I pause, ironically I was in the midst of finishing a steak with Maldon sea salt before it was sent out to a table.
“They’re not allergic to salt,” I reply with a sigh.
“But, they said…”
“I know, I know, they’re ‘allergic.’ I’ll go talk to them.”
Now, before I go touting the virtues of salt, I would like to offer up a couple disclaimers. First of all, I am obviously not a doctor and if you or a loved one has been advised to follow a low sodium diet please follow the physician’s directions. Secondly, I take allergies very seriously and would never do anything to put one of my patrons in harm’s way. Lastly, you’re not allergic to salt. It’s not even physically possible to be allergic to salt. Salt is not produced by your body, but is a mineral absolutely essential to the proper functioning of your cells. Don’t call it an allergy when it’s anything but.
From the beginning of man salt has carried a great worth. In the ancient world, salt was so valuable it was used as currency. This was a practice in multiple corners of the world, from China where they made salt into coins with likenesses stamped on them to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa and the Middle East where trade routes were based on salt mines to Rome where where soldiers for the empire were paid in salt. In fact, the word “salary” derives from the Latin word “salarium” which was the money paid to Roman soldiers that they would use to buy salt. Even the phrase “not worth his salt” implying an unsatisfactory job comes from the practice of paying in salt. During the Revolutionary War, one of the battle tactics of the British army was to intercept the salt in route to the rebels thus preventing their ability to preserve food. As you can see, salt carries quite a impressive history.
In an age where salt is as readily available as water, it is easy to take this little rock for granted. Salt is one of the four “tastes” (sweet, salty, sour and bitter) that your tongue is able to decipher and I would argue it is the most important. Why? Salt is a more than just a chemical compound (NaCl), it is a very versatile and useful mineral. Salt can be used to cure and preserve items, for example gravlax and bacon, this was absolutely essential to survival in and of itself before refrigeration was available. Then there is its ability to enhance sweetness in items such as salted caramels or my favorite movie treat combination – M&Ms and popcorn. The melody created from salt and sweet is enough to lift any spirit. That’s not all, though, because research also shows that salt has the ability to block the receptors on the tongue that sense bitterness. Try adding a dash to your coffee or this recipe from Alton Brown to sweeten up your morning grapefruit:
2 red or pink grapefruits, chilled
2 tablespoons coarse sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Special Equipment: Blowtorch
Halve each grapefruit crosswise, and cut a thin slice off the bottom of each half to stabilize the pieces. Remove all seeds from the grapefruit, and loosen the segments with a paring knife. Sprinkle each half evenly with the sugar. Using a blowtorch, melt the sugar to form a golden brown and crispy surface. Sprinkle the hot sugar with the salt, and serve immediately.
Clearly salt is an amazing vehicle for flavor. Salt is essential to taking your food from bland and flat to bright and interesting (if you have ever tried to replicate a recipe from your favorite restaurant and just couldn’t quite get it right I would wager that you didn’t use enough salt). I have barely scratched the surface of its applications and functionality, but I hope that this small window into the multitude of possibilities has given you a new appreciation for this often vilified little rock. While I won’t argue when a table says they’re “allergic”, I do feel sorry for them, I think their world must be much less vivid. After all, it doesn’t hurt to take things with a grain of salt.
Want some more information on salt and health? This article, The Truth About Salt from MSN, talks about the effects of salt on the body in more depth.