Hocks/Country Ham/Salt Pork/Bacon
    • Worcestershire sauce
    • Bonito flakes
    • Oyster sauce
    • Fish Sauce

    Final thoughts:

    Salt content in food is a somewhat polarizing topic. The goal is uniformity of product and knowledge across the brigade, not making salty food. My personal preference when I feed myself only, is about 65-70% of Campbell’s Soup. Yes, I cook differently for others, like the general public. If you don’t live in the U.S. pick a common/popular food product available in your country and apply concept to local taste profile. This is general information for feeding the general public when you are allowed to actually cook creatively. Feel free to point out all the situations where this information doesn’t apply. Like if you are only allowed to replicate a recipe/formula or if you are making over 1,000 portions.

    If anyone finds just one thing useful, I would be pleased.

    Good Luck!
    drirene likes this.
  2. sgmchef


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    Retired Chef
    How can you teach someone to hit a target if you have not told them where the target is?

    I based my "Salt thoughts" on what I believe to be true.

    No two people have exactly the same taste in food!

    How can I teach someone to season to meet expectations of the widest possible range of palates without some sort of target?

    I neither endorse nor attack Campbell's Soup. I just want a consistent, uniform standard, for salt level, than anyone from coast to coast could relate to months or years later. They do produce a very consistent product. For me that is a target that each cook can relate to. Stationary targets are easier to hit than moving targets!

    I had a good chuckle today watching a Top Chef episode about a German fest in Colorado! A contestant was sent home for severely under seasoned food. The judges told her to forget what her mentor had told her about seasoning! Even the guy that made German Egg Rolls was better! (None of the judges liked the concept or result, but it was seasoned well!)

    If she would have adopted my thoughts she would probably still be in the competition.

    *Update, I watched tonights episode and a different contestant made a blue cheese sauce that was overpowering. What a coincidence, I mentioned using Blue cheeses but to be careful because it can overpower...

    I was hoping that someone would share the method they are being taught because I think they still teach students to produce consistent products don't they?
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2018