Salt. Its value has been recognised since ancient times, and has since been reflected in the language. The word salary (en.) comes from Anglo-Norman French salarie, from Latin salarium, denoting a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy salt, from sal ‘salt’.
Salt is a staple condiment in every kitchen. Preferences for salt might differ depending on the cook or location, and can range from kosher salt to table salt, sea salt, rock salt, and many other varieties. Thus in working the salt, the biggest challenge for a cook is in understanding the salt they use daily, devising their own measure of the chef’s pinch, so to speak (which was one of the first tricks I acquired during my culinary training).
At this point, one might wonder as to why at all bother building a relationship with salt. After all, it is just salt. Well, in terms of food preparation, salt contains a superpower that no other ingredient does – it amplifies the flavour of anything we cook. The addition of salt helps liberate intrinsic tastes and aromas of foods, and as a result helps us recognise them as we are eating, therefore making the whole process more pleasurable and satisfying. For instance, salt is capable of enhancing sweetness and reducing bitterness. Try sprinkling a bit of salt on a bitter coffee or combining it with dolce de leche. You will immediately see how the flavour changes.
Salt is as important for baking as it is for cooking. In France, the baker’s relationship with salt is legally regulated. Alongside many other provisions, Le Décret Pain (1993) stipulates that for something to be called un baguette traditionnelle, a traditional baguette, it must contain 18gr of salt per 1kg of flour. This might be changing soon as the French government seeks to reduce the overall salt consumption, which currently stands at 8.4gr a day, and that is higher than the recommended 6gr.
When baking bread, the general bakers’ guideline is to add 1.8% – 2.0% of salt to the total amount of flour. When used, salt bestows the similar effects on bread as it does on other food – it brings flavour to life. In addition to that, it also strengthens gluten and helps prevent excessive gas production. This contributes to tighter loafs with good crumb and structure. Salt also improves crust colour as it curtails yeast’s appetite for sugars, the simple sugars that have been released during the transformation of the wheat starch (discussed in detail during our conversation about the leavening). If left unattended, the yeast goes on a sugar binge and leaves nothing to caramelise during the baking. Salt controls that and ensures that enough sugars are left for the delicious crust to be formed.
Different bakers have different habits of adding salt to their loaves, some do it at the start of the mixing, others in the middle. My preference, is to add salt during the early stages, right before the strengthening of the dough, by mixing it with the reserved water to ensure its thorough absorption. This stage is called a dough autolyse, and it constitutes leaving the flour and water mixture to rest before giving it a proper, gluten-building workout. This takes us to our next topic of conversation and that is the bread baking process. Let’s meet in company of food again in two week to discussed it in detail.
Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood