The Biggest Mistake Home Cooks Make

Pinch pot of salt

“In my opinion, the biggest mistake home cooks make is not using enough salt.”  Bobby Flay (Worst Cooks in America)

I’m a home cook and I’m guilty of it, due in part to the perplexing phrase salt to taste. Whose taste? Should I assume that everyone at the table has the same taste as me; that I have the superior palate? (Not likely.) What exactly am I tasting for? Should I salt to taste until it tastes like salt, or until it tastes like something else?

I turned to the internet for answers and learned that, when it comes to seasoning, the idea is to add salt until the dish tastes like everything else in the pot except salt. It’s a fine line though; like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and leaning out to peer into the gorge. You have to really stick your neck out there if you want to fully appreciate the jaw-dropping view, but if you go too far… well, you get the idea. The perfect measure of salt is that precise amount where adding even one more tiny grain would make the food taste salty. Not too salty – but salty.  No recipe can tell you exactly where that line is. The only way to find it is to taste, add a bit more salt, taste again, and repeat.

Although I lack confidence when it comes to my ability to recognize the correct amount of salt in a dish, I stand behind my belief that sorting it out is the key to creating truly memorable food. Just ask Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten:

“Salt is indispensable to good food and good cooking. It sharpens and defines the inherent flavors of foods and magnifies their natural aromas. Salt unites the diverse tastes in a dish, marries the sauce with the meat, and turns the pallid sweetness of vegetables into something complex and savory. Salt also deepens the color of most fruits and vegetables and keeps cauliflower white. Salt controls the ripening of cheese and improves its texture, strengthens the gluten in bread, and can preserve meat and fish, while transforming its texture. Cooked without salt, most dishes taste dull, lifeless, and lacking in complexity; in some, flavors are unbalanced and sweetness predominates.” ~Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything

 

Avoiding the biggest mistake some home cooks make isn’t just about figuring out how much salt to add to food. It also means choosing the best method to apply it. Food & Wine recently published an article on how to Train Yourself to be a Better Cook. The lessons in the article were designed by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, and are intended to let you play Test Cook in the kitchen while sharpening your tasting skills. Their exercise for applying salt involves seasoning three pork chops using three different methods.

Pork Chops

Soak the first chop in a saltwater brine (1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 3 cups cool water). Rub the second chop all over with 1/2 teaspoon salt and stand it on a plate to air-dry. Wrap the third chop in plastic wrap without seasoning. Refrigerate all three for 24 hours.

Three different salting techniques applied to pork chops | TheCulinaryTravelGuide.com

Remove the chops from the refrigerator after 24 hours. Drain the saltwater from the first chop and pat dry with paper towel. Allow the meat to stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap from the third chop and season it with 1/2 teaspoon salt just before cooking, then pan-fry all three until cooked through (155°F).

Which chop do you think will be the most flavourful?

3 Pork Chops Frying

The results surprised me.

The change in appearance of the chop soaked in the saltwater brine (top left) was mildly shocking. It plumped up overnight like a supermodel’s lips after a visit to the cosmetologist, increasing in size by at least 25%. Its rosy hue faded to an unappetizing shade of pinkish-grey, while the grain of the meat all but disappeared. Biting into the cooked chop was like biting into a juicy slice of ham. The pork for this part of the test was seasoned with twice as much salt as the others yet it was the least salty-tasting of the three, and even though it failed to develop that desirable carmelized exterior during cooking that the other two achieved, it was still delicious.

The chop with the most noticeable salt taste was the third chop (bottom) – the one that was seasoned moments before cooking. Because the salt sat just on the surface, it was the first flavour my tongue encountered, overwhelming it a little. This is the method I usually use to season meat and although the result was enjoyable, it was not nearly as pleasing as the other two.

By far the most flavourful of the three was the chop rubbed with salt and then air-dried in the refrigerator overnight (top right). As its colour turned darker, its flavour became more concentrated, deeper, and the resulting porkilicious taste was intensely gratifying. This is my new go-to method for seasoning meat and, after experiencing what it can do for the flavour of pork, I can’t wait to try it out on a nice, thick rib eye!

If you’d like to recreate this little kitchen experiment yourself you can get the full setup HERE, along with lessons on acidity and ways to add character to food. If you do try it, I’d love to hear the results of your taste test. Which chop did you prefer? What’s your go-to method for applying salt to meat?

12 Comments

  1. i’m in absolute agreement with both Bobby Flay and Jeffrey Steingarten. Most home cooks are shocked when then see how much salt professional cooks use. The point isn’t to make the food salty (if it tastes salty you’ve used too much) as much as it is to snap every flavor into maximum focus. “Salt to taste” doesn’t mean put as much salt as YOU want – it means to salt until you taste the maximum flavor from a particular dish. There’s definitely a learning curve to this, probably with some oversalting involved. An easy way to begin getting a feel for this is to heat a bowl of unsalted homemade chicken stock, then begin adding salt and tasting, a bit at a time, until you’ve gone too far – and it begins tasting salty, instead of just chicken. Then you know you’ve gone too far. After awhile you develop a sense of just-this-much-and-no-more. There’s nothing worse than eating someone’s undersalted food. Good luck. GREAT post. Ken

    Reply
    • Thanks Ken!

      I really like your suggestion to experiment with a bowl of chicken stock! I wouldn’t fear over-salting it like I do with an expensive cut of meat or an entire pot of boeuf bourguignon. I didn’t mention it in this post, but the instructions for the setup said to use a fine sea salt in each test, whereas I would have normally seasoned those chops with kosher salt. But then which type of salt to use for the preparation at hand could be a whole new blog post :-)

      Glad to see you made it through Sandy safely. Hope it wasn’t too rough a ride!

      Cheers,
      Laura

      Reply
  2. What an amazing discovery and article! I am so guilty of not using enough salt, even though I am a lover of spices and flavor. Weird, I know. I will be trying this technique with my next cut of meat for sure! Thanks for doing all the leg work so I can come out looking like the world’s best cook! XO

    Reply
    • Thanks Jenny! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m planning to try the tests for acidity and adding character as well, although I doubt that I’ll devote an entire post to them.

      Hope you have a great weekend!
      Laura

      Reply
  3. Your first paragraph made me laugh! It’s a conundrum. Great article to help us figure it all out. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Oh good! I’m glad you like it, Susie!
      Take care,
      Laura

      Reply
  4. Really enjoyed this post, very well put. Salt is everything! I have never done this side by side – you can really see the physical difference. Thanks.

    Reply
    • This post was a lot of fun to do, and the side by side comparison really did make all the difference, but then I had to eat pork chops for dinner the next three nights in a row (and on two of those nights, the leftover chop had a piece already cut out of it from the taste test).

      I’m a firm believer though that developing my palate is the key to becoming a better cook. Taste, taste, taste!
      :-)

      Reply
  5. I love this post! I feel like I actually learned something. I’m a huge fan of salt and agree that many of us home cooks don’t know how to use it. I love that you actually did that experiment, and I’m proud to say that my guess for what would have been the tastiest version was right. ;) If you end up doing any of the other tests, I’d love to see it.

    Reply
    • Thanks Laura! I think this may just be my favourite post, probably because I learned something too. I’ve done one other of these experiment-type articles before (best method for making popcorn) and I thought it was a lot of fun too. Maybe I should apply for a job at America’s Test Kitchen :-)

      Nice job guessing the tastiest version! I was expecting the one in the saltwater brine to be the best.

      Cheers!

      PS: Do other people have favourites of their own posts, or am I bordering on narcissism?

      Reply
      • Oh, and I wanted to add that I saw this post when I was on a blogging hiatus and saved it for when I returned. ;)

        Reply
  6. Not at all! I was actually going to say that this was one of my all-time favorite posts– not just of your posts. :D And yes, I have favorite posts of my own too. Sometimes I really like a post and no one seems to notice it, but every once in a while I guess we get it right!

    Reply

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