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Lyn Nichols column: What's Cookin': A season of change: Try salt as a main ingredient

Most of us take salt for granted, thinking of it mainly as the white stuff in one of the matching shakers on the table. Or possibly as the white stuff we shake, frequently without tasting first, on all of our food, from meat to vegetables to fruits.

Most of us take salt for granted, thinking of it mainly as the white stuff in one of the matching shakers on the table.

Or possibly as the white stuff we shake, frequently without tasting first, on all of our food, from meat to vegetables to fruits.

Recently, when I was asked, "What is the difference between table salt, kosher salt and sea salt?" I went through several old notebooks and searched a new culinary textbook for the latest on salt.

From my research, I discovered what we knew about salt "then" and what we know "now" is relatively the same.

To answer Phyllis Barton's question, let's review a few basics.

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Rock salt is the common name for halite, a mineral found in the ground in enormous amounts. It is not pure and contains other minerals and several harmless impurities. It is produced as grayish chunks of crystals and is often mixed with sand and spread on icy streets in the winter.

I remember my parents sprinkling rock salt over ice to make a briny solution with a low freezing point to surround a steel container filled with homemade ice cream batter. Remember turning those cranks?

Common table salt (sodium chloride) is a purified, finely grained salt that includes additives to make it free flowing from your salt shaker. Remember the umbrella girl and "When it rains it pours"?

Table salt often has added iodine. The label will say, "Iodized salt." Iodine is an important element in a diet and helps prevent hypothyroidism.

Kosher salt is a coarse grained salt with no additives. Some say because of its texture, it has a slightly different taste.

Sea salt differs in that it is obtained by evaporating seawater, which has a high salt content. Because evaporation is a relatively slow process, the salt crystals, after purification and refinement, vary in shape. Some are flakes and some are irregular and coarse, not at all like common table salt, which consists of uniform cube-shaped grains.

The result is that when sea salt is sprinkled on dry foods, the taste sensation is a bit more brilliant and pronounced. When sea salt and table salt are dissolved, there is no difference in taste.

The term "salt" is a chemical term and refers to the product produced by a reaction between an acid and a base, but in common usage, salt means sodium chloride or table salt.

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There are several medical conditions that require limitation of dietary "salt." Actually, it is the sodium which is being limited, thus salt substitutes, such as potassium chloride, are sometimes recommended (check with your physician before using).

According to my taste buds, the flavors of salt substitutes are not identical to sodium chloride, but they do add some "salt" flavor, which makes bland foods more palatable. Use only a small amount, at first, because "too much" produces an unpleasant taste and sometimes an aftertaste.

The bottom line is that pure salt (sodium chloride) when dissolved in equivalent amounts is the same whether it is table salt, kosher salt or sea salt. The differences are in the additives, or lack of them, crystal shapes and sizes, method in which they are produced and, finally, coarseness of the grind.

Before the various salts are dissolved, there are subtle differences, primarily related to texture and a cook's personal preference.

My preference is kosher salt for most cooking adventures, although I use Morton's table salt when baking. I was taught that using table salt in cooking allows you to salt the food, but using kosher salt allows you to season the food. And, as with many chefs, I like the texture of kosher salt and find it is easier to control in my fingertips.

Here are three recipes that use salt as a main ingredient, not just as a seasoning agent.

New Potatoes

Roasted in Salt

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1 pound red-skinned new potatoes, each cut into 6 wedges

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoon coarse salt such as sea salt or kosher salt, divided

½ to 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

6 large garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or fresh herb of choice

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Combine oil, 1 tablespoon salt and pepper in a sealable plastic bag. Add the potatoes, seal bag and shake to coat all the potatoes. Transfer potatoes to small baking sheet and roast 20 to 30 minutes, stirring once.

3. Add 1 tablespoon salt, garlic and rosemary to potatoes and toss. Roast until potatoes are just tender, about 10 more minutes. Transfer to plate and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Salmon on Salt

1 center cut salmon fillet (1¼ to 1½ pounds)

2 cups kosher salt or coarse salt

1. Spread salt evenly over the bottom of a dry heavy skillet. Place skillet on moderately high heat and heat until salt is hot to the touch and just beginning to smoke, 3 or 4 minutes.

2. Pat salmon with a damp paper towel and pat dry. Season salmon with salt and pepper. Place the salmon on the salt in the skillet, skin side down. Cover and cook salmon without turning, for 10 to 12 minutes, without turning. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, until the salmon is just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Slide a spatula between salmon skin and flesh and transfer salmon to a platter (salmon skin will be too salty to eat). Makes 4 servings.

Salty Cheese Pretzels

1 (11-oz.) can refrigerated breadsticks

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan or Romano

1 egg white

1 tablespoon coarse salt, such as sea or kosher (more if needed)

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper. Unroll dough and separate into 12 breadsticks. With finger, firmly press dough to make indentation lengthwise down center of each breadstick.

2. Spoon grated Parmesan cheese into each indentation. Fold dough lengthwise over cheese and press edges to seal.

3. Twist and stretch each breadstick to form 20- to 22-inch rope. Shape each rope into pretzel shape and tuck ends under and press to seal. Place on paper-lined cookie sheet. Beat egg white in small bowl until foamy. Brush over pretzels. Sprinkle with salt (more if needed).

4. Bake for 12 to 18 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with your favorite dip or sauce.

Lyn Nichols hosts "What's Cookin'?" weekdays on WDAY-TV. Her column appears Sundays and alternate Wednesdays in The Forum. She can be reached at PO Box 2466, Fargo, ND 58108, or e-mail, lyn@i29.net

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