The Not-So-Secret Ingredient that Makes All Foods Better
Life as a Culinary Student
I come from a long line of salt lovers. My mother loves telling the story of my grandfather, who during peak tomato season, would arrive at our house, grab a salt shaker and head out to the garden to stalk his prey. He would sit on a log and enjoy the sweet reward of summer: a juicy, ripe tomato, every bite sprinkled with a little salt. My father has shocked friends and guests by salting any melon that crossed his path, a skill acquired from his parents and grandparents while growing up in southern Virginia.
To say that I come by my appreciation of salt honestly would be an understatement. We are and will always be a salt-loving family. As a culinary student, I was surprised to hear my instructor tell me, “Very good, but it needs a little more salt.” Is he talking to me, the queen of salt? Apparently, chefs love salt too, but that love is born from an understanding that salt can transform just about any food from alright to irresistible.
“Teaching salt is incredibly difficult and it is the most important thing that you will get out of culinary school,” says my current instructor, Chef Charles Granquist, an ICE alum who has worked at Savoy, Blue Hill and Food Network. Chef Charles’ reliable instruction of, “needs a little more salt” spurred me to dig a bit deeper into teaching and learning about salt. Why is it so difficult? I wondered.
According to Chef Charles, “For the first few modules, students straight don’t believe you. You just have to tell them over and over again: more salt.” Starting with disbelief does seem like a steep hill to climb. Even my historically salty palate was tested by his demand for more salt.
Chef Lorrie Reynoso, my instructor for Module One, uses a gradual approach to teach new culinary students about the transformative power of salt. Says Chef Lorrie, “To teach how beneficial salt is to cooking and flavor, I usually make students taste something unsalted, graduating to slightly salted, and at the end graduating to a full and satisfactory flavor level with more salt and whatever seasonings are required — usually pepper, herbs or spices.” We did this with salsa on our second day of class and many times thereafter with other dishes. Every single time, it was as if I was experiencing that innate salty power for the first time.
“Wow,” I thought, “salt is magic.”
The great thing about being a student is that you have ample opportunities to screw up. And it’s from this freedom to fail that the learning really sinks in. When it comes to salt and developing your palate, taking your salt a bit too far may be the best mistake you can make. Chef Charles believes this is the salty tipping point. “At first, students may salt too much and that is a crucial moment. That is when they taste what it’s like to truly over season and they can start to back off.”
Salt is justly revered and cherished by cooks across the globe. Depending on the cuisine, it takes a variety of forms, from the ubiquitous soy sauce and fish sauce used in many Asian cultures to the salt-cured pork from Italy or the American South.
Chef Lorrie points out that salt has been so important in history, that even the word “salary” is derived from salt. “During the Roman Empire, salt was not only used to pay salaries, but for rent, ransom, dowry and more. Even then, people knew that salt just added flavor to practically anything edible.” Salt was also crucial to food preservation, an essential technique used by humankind for thousands of years before refrigeration. Think about that the next time you enjoy a luscious piece of salty, savory, porky, aged prosciutto.
To my great surprise, my love and appreciation for salt continues to evolve and deepen every time I step in the kitchen for a new lesson. As soon as I hear, “Pull out the rib-eyes” I start thinking, “Let’s get those babies salted and on the fire.” There really is nothing like a perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of beef — it’s what dreams are made of. No matter what you’re cooking, be it bread, blanched vegetables, grilled fruit, hollandaise sauce or ice cream, it will always be better with just a little bit more salt.
Want to learn to salt, season and cook like a pro? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.