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 Salt myths and urban legends

Opinion by JOE O'CONNELL, cbbqa Past President
Updated October 12, 2001 at 7:58 AM PDT (1538 GMT)

Salt has been used since antiquity to preserve and season food.  An accompanying story discusses the types and science of salt.  However, there are many myths and urban legends about salt, and they will be reviewed here.

Most cooks misuse salt, and many (perhaps most) recipes err in how salt should be used.

As explained in the accompanying story, the human tongue detects salt very easily and then wakes up the nose.  The net effect is that food with salt tastes better than food without it - for exactly the same reason that food tastes better to a person who does not have a stuffed-up nose than it does to someone with a stuffed-up nose.

Here are the common myths and urban legends about salt and food.

Myth:  Salt meat before cooking

As a general rule, in my opinion, salting meat before cooking it is not a good idea.  Salting meat after it is cooked helps the flavor.  But salt draws moisture out of the surface of the meat.  If salt is left on the surface of meat for a significant period of time, the salt will dehydrate the meat.  Usually, this is not a good idea before cooking meat.

There are exceptions.  If the meat is going to be cooked quickly (like a grilled steak) and if the salt is added just before cooking, then the salt will neither help nor hurt the meat (i.e. there will be no noticeable difference in the outcome).  There is too short a period of time for the salt to dehydrate the surface of the meat.  Nevertheless, although this will not hurt the meat, the salt will not help it.

Another exception is for the preservation of meat.  Salting acts to dehydrate both the meat and the bacteria on the meat.  As a result, the meat dries, and spoilage (rotting) is retarded.

For barbecue, the addition of salt (or any other sodium, like MSG) to a rub or marinade before cooking will affect the meat by dehydrating the meat's surface.  Sometimes, this is desirable, because the texture of the surface will be very different from the texture of the interior -- as with burnt ends of beef brisket and the bark of pork shoulder.  I think that many barbecue meats are too dry because of the addition of the salt to the outside of the meat.  

Why is this urban legend so popular?  Probably because few cooks have conducted controlled experiments (blind-taste tests) of their rub or marinade recipes so that they can compare the results and determine the difference.  The major problem is that barbecue cooks rarely conduct a controlled test.  The best rule:  add salt to raw vegetables (which typically are not cooked slowly, and do not lose moisture) and add salt to cooked meat.

Myth:  Adding salt to boiling water speeds the cooking time

Adding salt to boiling water to speed cooking time is a myth.  It is often said that adding salt to boiling water will increase the boiling point of water and thus speed the cooking time.  To be extremely precise:  the addition of salt does increase the boiling temperature and thus decrease the cooking time, but the changes are miniscule:  much too small to be noticeable or significant.  In other words:  nice theory, but wrong on a practical level.

Adding salt may add saltiness to the food, but it will not change the cooking time.  More information is on the Bad Chemistry website.

Myths:  Kosher salt is kosher, comes from the Dead Sea, is blessed by a rabbi, and contains no additives

Kosher salt (1) is kosher;  (2) comes from the Dead Sea; (3) is blessed by a Rabbi; and (4) contains no additives.  All are false.  Kosher salt refers to any coarse-grain salt that is used to make meat kosher.  Kosher salt usually is mineral salt, which may mined anywhere.  A rabbi does not "bless" the salt to make it kosher (although Morton's Coarse Kosher Salt in the past has claimed to be packaged under Rabbinical supervision).  As with any other salt, some commercial Kosher salt (like Morton's Coarse Kosher Salt) uses anti-caking additives to make it free-flowing.  Kosher salt is usually free from iodine additives.

Myth:  One part of table salt equals two parts of kosher salt

It is only half-correct that one part of table salt equals two parts of kosher salt.  It depends on how the salt is used.

Not all kosher salts weigh the same.  For example, ordinary table salt weighs 10 oz. per cup;  Morton's Coarse Kosher Salt weighs 7.7 oz. per cup;  and Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weighs 5 oz. per cup.  (The difference is explained because of the differing sizes of the kosher salt grains.)  One grain of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt is much larger than one grain of table salt.  

If the kosher salt is going to be used in cooking, then the same amount by weight should be used.  Why?  Because salt is soluble, so its original form (as kosher or table salt) is unimportant in the final recipe.  In general, substitute twice as much Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt for table salt, but substitute only 1 1/3 measures of Morton's Coarse Kosher Salt for one measure of table salt.

However, if the salt is to be added to a finished dish, then twice as much kosher salt is needed to equal the "saltiness taste" of one part of table salt.  Why?  Because the surface area of one grain of kosher salt is much less than the same weight (and more grains) of table salt.  Thus, on the tongue, a teaspoon of table salt tastes "saltier" than a teaspoon of kosher salt.

Surface area of salt

The surface area of Kosher salt is much less than the surface area of an equal amount (by weight) of table salt.  Here's the reason.

Assume that a single grain of Kosher salt is a perfect cube which is 4x4x4.  Basic geometry shows that the interior area of the grain is 4^3, or 64.  However, its surface area of the cube is 96 -- the area of each surface is 16, and there are 6 surfaces.

However, assume that a single grain of table salt is 1/8 the size of a grain of Kosher salt, so that a single grain of table salt is a perfect cube that is 2x2x2.  Basic geometry shows that interior area of each grain is 2^3, or 8.  The total interior areas of 8 grains of table salt is 64, which is the same as one grain of Kosher salt.  However, the surface area of each grain of table salt is 24 (6 surfaces of 2x2 each), and, since there are 8 grains of table salt that weigh the same (in this example) as one grain of Kosher salt, the surface area of eight grains of table salt equals 192 (24 x 8).

In this example, a grain of Kosher salt has a surface area of 96, while the same weight in table salt has a surface area of 192.  The result:  because the human tongue interacts with the surface of the salt grains, the table salt seems to be twice as salty as the same amount of Kosher salt.

But, to demonstrate the proof:  compare a dish sprinkled with one gram of Kosher salt with the same dish sprinkled with one gram of table salt.  The latter will taste twice as salty as the former, because the surface areas are different.  However, if the gram of Kosher salt is run through a food processor to reduce the size of the salt grains to the table salt size, the two salts will taste exactly the same because they are exactly the same.


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