So Basic, It Becomes A Bit Fascinating
I’ve studied and considered extensively the how, when, and why of the way we season food, and why we as individuals like what we like to eat in general. After gathering a whole lot of feedback from eaters, here are my thoughts on salt and pepper, along with some recommended salts, peppers, mills, and some great books that talk about all of this fun stuff too.
Illuminate Your Cooking
Whether it is soup, potato salad, or a roasted chicken, whether it is hot or cold, simple or complex, salt has a place. Think about walking into a room. Every room is different. Some have overstuffed cozy chairs and ornate decor, some are minimalistic with clean lines and neutral colors. But no matter what room you’re in, the lighting counts. A room might be beautiful, but without the right light, you’re just in the dark.
Salt is the lighting in a beautifully decorated room. It might be low warm lighting, natural light from the windows, candlelight, firelight, or something else. But it flatters the other elements of the room. The dish, the furniture, and decor, the vegetables, herbs, meat, fruit, cheese. Salt brings that beautiful and specific light to show off the flavors. Not all lighting is the same just as not all rooms are the same.
Not all salting is the same.
Almost every recipe says some version of “salt and pepper to taste”. Salt and pepper sit at the center of just about every table in every home or restaurant. So…what does it do? Why does it matter? When should you add salt and pepper? It depends on the dish, the other flavors, and the person doing the eating.
We Are Who We Are, But Why? And How Did It Happen?
Let’s start at the beginning. If that’s possible. For me, I grew up in the 70s and 80s with parents who I’d describe as being fairly health-conscious and athletic. We didn’t eat a lot of red meat (which was fine by me…I didn’t like it), and our dinner table often featured dishes like stir fry, which for a suburban table in Colorado was kind of unusual compared to the neighbors (hunters, fishermen, and foragers among them). But another thing notable was the absence of salt and pepper shakers at the center of our family table.
We didn’t consume a lot of salt in our food, but especially not at the table as a way to “fix” the flavor before even tasting the food. I remember watching my friend’s dad heavily peppering his soup before eating it, which seemed so exotic and cool to me at the time. Peppering food was not something we did at our table. So my experience began at my table at home. When you think of your use of salt and pepper, go all the way back…how did you grow up with each of them? What influenced your use of them in and on food?
As a chef and a recipe/food writer, I do a lot of thinking and learning about the fundamental (but why?) presence of salt and pepper on our tables, in our recipes, as our “fixer” “to taste”. I have read extensively about salting food and depending on who’s writing, there are wildly differing opinions about how and when to do it. At the end of this article, check out my list of favorite books about these topics if you’re interested in learning more.
What About You?
What did you start with, and where are you now?
Do you use salt in your cooking? On the table? Do you add salt before even tasting your dish? Do you use it at the end of cooking, or as you go? Both? Do you use special salts? Do you care about the size of the granules? What about pepper? Do you like finely ground? Do you grind your own with a mill? Do you just shake it out of a shaker? Do you use multiple types of peppercorns? What about white pepper?
I asked the above questions in several groups on social media. I received thousands (yes, thousands) of responses from foodies, self-proclaimed home chefs, stoners, junk-food lovers, gourmets, gourmands, chefs, food writers, and culinary shop owners.
I got every answer from no salt to salt at every stage of cooking to some who even expressed disdain at chefs who leave s&p shakers off of the table at restaurants. I got everything from heavy on the pepper during cooking to pepper only at the table and very specific grinders, peppercorns, and sizes of granularity for both. There were some strong opinions about both the flavor and the aesthetics of finishing salts. Some people responded that they only salt food to get the iodine needed in their diet.
We’re all a mix of what we grew up with, dietary restrictions, what we’ve learned, and a heavy dose of what we have access to based on a variety of conditions.
Geographic & Socioeconomic Influences
I have been influenced by my parents, my geographical locations (from Colorado to Texas, California, Montana, New England, and now Washington), my education and training as a chef, my travels, my lifelong study of what tastes good and why (reading, cooking, observing others, experimenting), and my budget at any given stage of life.
I can afford and have access to interesting and fresh seasonings, spices, herbs, and ingredients. Not everyone has that same access for many different reasons. I’ve also enjoyed the privilege of my culinary education. I use salt for the science in baking and some cooking (tenderizing red meat, boiling eggs, and potatoes) and I salt some dishes from step one through when I serve the food. Some dishes contain salty ingredients such as feta cheese or preserved lemons and that is enough. My knowledge of cooking and my access to fresh and more costly ingredients (in some cases) both influence my use of salt and pepper.
Finding Your Perfect Lighting
I like salt but I don’t like it to be the flavor of the food. I like it to be the perfect lighting for the room I’m in. It can be almost invisible, showing off the perfection of a smoky dish or more deliberate to offset dark chocolate and caramel. Salt is so much more than something to cover up a boring dish. Home cooking gives us the opportunity to light the room perfectly as opposed to walking into an office building with fluorescent lights and drab furniture and cubicle walls. From a fine finishing sparkly salt to a perfectly permeated bite of roasted vegetable, or from a fall off the bone rib to a crunchy accent on a soft pretzel, salt can be a rock star without stealing the show (puns and mixed metaphors notwithstanding).
Pepper too can be a lovely addition to a dish. I personally use coarse cracked black peppercorns for serving at the table, and in slower cooked dishes like soup or stew. In recipes such and macaroni and cheese, I like fine-ground black and white pepper. I like mixed peppercorns for vegetable dishes. Pepper doesn’t dissolve like salt, so thinking about the size of the granules becomes even more important, depending on the dish.
If salt is the lighting in the room, pepper might be the aromatic candles. They can be mild or spicy or just add aromatic interest. A very simple pepper sauce made with stock, cream, or butter, and something a little salty like Worcestershire sauce can be a perfect complement to red meat, mushrooms, or even shrimp. Pepper can be used lightly or boldly depending on the dish. Like all flavors, it depends on the eater and the dish.
The Art On Your Own Plate
Like with so many other forms of art, beauty is in the eye (or perception) of the beholder. We learn to cook in different ways. Before the internet things were more dependent on books, family, and friends, or instructions on a box. Read more about that here.
While a Southern home cook might use salt one way, a fine-dining chef will do it differently. If you eat a lot of processed foods, you’ll likely be used to and expect more salt in your food. If you grew up in a house where the adults salted and peppered their food before tasting, you likely do too…or consciously stopped doing it.
Food preparation and consumption is archeology, psychology, sociology, geography, and history at once. The beauty of our different perspectives is endless. So when I see so many people passionate about discussing their relationship to salt, I am in my happy place, and so grateful for my opportunity to learn from people of all backgrounds.
- Granule Size – 1 teaspoon of fine, a teaspoon of regular, or a teaspoon of coarse salt is not equal. If you’re using a finer salt, adjust your recipe because that will be more salt than one teaspoon of larger granules.
- When to salt – When baking, don’t adjust or omit the salt because it is playing an important part in making your baked goods turn out the way you intend. Baking is science!
- Finishing Salt – These tend to be smoked, infused, or specific types of granules that either dissolve easily on the tongue or shimmer/sparkle for aesthetic quality or coarse granules like on pretzels.
- Salting to Tenderize – Some cooking techniques will call for using salt to tenderize your meat (such as steak or brisket). If you wish to avoid the salt, you can use other tenderizing methods, but be aware that often the salt is providing a flavor benefit as well. As the meat sits with salt on it for tenderizing, it is also permeating the meat. You might consider using other seasonings such as rubs, marinades, or sauces to provide the same level of flavor with less salt.
- Salt Blocks – I have a salt block for use on the grill, mostly. Admittedly, I don’t remember to bring it out much, but they’re a cool weapon for your kitchen arsenal if you don’t mind storing and learning to use one properly. My favorite applications come from the book Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes, written by the owner of “The Meadow“, a shop that originated in Portland, Oregon, and features a variety of highly curated salts, bitters, and chocolates. The book is also listed below, along with some of my other favorite inspirations and resources for further learning on this whole topic.
- Peppercorns – The most common peppercorns people think of are black, but there are several different types (and not all of them are actually peppercorns). There are also long peppercorns, which are amazing for making stock (or impressing guests). Different peppercorns have different flavors, but all of them provide an aromatic quality, which means you want at least some application of them just before or after serving if you’re trying to optimize their impact.
- Fine or Coarse – Like with most cooking, slower or longer cooking times can mellow and incorporate larger coarse pepper flavors, but since pepper doesn’t dissolve, finer ground pepper is lovely for finishing, or for things you wish to have a smooth texture. Course and fine pepper can look elegant as an aromatic finish to a dish, depending on your preferred texture and presentation. A mix of course and fine can be nice for homemade rubs or sauces, for instance, can be desirable.
- Flavor or Heat – When someone describes something as “peppery” what do you think of? I think of a big flavor, and usually, I’m imagining the flavor of black peppercorns. The pepper “sneeze” can come from all of the peppers, but if black peppercorns are the most “sneezy” then red or Sichuan is next (ouch), and after that white pepper is in line. White pepper is going to bring the heat, but not that front-of-the-palate flavor. White pepper is a secret weapon. If you haven’t experimented with it, I advise you to do so!
- Fresh Cracked/Milled – I do have finely ground pepper in a spice jar, but aside from finely ground, I always recommend whole peppercorns in grinders/mills to get the freshest, most flavorful, and aromatic impact from your pepper whether while cooking or as a finishing at-the-table garnish. There are lots of different types of grinders that will give you different granule sizes, so I like having choices. I’m not a minimalist in the kitchen because I like having options. But if you’re undecided and just want one, go with one that has a medium granule. You can always keep a spice bottle of fine ground on hand if you need it at times.
- Whole in Stock or Broth – Whole peppercorns (all varieties) are lovely in making stocks. They can easily be strained out at the end and they release flavor more slowly and evenly as your stock develops.
Here are my picks for interesting salts and peppercorns for those of you inspired to experiment more with them!
- Black Lava Salt
- Kiawe Smoked Sea Salt
- Seasoning Salt
- Cyprus Flake Salt
- Long Pepper
- Smoked Black Peppercorns
- Rainbow Peppercorns
- White Peppercorns
Here are some Salt and Pepper Tools I love
- Multi-tier Salt Keeper
- Salt Keeper
- Large flake Salt Mill
- Salt & Pepper Table/Travel Mill Set
- Bouquet Garni
- Everything Mill
Books For Further Learning
Thank you to everyone who responded to my queries regarding their use of salt, and their origin stories regarding salt. I’m always thrilled by the passionate feedback from food lovers.