When You Should Use Salt and Why
We all know that we add salt for flavor, but the effects of salt can be used to change how something cooks as well.
For example, one of the most common cautions we hear as cooks are that adding salt to cooking beans will toughen the skins of the beans. Now that may be true, but I’ve never understood the idea of salting beans once they are cooked. Beans, like potatoes, cook rather slowly, gently absorbing water as their starch breaks down. They both tend to go from slightly cooked to fully cooked quite quickly as well, making salting them properly a tricky business. The key to salting beans, tough skins be damned, is to add a modest amount of salt to their cooking liquid. This will allow the beans to slowly absorb a touch of salt, resulting in savory beans. When tasting beans during their cooking process don’t get fooled into thinking they are under-salted. The water that the beans will draw in during their last few minutes of cooking will greatly increase their saltiness, and once they are fully cooked and the starch truly begins to break down they can easily release that salt into whatever dish they might be added to!
The timing of salt additions can play an important role in creating the perfect dish. Take pasta for example. People still add oil to their pasta water — why I don’t know, since it sits atop the water and is the first thing you dump when draining the pasta. If it’s to keep the pasta separate after draining, you’re better off adding a bit of oil once you’ve drained the pasta.
Salt, on the other hand, does no good once the pasta is cooked, since, as with beans, the pasta absorbs water as it cooks. Only by using salted water will you get salted pasta, as opposed to pasta with salt on it!
But there is another reason why you should cook your pasta with salted water. Simply put, you’ll be using hotter water. Salt raises the boiling point of water. Using hotter water means that you can cook your pasta perfectly, maintaining an al dente consistency without over-cooking the outside of the pasta.
One last way to use salt for better cooking results is to salt your water-rich vegetables early in their cooking process. The salt helps to draw out the water, cooking it off quickly and allowing you to get your fried and sautéed veggies, well, fried and sautéed instead of poached. I always add salt early on when sautéeing onions and the results speak for themselves. The salt draws out the water in the onions quickly, while the pot and cooking oil are still hot. The results? Perfectly sautéed onions. This technique also works well for mushrooms and summer squash.
Now, while I am an advocate of early additions of salt, remember not to get carried away. With salt, a little can go a long way.