A CHEF’S ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS – #3 – SALT AND PEPPER

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As cook’s we may not give much thought to how important salt and pepper are to our craft. Walking from one end of the kitchen to another it is likely that there will be a few containers of kosher or sea salt waiting for the grip of a prep cook or baker, line cooks will include a pinch pot of salt and pepper at their station, and servers stand ready with salt shakers, Himalayan pinch pots for tables, and filled pepper mills lined up and ready for guest commands. More sophisticated cuisines might even demand a larger variety of specialty salts and pepper seeds from Hawaiian black to flaked salts and fleur de sel from the coast of France – as well as pink, fresh green, Szechwan, and traditional black pepper designed for a specific dish flavor profile.

Salt, in particular is a mineral that has become inseparable in cooking and storing of food across all cultures – its value far exceeds the meager cost that is generally associated with it.

“Salt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves, desiccates but is wrestled from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years not only as a substance he prized and was willing to labor to obtain, but also as a generator of poetic and of mythic meaning. The contradictions it embodies only intensify its power and its links with experience of the sacred.”

-Margaret Visser – 20th century author

Pepper, has been a staple of the spice trade for centuries, a spice used as a form of currency and weighed to determine its value in an exchange, a flavoring that adds rather than enhances, and a spice that consumers can build immunity toward – requiring them to increase its use over time.

Here are some of the uses and reasons for the significance of these two ingredient categories as essential to a chef’s bag of tricks.

SALT:

[]         FLAVOR ENHANCER

When salt is used in cooking and finishing of foods it tends to suppress bitterness and sweetness and accentuate umami, also known as the fifth taste or best describe as the uniqueness of savory. If used in the right proportions salt will “bring out” the best of a particular ingredient or dish – when used excessively then salt will take over as the prominent flavor – this is not the intent of the chef, although the American palate has become far too accustomed to over-salted foods.

“It took me all my life to learn how to salt a tomato.”
-Chef Eric Ripert

[]         PRESERVATION (cures, marinades, pickling, canning)

In curing salt is a drying agent that draws water from the ingredient creating an environment that is not supportive of certain bacterial growth. In pickling, salt works in the same fashion in concert with an acid (vinegar, wine, citrus) to create an environment that eliminates the opportunity for this same bacterial growth. This acid/salt environment can protect foods for months or even years if canned properly.

[]         FOOD SAFETY (botulism prevention)

Kosher and pickling salts (some of which do contain sodium nitrite-read more on the cautions associated with this product) are used extensively in curing meats as well as canning and pickling. Aside from the flavor imparted and the drying effect of salt for these uses – the product will reduce the risk of botulism that is a very dangerous bacterium affecting the human neurological system leading, in some cases to death.

[]         A FLAVOR SUBSTITUTE (salt shakers elbow)

Unfortunately salt is often abused as a flavor replacement for foods that do not peak a persons palate. As mentioned, the American palate is far too accustomed to the use of salt and as a result “salty” is a choice rather than something to avoid. Salt is in nearly every processed food product that we buy and relied on in home and professional kitchens. Some chefs have gone to the extreme of removing saltshakers from dining room tables so as to encourage guests to taste the food before they exercise their saltshakers elbow.

[]         A TENDERIZER

Salt – either applied dry or in a brine will help to destabilize or break down the muscle of meat. This helps to tenderize the product, but at the same time can and will modify the flavor profile.

[]         A STABILIZER (controls leavening agents)

Aside from flavor, salt is used in baking to help stabilize or control the action of leavening agents such as yeast and baking power. Control of the development of carbon dioxide resulting from fermentation will result in a more stable product in baking.

[]         TEXTURE (role in gluten development)

Salt also works with the development of gluten in bread baking to help with the structure of the bread. The great mouth feel of chewing properly prepared bread products owes a great deal to the addition of salt.

[]         AN INTENSIFIER (drawing out moisture and concentrating flavor)

Some of the most satisfying flavors come from proteins such as meats, poultry and fish. Salt, as an additive, not only draws out moisture, but in the process helps to intensify the flavor of the product. This is evident in charcuterie, bacon and fish products such as gravad lax and cured/smoked fish.

[]         SALT AND HEALTH

There is much debate over the excessive use of salt and it’s impact on health. There is little question that many people are prone to increased blood pressure as a result of consuming salt and many of the highly salted processed foods such as charcuterie add the other concern of fat and nitrites that can cause heart disease and certain forms of cancer. Moderation is always the best choice and a chef thus has a responsibility to use salt as that enhancer and not a substitute for flavor.

[]         A CONDIMENT – THE CONSUMER IS IN CONTROL

Salt, as a condiment, is thus in the hands of the consumer. Chefs typically seek to create a flavor picture for the dishes they create. There is a predetermined flavor outcome that drove the chef to add a particular dish to the menu and teach his or her cooks how to properly and consistently prepare it. When salt is provided as a condiment at the table then the outcome of that dish will no longer be in a chef’s control. Some will say that this is a choice that should be left up to the guest, but on the other hand it is easy to see how this will potentially alter the experience of a restaurant menu – not necessarily in a positive way. To this end, some chefs have made salt a service condiment like pepper from the peppermill, giving the guest a chance to try the dish first. Additionally, by up scaling the type and variety of salt on the menu the operation can move away from salt as a reaction and transition to salt as a well thought out action on the part of the cook, the server, and the guest.

[]         A STATEMENT OF INTEGRITY and CHARACTER (salt of the earth)

Salt is even a part of our vernacular, as we have grown to make reference to the product to portray the attributes of personal character, work ethic and integrity.

“Let’s drink to the hard working people 
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth”

-The Rolling Stones

[]         A STATEMENT OF TRIVIALITY (Take it with a grain of salt)

Also in our vernacular is a phrase used to trivialize a persons statements or actions. “You should take what that person says with a grain of salt” – meaning that what they say is as insignificant as a tiny grain of this mineral and that you should be skeptical of its truth.

[]         A STATEMENT OF ADDING PAIN (salt in the wound)

Finally, our interesting language has given birth to a way of emphasizing how a person can add pain to an already painful situation or event: “Saying what she stated was only rubbing salt into an already painful wound.” Since salt does, in fact, intensify the pain from an open cut this is an appropriate use of the idiom.

PEPPER:

[]         THE WAKE UP SPICE

There are many foods that have what is referred to as a finish. In other words, how long and to what extent does a flavor or food experience stay with you. Pepper, ironically, does have a distinctive flavor but the “finish” is more often referring to the tactile experience of pepper – it burns. To this end, I like to state that chefs, when using it properly, add pepper to “wake-up” the guest experience and make them take notice. If it is overdone then the finish can be unpleasant for a period of time.

[]         THE KING SPICE

One of the reasons that pepper is referred to as the king spice is not simply due to its flavor and tactile impact on the palate, but because once dried this spice will retain its flavor and tactile intensity for a very long period of time (years), or at least until it is ground and the oils are released. So revered was the almighty pepper that during the early years of spice trading – pepper was weighed and used as a currency.

[]         THE SPICE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

Chefs learn early on that pepper (in all of its forms), unlike most other spices only intensifies as it cooks. This is why many cooks will encourage using pepper toward the end of the cooking process rather than early on. You can always add more, but it is quite impossible to take away the impact once the pepper has begun to marry with a dish through cooking.

[]         A CONDIMENT – THE CONSUMER IS IN CHARGE (the peppermill is a medium of power)

One of the great visual experiences of dining is any moment during which the server is able to interact with the guest and the dish. Using a pepper mill creates such an opportunity to become part of the full experience and draw attention to the table. At the same time this step pays homage to the importance of the king spice.

Learning to appreciate and control the use of salt and pepper is a task that chefs work on their entire careers. “It needs salt” must come with a caveat: “Does it need salt to bring out the natural flavors of the dish or has the dish not been properly prepared and salt is the only way to rescue an otherwise uninspiring product.” Use salt to enhance and highlight and use pepper to accentuate and wake-up the palate.

***Terrific resource for every cook: “Salt and Pepper”, by: Jody Vassallo

www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Jody-Vassallo/dp/1552858162/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509738421&sr=1-6&keywords=Salt+and+Pepper

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

www.harvestamericaventures.com

 

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