Recipe rescue: The power of salt
By Patrick Mathieu
By Patrick Mathieu
When I first started cooking at the firehouse, the only place you would ever see salt is in a shaker at the dinner table. Generations of families grew up with salt and pepper shakers at the table and that’s how you added salt to food. Unfortunately, all this does is make food salty. Oh, how far we have come as we now know, to become a better chef, simply learn how to master the use of salt! Salt is the single most important ingredient in any dish. It has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient.
The best chefs will add salt at each stage of preparation. They do so intuitively, holding their hands high above the food for even distribution, using their fingers to add a pinch here, a pinch there, and tasting all the while. The final step in pretty much every recipe is to taste and correct the seasoning: ‘salt to taste’.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a professional chef to learn how to salt properly. It’s merely a matter of habit and learning to salt in stages. Get some kosher salt and store it where you will use it- next to your stove. I am routinely asked why I recommend kosher salt. If you’ve been sprinkling table salt from a shaker, you should really stop. Table salt is sharp and one dimensional in taste. It is refined to pretty much a dust and retainins almost none of its trace elements. Kosher salt is a much broader flake and because it isn’t refined as much, it retains its trace elements so it yields so much more flavour. The size and shape of kosher salt is also important as it will adhere to food much more effectively giving you very precise seasoning. Store it in a wide bowl, a wooden box, or a ceramic salt pig and set it next to your stove. To use for general seasoning, pinch the salt between your thumb, index finger, and middle finger, hold it high over your pan, and then rub your fingers back and forth to release the salt while circling your hand over the pan to distribute it evenly. For example, if you’re making a marinara sauce, salt the onions and garlic as they sauté in olive oil, and add a little more after stirring in the tomatoes. Just before you take the sauce off the heat, taste it. If it hasn’t quite come together, add a pinch more salt. Just don’t wait until a dish is ready to serve before adding the salt. Salt needs time to pull flavours together. Otherwise, the dish will just taste salty.
Here is a quick guide to follow when learning to master the use of salt on different ingredients and methods of cooking:
- If you are grilling, searing, sauteéing, or broiling, add salt to seafood, poultry, and meat on both sides immediately before cooking. After turning, sprinkle on a little more. It is a myth that salting meat too far in advance of cooking will draw out moisture and result in dry meat. Overcooking dries out meat not improper seasoning. The real problem with salting too far ahead is that it causes some moisture to bead up on the surface of the food, which would inhibit browning and getting a much desired crust.
- When cooking beef and lamb, you can use salt to form a hard crust on the meat, which will also helps it retain its juices. Prime rib prepared in this way is an amazing classic dish. Many whole fish lend themselves to a similar preparation, although instead of applying a cloak of salt directly to the fish, as with prime rib, the fish is buried in salt. In such preparations, salt acts like a tiny oven rather than as a flavoring agent. Inside, the fish retains its juices and flavors.
- Try adding salt to salad greens right before dressing. When making a vinaigrette, add salt before whisking in the oil so it can dissolve in the vinegar; it also helps the vinegar emulsify with the oil. With raw vegetables think how much better a slice of tomato tastes with just a pinch of salt.
- Add salt to any raw vegetable just before serving to enhance flavour. When blanching green vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, etc.) salt the water before blanching or boiling; if steaming, salt after cooking. Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic: add salt while sweating or sauteéing.
- For boiled root vegetables like potatoes, pasta, rice, and other grains, salt the water before cooking and add salt to taste before serving.
- For large roasts, coat with salt just before cooking and season lightly after slicing. For whole birds (roaster, broiler, turkey, etc.) salt all over—inside the cavity, outside on the skin, under the skin where applicable, such as on the breast and thigh meat.
- Homemade broth or stock and soups/stews. Salt broth, stock and soup ingredients before sweating, sauteéing, or roasting and add salt to taste to the finished product before serving.
When you add a little bit of salt in several stages, you actually end up using less salt than when you add it only at the table. And it’s worth the small effort it takes to become adept at the process. A perfectly seasoned dish is one of life’s simplest and most satisfying pleasures and unless you have been told by your doctor to limit salt consumption, you can relax about your sodium intake from home-cooked food. In almost every case, anything you cook for yourself is lower in sodium than restaurant food. Eat well and stay safe!
Sous Vide Garlic Butter Prime Rib Roast
- 5 -7 lb bone in prime rib roast
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Set sous vide machine to 133F
- Salt and pepper the rib roast liberally. Put the roast in a freezer bag, and remove the air through a vacuum sealer or the displacement method. Add some fresh rosemary, thyme and garlic to the bag if you wish. Drop prime rib in the bath for 8 hours.
Mix together softened butter, garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper together in a bowl until the compound butter is spreadable.
Remove bag from bath. Take rib roast out of the bag and thoroughly pat dry. Let the roast rest and cool down for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven for 475 F. Evenly coat garlic herbed compound butter on the entire prime rib. Place rib roast on a baking rack pan and cook for 15 minutes.
Remove rib roast from oven. Let rest for 5 minutes. If it is a bone-in roast, carefully carve off the bones making sure not to cut into the roast. Carve the prime rib into slabs and enjoy this heavenly piece of meat. Brush the excess butter and garlic mixture from the pan onto each piece before serving. Bon appetit!
Rock Salt Crusted Snapper Flambé
- 1 whole red snapper or redfish, (about 6 1/2 pounds), cleaned and scaled
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
- 1 (3-pound) box kosher salt
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon leaves
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 1/4 cup grated lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- 2 oranges, juiced (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup Pernod
- 6 cups cooked rice, warm
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With a sharp knife, make 5 slits, at an angle and about 1 1/2 inches apart, on each side of the fish. Rub 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over each side of the fish, then season each side with Creole seasoning. Place the fish on the prepared baking sheet. Combine the kosher salt, herbs, lemon zest, and juice, orange zest and juice, and black pepper in a large mixing bowl. Mix well. Mound the mixture evenly on the surface of the fish, leaving the head and tail uncovered. With your fingers, firmly press the mixture into the flesh.
Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and cool for 2 minutes. With the back of a heavy spoon or a mallet, lightly pound the salt crust to crack it open, beginning at the tail end. Carefully pull off the salt crust. Then, with a small spatula or wide knife, remove the flesh from the bone from the top side of the fish. Remove the back bone, then serve the flesh from the bottom side of the fish.
Spoon the rice in the center of each serving plate. Lay the fish on top of the rice. Warm the Pernod over a gentle heat and light with a match. Carefully drizzle flaming pernod over the fish. Garnish with parsley. Bon appetit!
Patrick Mathieu is an acting captain at Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario and author of Firehouse Chef: Favourite Recipes from Canada’s Firefighters. Contact Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.