Drew Tait, Executive Chef of Kelly Greens Golf & Country Club, does regular salt tastings with his cooks to highlight the differences between salt varieties—and showcase their best uses.
As most chefs know, salt is one of the most important ingredients used in kitchens throughout the world. You’d probably be surprised to learn that only 12% of the total amount of salt produced is used for food production. It’s also used for road de-icing, water conditioning, agriculture, manufacturing, plastics, paper pulp and so much more. Salt is also vital for humans, animals and plants to survive. Salt has always been vital to civilization, leading humans to build entire communities around sources of salt or where salt could be traded.
The first verifiable salt works was found in China and dates back to 6000BC. It was used as barter and trade item for centuries. Some civilizations even used salt as a currency. It’s also an important part of many different religions. From the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans who invoked their gods with offerings of salt and water to Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism where it’s used during house warming and funeral ceremonies. It’s remarkable to think an ingredient most take for granted, that we chef’s use every day, has such an extensive and important history.
In the food industry, salt is used in many different ways from canning, pickling, and curing to binding, seasoning and as a texture aid.
All culinary salts are derived by evaporation and basically have the same nutritional value. However, there are dozens of different varieties of salt. You have common kosher salt and table salt which are both pure and contain very little minerals besides sodium chloride. You also have specialty salts such as fleur de sel or Hawaiian sea salt that contains unique minerals from the regions of harvest. These minerals produce unique flavors, textures and colors and are typically used as finishing salts.
As the Executive Chef of Kelly Greens Golf & Country Club (Ft. Myers, Fla.), I use a wide variety of salts in my cooking. I use the slight flavor differences to help enhance my cooking style in the same manner that I use oils and vinegars. I like to let high-quality ingredients speak for themselves, and different salts can help to bring out the different characteristic in these ingredients, depending on what I want the outcome to be.
When I was a young cook I never paid much attention to salt. I knew it was important for making dishes taste better, but I had very little understanding of the complex world of salts. One day, the chef I was working under did a taste test of different salts with our kitchen crew. It blew my mind. He poured a small pile of iodized salt, kosher salt and sea salt on a plate and told us to taste each one starting with the iodized. I dipped my finger in the salt and tasted it. It tasted like the table salt I had been using my entire life. Next, I tasted the kosher salt. It had a coarser grain and a cleaner flavor to it. Next came the sea salt, which had a dramatically different flavor. It was much cleaner and less “dirty” flavored than the iodized salt, but to my surprise, it also had a faint smell of the ocean to it. I closed my eyes and was transported to the beach. I continued tasting the salts and I realized that they each have their own specific flavors, textures and characteristics and that as a chef I must use them as a powerful tool for elevating flavor and even transporting members by triggering a particular flavor.
I haven’t used iodized salt since the day of that tasting. I’ve also done the salt taste test in every kitchen where I have been the chef to let my team experience the same thing I did. (If you haven’t tried this taste test before with your cooks, I suggest you do. It’s enlightening.)
Despite it’s age and history, salt is still evolving. We’ve seen a trend toward smoked salts with very commanding flavors that can be used in a variety of ways. Smoked salts range from traditional smoking woods like hickory and applewood to more distinctive woods such as chardonnay, alder, elm beech and cherry. These salts, when used appropriately, can remind your members of a camp fire, a smoke house or even a past BBQ at the club.
Food and the way we treat it and present it to our members is so important. It does more than nourish. It can transport them to different places and remind them of past experiences. Salt is one small way to create a big impact with your food both in flavor and in experience.
If you haven’t explored the expansive world of salts, start now. Buy some small pack sizes of a wide variety of salts and give them a try. You will be surprised how irreplaceable salts can become to helping add complex and nuanced layers of flavor to your finished dishes.