Home' Salt : Salt Contents 10 the salt book
Such is the way of salt. If its only important property was the enhancement of
flavour, then we would need only a recipe book to tell its story. But a compound
that has around 14,000 different uses requires something more. A compound that
joins a reactive metal (which may spontaneously explode) with a greenish, poison-
ous gas to form a type of rock that human beings must consume to stay alive---this
is a substance whose story needs telling in more detail.
Why do we habitually consume far more salt than our body requires? What makes
some salt pink? Or grey? Why does salt make even sweet things taste better? And
what, in fact, is salt?
Making Things Taste Better
In chemical terms, a salt is the product of a reaction between an acid and a base.
Confusingly, what we call 'salt' is not such a thing: it is a molecule made up of
sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) atoms. Its scientific name is sodium chloride
(NaCl), but it has been known throughout the ages as common salt.
It is not the only salt we consume: there is calcium chloride and magnesium chloride
in our diet, along with a host of other minerals. But only sodium chloride tastes salty.
And though it now seems hard to believe, our sense of taste is not there for our
pleasure. Biologically, taste is a means for identifying potential toxins and essential
nutrients in our food supply. The biological significance of sodium is reflected in the
fact that one taste quality---salty---is solely dedicated to identifying foods that contain
it. We need it, so we developed a taste for it.
Or rather, we didn't. We simply cannot eat salt by itself. Drinking salty water makes
us vomit. Even those people suffering severe salt deficiency do not crave salt itself.
Salt, or sodium, makes itself desirable by making other foods taste better.
As former Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten writes in his book The Man Who Ate
Everything, salt is essential to good food and good cooking. "It sharpens and defines
the inherent flavours of foods and magnifies their natural aromas. Salt unites the
diverse tastes in a dish, marries the sauce with the meat, and turns the pallid
sweetness of vegetables into something complex and savory. Salt also deepens the
color of most fruits and vegetables and keeps cauliflower white. Salt controls the
ripening of cheese and improves its texture, strengthens the gluten in bread, and
can preserve meat and fish, while transforming its texture. Cooked without salt,
most dishes taste dull, lifeless, and lacking in complexity."
That is why we crave salt, and that is why this book exists: to help you use salt
in the kitchen, and to help make your food taste better. To do that, you need to
know the whole story.
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