Tips & Techniques

Why Seasoning is the Most Important Part of Cooking

April 14, 2017

Samin Nosrat salts pasta water by the handful.

To be honest, this was alarming to read in her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. By the HANDFUL? My little narrative-making mind has a thousand questions: How big is the handful? Like, a little handful, or a big handful? How big is the pot of water? What if the pasta is fresh instead of dried? Ugh, it’s probably fresh instead of dried because this tip is coming from Samin Nosrat, who worked at Chez Panisse, who worked at Eccolo, who probably makes fresh pasta in her sleep!

Okay, okay, the rational part of my brain concedes, even Samin cooks with dried pasta. Regardless, the same general salting rule applies: A liberal hand is required to land dinner in the happy place called Delicious Food on Samin’s Salt Flavor Spectrum between Blah and Sea Water.

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Salt's purpose isn’t just to make things salty-tasting—in fact, rarely is that the primary reason we use salt: It makes flavor “zing!,” as Samin realized when, much to her alarm, Cal Peternell added three palmfuls of salt to a pot of polenta she’d been stirring. “Some indescribable transformation had occurred,” she writes. “The corn was somehow sweeter, the butter richer. All of the flavors were more pronounced.”

Zing! Zing! Zing!

The trick, of course, is to use salt smarter rather, necessarily, than in greater quantities. Experiment with adding a little more salt than usual, or where you wouldn’t normally: Sprinkle it over brownies or a sundae dressed with hot fudge (or a piece of buttered and jammed toast, like I do), add a true handful to your pasta or vegetable cooking water, really generously season a chicken inside and out, and see what happens.

There is a reason that salt is the first chapter of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Properly seasoning—and learning to salt, taste, and adjust—might be the most basic way to begin to change your cooking, but it may also be the most revolutionary. And how we salt will affect how, later on, we negotiate a food’s acid and fat levels, and how we introduce heat to the mix.

Photo by James Ransom

All April, Kitchen Confidence Camp takes us through the four essential elements of cooking, inspired by chef and author Samin Nosrat's cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Follow along here.

9 Comments

Ytseg September 1, 2017
For those who have actually read the book (or learned by experience) It's not necessarily advising to add larger quantities but timing (when to salt) that transforms the end product. This fact is even literally illustrated right down to a discussion on types of salt to consider for prepping, cooking and finishing.<br />
 
Old T. July 3, 2017
While I sympathize with everyone's concerns, I'd humbly suggest that the conventional thinking about salt that has dominated for many decades has finally begun to change and was never based on good science to start with. As an introduction to these changes, perhaps read this article from Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt/), or this article from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/health/salt-health-effects.html?_r=0). Samin is right that only salt can help the flavor and aroma of food blossom because it releases flavor compounds otherwise trapped in the food. Herbs and spices don't function the same way and can never replace salt, which really is the most important tool for good cooking.
 
Rhetta J. May 3, 2017
I must ditto the salt comments. My husband has elevated blood pressure. I double or more all spices except salt and things like smoked paprika.
 
valerie J. April 15, 2017
I love this website and have followed it for some years now. But I am a little anxious about such strong encouragement to add salt, sometimes in quantity, to everything. I have only a small problem with high blood pressure and yet I am very sensitive to salt. While I certainly use it when necessary, and I always add a pinch in any chocolate recipe, I do think it would be best for everyone's health not to be looking for places where we might use it. It is not a good idea to automatically pick up the salt cellar no matter what we are cooking or eating, as some people do.<br />Even though my husband told me ages ago that he'd read that pasta water should taste like the sea, as is suggested in this article, I have found that if the sauce has salt in it, which it invariably does, whether it's with soy sauce or even just tomato sauce, with the addition of grated cheese - always salty - there is really no need for any salt at all in the pasta water.
 
Roberta S. April 15, 2017
I totally agree with Ms Justman. I, too, need to monitor my salt intake closely. Think of it as a food allergy, only one which you too may encounter yet in life. B-t-w I can't explain how amazed and disappointed I was when I discovered "seasoning" as referred to by chef-type people, simply meant "salt" completely ignoring other herbs and spices.
 
Smaug April 15, 2017
An annoying usage, I agree, but it does have some history.
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. April 15, 2017
Hi Roberta and Valerie, <br /><br />Thanks for bringing this up! Those who have been asked by a doctor to monitor their salt intake should definitely be wary of how much they use while cooking—Roberta, your likeness of it to a food allergy is a really good one. I think it's important to reiterate Samin's note about salting smarter rather than more; even a little bit—or, say, a different way of salting, like sprinkling a brownie with a tiny pinch of flaky salt—really can make the flavor of a food pop without making it taste salty, and her recommendation is to experiment judiciously (all the more judiciously if you are being mindful of your salt levels!). Thanks so much for commenting!
 
btglenn May 3, 2017
It's not only for those who have a medical need to lower salt intake. All medical reports agree that salt intake in general is unnecessarily higher than it needs to be for a good healthy diet. Herbs and spices are the way to flavor food along with a judicious application of the amount of salt you may think you need.
 
Smaug April 14, 2017
The food industry needs a new fad, salt is getting really tired. Maybe Elon Musk's people could come up with something- probably something from 1950's science fiction, but salt's not exactly new either.