May 26th, 2010

Thoughts on Seasoning

Super Sister-in-Law and Amazing Chef Sandy is back with her wisdom on the subject of seasoning today.

I always learn so much from her. Whether it’s the steak itself or the sides to that yummy steak dinner:  seasoning matters.

Class is in session . . .

Let’s face it; some meals are just better than others.  Why do some meals just resonate with us?  Sometimes it’s the company, or the setting.  But when we get to the brass tacks of the food on our plate, what makes one meal better than another?

Usually it is because of the quality of ingredients, and perfect seasoning.  The quality of the food we cook at home is dependent on using the best ingredients we can get our hands on.  Use great cuts of meat, and the best seasonal vegetables you can find.

When it comes to seasoning properly, one of the best tips I can give you is to taste what you are cooking, often.  I taste the water that I am going to cook pasta in.  Water salted for cooking any kind of carbohydrate (pasta, potatoes, vegetable) should taste slightly salty.  Not “Oh my god that’s salty” but just kind of a slight taste of the sea.  Properly seasoning the water that you cook in before you add the starch will mean using a lot less total salt in your cooking.  You may not have to add more salt after cooking and the food will taste like what it is – you want the potatoes to taste like potatoes, not salt and certainly not bland.

I taste raw asparagus before it goes on the grill.  If you are making a risotto, taste the stock and correct it for seasoning before you add the rice.  If you are making a pilaf, season the vegetables as you are sautéing them, then add perfectly seasoned stock.  Before you serve, taste the food again.  You may need to adjust the seasoning again.

For many vegetables and other starches, a little bit of acid (in the form of citrus juice – a squeeze of lemon juice, for example or a few drops of a great vinegar) added just before serving perks up the flavor in an indescribable way – it just makes the flavor fuller and brighter.  If you need a little more salt flavor, you may want to consider adding a little grated parmesan cheese or a little soy sauce to give that boost.  If you have added cheese to a dish, adding a few drops (really – less than a teaspoon) of balsamic vinegar will make the cheese taste cheesier.

When adding any kind of seasoning, add a little, taste and adjust.  We all know that it is impossible to take out seasoning when you have added way too much.  Pour salt onto the back of your hand or into a measuring spoon, not directly into a soup or stew from its container.  If you accidently dump too much you may be able to salvage your meal by quickly scooping up what you dumped in.  When you add vinegar or lemon juice, also add just a few drops at a time to enhance the flavor – no one wants their risotto to taste of balsamic vinegar.

If you have slightly over salted something like a stew or soup, one of my grandmother’s tricks was to add a few chunks of raw potatoes.  Let them cook for 20-30 minutes, and then either scoop them out or leave them in if you desire.  A few drops of acid will also help a slight over-salting.  You may be able to add more unseasoned liquid to take some of the over saltiness out.

Acid-y                                                                     Salt-y

Lemon, Lime Juice                                            Salt

Wine                                                                        Soy Sauce

Balsamic Vinegar                                              Parmesan Cheese

Other Fine Vinegars                                         Feta Cheese


Garlic is one of the most popular seasonings used in this country, after salt and pepper of course.  Of course, garlic is really a vegetable, from the onion family.  You can buy garlic in many forms in this country – garlic salt, garlic powder, garlic in a tube, jar or from the freezer.  And then of course there is a fresh bulb of garlic, which may be intimidating to some people.  When you get familiar with the fresh form of garlic, and how easy it really is to use, you may be ready to clear all those other jars from your pantries!

First, a little terminology:

Head of Garlic/ Bulb of Garlic – this is the onion-sized whole product of garlic, which is covered by a pale, papery skin.

Clove of Garlic – each head of garlic has numerous papery-skinned cloves, usually upwards of 8-9.  These are held together with a plate at the bottom, which will be discarded.

The pungent flavor of garlic is released when the cells inside the clove are broken.  The more they are broken, the more pungent the flavor – a slice of garlic will be much less strong tasting than crushed fresh garlic.

Personally, I don’t like to bite into a chunk of garlic, so for most of my cooking purposes I use crushed garlic, although often just one or two small cloves.  I take a whole, unpeeled clove of garlic and place it on my cutting board.  Then I lay the flat side of my heavy chef’s knife over the clove, I use one hand to really pound the knife onto the garlic.  This smashing will loosen the skin from the clove, making it easy to remove.  I remove the skin, and then continue using the knife side to really crush the garlic.  If I also need a little salt in the recipe, I often add kosher salt to the garlic on my board, because the kosher salt really abrades the garlic into a paste.  Then scrape the board and the knife into my sauté pan, where I sauté the garlic just briefly over medium heat and continue with my recipe.

This salty garlic paste is also delicious added to a quantity of softened butter, for yummy garlic bread or to finish a delicious hot off the grill steak.  I use one large clove of garlic, smashed, then crushed with about a teaspoon of kosher salt (2/3 garlic, 1/3 salt) and mix this with 4 tablespoons of softened butter, plus fresh parsley, chopped, if available.

A quick and easy way to make garlic bread without smashing the garlic to smithereens is to toast good quality rustic bread.  When the toast is crunchy, simply slice a clove of garlic and rub the cut side of the clove on the toasted surface of the bread.  Spread with butter or drizzle with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and you have a delicious, authentic garlic toast to go with that juicy, tender steak!

March 24th, 2009

Steak Salt — Shaken, Not Stirred

At BLT Steak in NY, I was taken aback by the ginormous salt shakers on each table. This place not only allows you to salt your steak — they encourage it!

Check it out . . .

That’s a drinking glass behind it. This thing is huge.

I like it when a chef is confident enough to allow the diner to decide how much seasoning should go on their steak. It’s very unsnooty.

I’m not offended at my house by this, so why should they be?

I’m thinking of getting shakers like this for my table at home. But I’m afraid my kids would play with them and I’d be cleaning up salt from all over the house.

And where the heck would I store it? I’m low on storage space as it is.

For now, we’ll have to live on the memory of these shakers . . . and make do with our teeny, normal-sized shakers at home.

Oh, the humanity!!!!!!!

February 24th, 2009

Salt 101

We know salt flavors/seasons/prepares our food — especially steak.

But what do we REALLY know about salt?

As for me, I’d have to say, “Not a lot.”

Super Sister-in-Law Chef Sandy to the rescue. Here’s her lesson for me on the uses and origins of the various salts.

Class is in session!


When we were cooking together in Florida, Dena asked me a few questions about what salt to use and why.  I generally always use kosher salt when I am cooking, and sometimes use sea salt.  Why?  I am a situational learner.  When I was in culinary school (this was in the time before there was the Food Network) and in one of my very first introductory classes what we did is really taste some of the ingredients that we used.  Seems silly to taste salt, right?  We all know what it tastes like.  But do you really know?

Try a test:  Go to your nearest gourmet grocer, or any store that has some spices and salts in the bulk aisle.  Get a tablespoon of each of them.  I bought three beautiful, unusual salts yesterday, and the prices listed on the jars were between $6.99 and $29.99 a pound.  But since I only got a little of each it cost less than $2.00 for all of them.  I also bought a 2 pound box of kosher salt, while I was there, because I go through about 2 a year.  Kosher salt is also a little more expensive than the usual stuff in the round cardboard container; it cost $2.39 for a 2 pound box.  But over the course of a year, it really does not make a financial impact.

Put a few grains of each salt on a small plate and even visually you will notice a difference between different salts.  Kosher salt is a bigger grain, and has nothing added to it.  It also is certified free of pests, which cannot be a bad thing.  One of the reasons chefs use kosher salt is that it is physically easy to use.  I keep a plastic 1 cup container with an easily replaced lid right next to where I cook.  When I am cooking, the lid is off and I use my scrupulously clean hands to grab a pinch to season what I am cooking.  I know instinctively by feel what the right amount is (more on this later).  About the taste of kosher salt.  It tastes like salt.  Duh.  But it does not have any chemical flavor.  And it is considerably less salty than the other alternatives.  One teaspoon of kosher salt is about equal in saltiness to 1.5 teaspoons of iodized salt or 2 teaspoons of sea salt (depending on its consistency.)

Salt 101

From top, in clockwise direction: Alderwood Smoked Salt, Kosher Salt, Cyprus Black Lava Flake, “regular”coarse sea salt, Himalayan Pink Mineral Salt, and in the center, Sel Gris (natural grey sea salt from France)

Take a look at the iodized salt on the plate.  It has an obviously finer grain than the kosher salt, which means that it is harder to grasp just the right amount, and harder to distribute it nicely and evenly on a piece of meat (or whatever you are cooking.)  If you taste iodized salt right before or after kosher salt you will notice a chemical taste.  This is the iodine.  Iodine is a necessary nutrient which was added to salt a long time ago when it was not something that we got in our diets.  I think most Americans today get plenty of iodine in our diet (I am not a medical professional and this is not a medical opinion, but just my choice for my family) so I choose to use an un-iodized salt for the food that I prepare for my family.

The cheapest kind of sea salt (about ($2.99 a pound in bulk, also can be purchased by the box in most supermarkets) can either be very fine grained like the iodized salt, or coarser, which I use in my sea salt grinder.   These are usually white and are a more processed product than the most natural (and most expensive) sea salts.  At my local Whole Foods store yesterday, there were about 5 gourmet salts in the bulk section.  The cheapest were $6.99 a pound.  I purchased a Himalayan Pink Mineral Salt which has a lovely pink hue from the iron in the water from which it is produced.  The best sea salts really taste of the sea.  Like when you get a snootful of saltwater, but in a good way.  I also bought a Cyprus Black Lava Flake sea salt, which was $29.99 a pound.  This is beautiful stuff.  It is almost the color of pencil lead.  The texture is very crystalline- large chunks and lovely pyramids, almost the size of the end of my pinkie finger.  The black lava component leaves a sooty residue, but it really all tastes of salt.  In the summer this would be stunning on some yellow or even pink heirloom tomatoes.  It has a nice crunchy texture which shatters when you bite it.  This is definitely a show salt.  Put it on a chocolate truffle or sprinkle it just before serving on some lovely vegetables.  I wouldn’t put it on an omelet (it would probably turn the whole mess grey) but sprinkled over the top might look cool.

Finally I bought some Alderwood Smoked salt.  ($9.99/ pound) This is a sea salt which has been smoked with alderwood until the salt has turned a true brown color.  A smoky smell and flavor dominate, along with a very salty taste.  I have used this on steaks and things that I have cooked indoors, when I want to give the impression that they have been done outside.  I have smoked salt in my own smoker as well, but I did not get as pronounced a smoke flavor as the commercial one I bought yesterday.  On the steaks I cooked last night, the smoked salt gave them a slight smoky flavor, but I used very little salt on each one.  Next time I will try using a little more.


This past summer I had the opportunity to go with my children to Austria and while there we toured a salt mine.  I learned quite a bit of history about salt and learned about what an important role it played in the development of that region, the Salzkammergut.  Briefly, here it is.  Salt was discovered in the Alps in the Bronze Age, about 5000 years ago.  Because of its importance in preserving foods, it became a valuable commodity and the people of the region, and specifically their leaders became extremely wealthy as a result. The city of Salzburg (literally Salt City) has many gorgeous cathedrals and castles and these were all built from the profits of the salt trade.  Many wars have been fought over the stuff.  If you ever have a chance to be in the Salzburg area with your kids, take a salt mine tour.  You get to wear cool miner clothes, ride on a train and a boat and slide on giant slides (the better to get deep into the mountain with.)  I did it when I was an 8 or 9 year old, still remembered it and knew my kids would love it and they did.


That’s a large pink salt crystal from Austria

Salt has an interesting history, and you can certainly read or learn more about it on the Internet or in the many books that have been written on the subject over the past few hundred years.  But how do I use it today, in my cooking?

My rules for using salt:

  • All baked goods require salt – bread will not rise properly and even sweets will not taste just right without it.
  • Use salt throughout the process, not just at the end of the cooking process.  I don’t generally use any salt at the table, except for something like a baked potato.  When preparing something in boiling water or steam, I always salt the water before adding the product.  For pasta, have the water taste slightly salty (just a hint of the sea) before adding the pasta.  For potatoes, add salt to the pot with the cold water and potatoes and cook it all together.
  • I have found that I use much less total salt by using it intermittently throughout the process rather than just at the end.  In my opinion, when using salt to season each component throughout the cooking process and not just at the end food tastes more like it should.  Mashed potatoes don’t necessarily taste salty, but rather than potatoes with salt they taste like great tasting potatoes.
  • If you are adding ingredients like stocks or sauces which already have salt, reduce the amount you add to your recipe.
  • Be careful with your timing when you use salt.  Salt will draw the liquid out of food.  Sometimes you want this to happen, for example when you use salt to draw the bitterness out of a vegetable, which is then rinsed.  But if you are preparing a fresh salad, add salt just before serving to preserve the integrity of the food.  Same thing goes for meats.
  • If you are preparing a meat product to cook, salt just before cooking. I made some hamburgers on our trip to Florida, and everyone who had one said they were the best hamburgers ever.  What did I do special, my mother-in-law wanted to know.  I used ground sirloin and divided it into very thick patties.  I seasoned each patty with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and then cooked them in a skillet with about a teaspoon each of butter and olive oil, heated to medium high heat.  The thickness of the patties and the salt on the outside of the burger combined to form a lovely crispy outside crust on the meat.  I served them on buttered buns and voila, the best burgers ever!  Easy!
  • For most of the meals I prepare for my family (standard fare- chicken, steaks, hamburgers, eggs, etc) I just use salt and freshly ground pepper for seasoning,  I try to buy the best quality meat and vegetables I can and prepare them in an appropriate manner (don’t undercook, don’t overcook, season them well but not to excess).  It is a simple way to cook, but it lets the flavors of the food dominate.  We try to eat as close to the natural state as possible.
  • Salt changes the boiling point and the freezing point of water.  Add salt to the water before boiling and it will raise the boiling point of the water- it will come to a boil slower, but only marginally so.  Salt lowers the freezing point of water into ice – this is why rock salt is used when making ice cream.  It allows the ice water mixture to come to a lower temperature (which causes the ice cream to freeze quicker.)

Class dismissed!