Salt is as basic an ingredient as they come and understanding the amount, types and when to use it are fundamentally important in our kitchen. We use salt to tenderise, to preserve and to enhance flavour and it is very important that we don’t over season food. Guests are increasingly more health conscious and the result of people using less salt at home gives them a lower tolerance to it when they eat out. Conversely, a person who is moving around a lot and working in a warm environment, like a chef, will have a higher salt tolerance than if the same person was relaxing over a glass of wine in the restaurant. Making the kitchen team aware of this, and making them drink plenty of water, helps us to season food to an enjoyable level for the guests.
Salt is not the only flavour enhancer that can be used in a kitchen. Adding a little lemon juice/acidity helps to lift flavours. Spices are also a very good way of adding layers of flavour to allow salt levels to be reduced. Maximising the flavour from the product, by reducing or dehydrating, or by merely sourcing/growing a much tastier ingredient negates the need to add any seasoning sometimes. Sugar is also a flavour enhancer, so using natural processes like caramelising or roasting helps to enhance a products sweetness without adding sugar.
We use fine sea salt to season if the salt is going to be completely dissolved into the product, we use a coarse salt for curing as it dissolves less easily, and we used flaked sea salt for finishing because of its excellent texture. The flaked salt we also smoke for 6 months in our smokehouse and we use this delicious dark grey smoked salt on the butter we serve with the bread at the table.
I don’t think there is a noticeable difference in flavour between different white salts, especially considering the relatively small amount of salt added to an end product, although cheap manufactured fine salts can taste a little of anti-caking agents if tasted on their own.
When and how to add seasoning to a product is very important. First you need to know what the end product is that you are aiming for, and then use the salt in a logical way that helps you achieve it. Should you use a brine or a cure? Should you add the salt at the beginning or half way through? How can you be certain that the product is not going to be over-seasoned?
Putting dry salt in contact with a product will draw moisture out of the contact area, and can result in the salt almost burning the item. This does not matter when curing salmon, for example, as this is a texture that you are after. A more effective way of preventing this harsh contact is by dissolving the salt in water to form a brine. Most of our meats are brined before we cook them, and this process helps them to be consistently seasoned throughout. Next time you roast a chicken, instead of sprinkling salt over the top, try brining it. To do this weigh the prepared chicken, then place it in a brine made up of twice its weight in water and 4% of the waters weight in salt (e.g. chicken is 2K, so use 4L of water and 160g salt). You can add other aromats like thyme, chilli, lemon zest, peppercorns and garlic cloves to the brine for extra flavour. This brine does not have a maximum time constraint, but a minimum time for a chicken to brine fully would be about 8 hours refrigerated. Other advantages of a brine are that it allows excess blood/liquid to seep out and makes it more tender, most probably due to the way the dissolved salts pass through the cells.
If you are sweating onions and you don’t want to have any colour, adding the salt at the beginning will help draw moisture out of the onions, helping them to cook more quickly and making it less likely for them to burn. If however you wanted the onions to caramelise, then it is far more effective to add the salt at the end, as the onions will not fry and colour if there is any excess moisture in the pan. Blanching green vegetables in water with salt helps to preserve the colour, as well as seasoning them. Using salt in water when poaching eggs makes is more difficult as the salt destabilises the egg proteins that hold it together.
To make sure that a product is seasoned correctly, measuring salt levels as a percentage or following what the recipe says can help, but this is not always easy and we have to rely on our taste. When tasting a product, you need to analyse it and consider the different elements separately. It is easy to tell if something is lovely or not so lovely, but knowing what to do to make it better is the important part. If you are making a mushroom risotto for example and taste it you need to consider separately the salt content/lemon juice/thyme/butter or creaminess/texture of the rice/overall temperature/intensity of mushroom flavour, and learning to concentrate on a particular element such as the amount of salt is a key to being a good cook. Some products are naturally high in salt like bacon, olives, anchovies and shellfish, so there may be no need to add any salt. Some products cry out for salt more than others, like raw tomatoes or potatoes. Even as an experienced cook/chef it is good to bear in mind that you can always add a little more salt, but you can never take it away.
George and his team look forward to welcoming you to the restaurant very soon, to book please call 01342 810567.
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