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A Pinch of Salt is Never Out of Season

Contributed by: Skip Lombardi

For years, salt has been an enfant terrible among the medical community because of its perceived effect on blood pressure. But recent studies suggest that people with normal blood pressure derive no benefit from avoiding salt. And some researchers are questioning the value of curtailing dietary salt even for people with high blood pressure.

Of course you and your doctor will ultimately determine how much salt is acceptable for you. But this could be liberating news for a growing number of home cooks who have resigned themselves to a life of eating bland food.

How many times have you had the sense that a dish needed, "just a pinch of salt?" And then, how many times afterward have you felt that the dish turned out to be too salty? Perhaps it wasn't the whole dish that needed seasoning, but the ingredients that went into it.

Cookbook author Patricia Wells has said, if you season foods as you're cooking, you'll have a well seasoned dish. If you add salt after the dish is cooked, you'll end up with salty food. And FoodTV chef, Emeril Lagasse is fond of saying, "I don't know where you get your _________ (fill in the blank), but where I get mine, it don't come seasoned."

The idea is to season foods as you cook them, or "season as you go." In the 1970's, Juila Child demonstrated on one of her PBS television shows, that if you season food as you're cooking, you'll use far less salt than you would typically use at the table. Or, for that matter, less salt than a recipe might call for.

A pinch of salt-subjective as that measure may be-usually amounts to less than 1/8 tsp. And when you apply it from "some altitude," as Jamie Oliver says, you'll very likely need even less than a pinch, because you'll broadcast it on a wider area of the ingredients.

Is the type of salt you use significant? Yes and no. Here are two facts: all salt is created equal. All salt is sea salt. Certain differences crop up when you introduce variables like crystal size, and additives like iodine and calcium silicate (a harmless additive that keeps the salt free-flowing), but the fact remains; all salt is created equal.

Minerals, you say? You say you just paid $14.95 for those four ounces of fleur de sel? Well, it may have started out with more minerals than common table salt, but it's likely that the minerals were washed away in the purifying process mandated by the FDA, leaving you with four ounces of expensive table salt.

How could all salt be sea salt? It says on the package here that it came from a mine. I'm sure it did. Several eons ago, there was an ocean where that mine sits today. Over the course of a few of thousand years, the ocean evaporated, leaving behind an entire layer of salt in the earth's crust.

So what should you be concerned about? The size of the crystals. Restaurant chefs nearly all use either "sea salt," or kosher salt. They do so because the crystals are larger than those of common table salt, they have irregular shapes, and therefore, adhere to food better.

So how does the concept of "seasoning as you go" work? The next time you cook a dish that requires several steps, think about adding some salt along with each new ingredient. For example, let's say you're making some classic American comfort food: Beef Stew.

If you flour the beef before browning, add some salt and pepper to the flour. This will season the beef. As you add carrots, celery, and onions, take a pinch of salt and season them as they go into the pot. When you add liquid, taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper if you feel it's necessary. When you add potatoes, season them with a pinch of salt. I promise, you'll be amazed by the result. And you shouldn't need to add any seasoning at the table.

What about individual vegetables? They're perhaps the most important. If you're steaming or sautéing something like broccoli, asparagus, or spinach, wait a minute or two into the cooking, then give them a good pinch of salt (and a few grinds of pepper as well).

For vegetables that start out dry-like salads--I don't salt the greens themselves-the salt would simply fall to the bottom of the salad bowl. But I dissolve a little salt in the vinegar as I'm preparing the dressing.

Finally, here's an experiment to try at home the next time you make Tuscan roasted potatoes.

Peel the baking potatoes and cut them into 1 in. chunks. Add them to a sheet pan, and toss with 2 or 3 Tbs. of olive oil. Add 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary (leaves only), and 1 bulb of garlic, with the cloves split apart, but unpeeled.

Now, apply a generous pinch of salt to half the potatoes, but leave the other half unseasoned, and bake at 375 F. for approximately 45 minutes. You be the judge at dinnertime.


About the Author:

Skip Lombardi is the author of two cookbooks: "La Cucina dei Poveri: Recipes from my Sicilian Grandparents," and "Almost Italian: Recipes from America's Little Italys." He has been a Broadway musician, high-school math teacher, and software engineer, but has never let any of those pursuits get in the way of his passion for cooking and eating. Visit his Web site to learn more about his cookbooks. or

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