Great Salt Debates / by Anne

salts How does salt enhance flavor?  I have read different explanations and don’t know which one is the most accurate a reason—or if they all play a part.  One interesting fact I have read recently in a book called The Inquisitive Cook is that salt, or sodium chloride (NaCl), stimulates your taste receptors, since those nerves endings are stimulated by NaCl.  Therefore, salt actually makes your tongue more sensitive, rather than making the food itself actually taste more like itself.  Isn’t that fascinating?  Personally, I’m rooting for that explanation, because it blows my mind to think that salt isn’t necessarily enhancing flavor, it’s enhancing your tongue’s ability to taste the flavor. 

I also have heard that NaCl, when it comes in contact with food, upsets the food’s molecular structures, drawing moisture out of the molecules and releasing the flavors, making them more easily accessible to the tongue to taste.  Actually, this is also a cool idea to think about.  And it does tie in with salt’s known function of removing liquid from foods.

I also wonder about the intensity each salt crystal itself.  Some people say with great confidence that certain salts are more “mellow tasting” than others.  Others—with equal conviction—insist that all salt tastes intrinsically equally strong—it’s just that salt with bigger crystals doesn’t have as much surface in contact with the tongue, so there’s less of the salt to taste, even if it is the same amount.  Again, I have no idea who is correct.  Most of this “information” about salt flavors was collected from salt-lovers at parties, the grocery store, and restaurants.  I am not a chemist, but wouldn’t NaCl always be NaCl?  In other words, are there more and less potent versions of it?

We just bought a new container of coarse sea salt (the third one in the picture), which once again got me thinking about this last debate.   I already know that I love coarse sea salt on food, but it seemed like it would be fun to conduct another one-person tasting.  Today I just wanted to experience the difference in salt crystal size—I will probably move on to other comparisons.  Nowadays there’s a whole myriad of salts to choose from.  It seems like a tasting of that scope should involve more people.  Want to come to a salt tasting? 

Today was more of an idle desire to taste, back-to-back, the contrasting experiences of eating food with  small crystals and large. I made two small bowls of tabbouleh salad, one with fine sea salt, the other with coarse sea salt.  I stirred both in well.  Unsurprisingly, the small salt tasted uniformly salty and pleasant, while the big salt overall did taste “mellower,” but with the occasional crunchy thrill of a large salt crystal.  Those little crunches did not taste overwhelmingly salty, though, and the texture was so satisfying to my teeth, especially in a dish like tabbouleh salad, in which texture is one of its distinctive pleasures.   

Tonight’s conclusion?  Use coarse sea salt with your tabbouleh.  Also, please pass the salt.  There’s more to think (and taste) about.