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If you think salt is only salt, back up for a minute.
In her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat reminds you that you have to think about whether, by “salt,” you mean kosher or sea or flaky or table or sel gris (whew). And then—and more importantly, I think—it’s time to think about whether it’s straight salt you want or a salty something or other to lend character to your salad or hummus or yogurt dip or pasta sauce. Maybe this seems simple, but I see it as a way of flinging open the doors and windows of any recipe you’re making. “Take a moment to think about where that salt should come from,” she writes.
I like to make a simple vinaigrette for salads or potatoes, just lemon juice and red wine vinegar and olive oil and a fat pinch of salt, maybe with a scoop of Dijon mustard whipped in. I could swap the salt for electric smashed capers, or a paste of anchovies, or minced olives, or soy sauce, or grated pecorino or Parmesan, or preserved lemons, or chopped kimchi (!!!), or maybe a couple of these things layered onto each other.
The character of the dressing (or, for that matter, pasta or chicken or block of tofu) will change, the saltiness roving this way and that. This is good. This is how we begin to dream up new recipes! We’re already doing it: Just imagine a funky kimchi dressing dribbled over halved hard-boiled eggs. Yum.
Here’s something from Samin that I practically want tattooed on my forearm so that I will never forget it for a moment, least of all when my belly rumbles and I pick up my knife: “The three basic decisions involving salt are: When? How much? In what form? Ask yourself these three questions every time you set out to cook. Their answers will begin to form a road map for improvisation.” In one way, it’s silly-simple; in another way, it’s ultimate freedom. It is more or less how to cook, in one line.