For years my younger son was a chocolate maker in Portland, gifted in combining flavors to create unusual combos that were remarkable yummy, like chili and orange, lemon with lavender and honey, or curry chocolate.
My favorite of all time was dark chocolate sea salt caramels. I still occasional crave that heavenly salty-sweet combo!
I have always found it curious how salt interacts with flavors, increasing the sweet flavors and minimizing bitter flavors. Some people even mix salt in their coffee grounds as a way to boost the flavor and reduce coffee’s bitter bite.
Sadly, salt has experienced some bashing during past decades for exacerbating blood pressure and kidney problems, but recent research is starting to change how the medical community talks to patients about the role this seasoning plays in a healthy diet.
As the medical community is looking more favorably on salt, the cooking world is embracing the myriad types of salt that can build complexity in everyday cooking.
The New York Times described research that challenges our understanding of how salt, or more specifically sodium, affects the body (NY Times article).
For decades, the idea has been that when you eat salty foods, your body has to dilute the concentration of sodium by retaining water. Remember science 101 and osmosis? The process, it was thought, stresses your kidneys and increases your blood pressure.
However, it seems the relationship between salt and our bodies may not be that simple, and reducing sodium may not be the key to controlling blood pressure. According to the New York Times, in addition to controlling blood pressure, sodium can have an interesting affect on weight.
“New studies of Russian cosmonauts, held in isolation to simulate space travel, show that eating more salt made them less thirsty but somehow hungrier. Subsequent experiments found that mice burned more calories when they got more salt, eating 25 percent more just to maintain their weight.”
If your doctor has told you to reduce your dietary sodium, please have a conversation with him or her before making any changes to your diet.
The variables that seem to have the most impact on lowering blood pressure are alcohol and sugar consumption — the less the better. If you are obese, losing 10 pounds can make a big difference in many areas, but especially blood pressure.
The interesting part of the NY Times piece is the weight loss that was noted when sodium intake was increased. Researchers explained it like this: the additional dietary sodium increased the output of a hormone that causes your body to actually produce more water. It comes not from the kidneys but from breaking down fat and muscle which creates more water for the body to use.
This process requires lots of energy, so your body burns more calories. The New York Times used the example of a camel crossing the desert. The camel doesn’t need to drink water in spite of the heat because its body breaks down the fat that is in its hump to stay hydrated.
Researchers cautioned that increasing salt in your diet would not be a suitable way to lose weight, but is one piece of the complex picture of how your bodily functions like blood pressure and kidney function, for example, are far more complicated than we’ve known.
The consensus seems to be that, aside from the sodium question, the most effective way to reduce blood pressure and stress on the kidneys is to eat five cups of quality vegetables and fruits a day, exercise for 30 minutes each day, if you are overweight, lose 10 pounds, and add 15-20 minutes of meditation or prayer time daily.
When I talk with clients about dietary salt and limiting their intake, I explain that once you remove processed food from your diet, you can use salt in your cooking freely without negative consequence.
Processed food is not only extremely high in sodium but also in other ingredients that stress the various body systems including blood pressure and kidneys. While the FDA may have declared ingredients in processed food as “safe for consumption,” there has been no research on how the interaction of the numerous non-food substances impact your body.
One caveat: there are some people who have a genetic predisposition to reacting negatively to sodium at even low levels, and must be judicious with how much they salt their food. The rest of us though, when cooking real food, can salt our home cooking to our taste buds’ delight.
When using salt in cooking you have many choices these days, and there really is a difference.
- Table salt is usually processed rock salt, often with iodine added to prevent it from sticking together. There’s a wide range of quality in basic table salt. Some tastes metallic and others very bland. The level of saltiness can also vary considerably. Take a taste and see what you think.
- Sea salt comes from evaporating seawater and can be either fine or coarse. Sea salt comes in many forms, some more expensive than others. What I like about sea salt is that is has a more complex, cleaner flavor than basic table salt. It tends to be less salty than generic table salt so as you cook, taste and add salt as you go.
- Kosher salt is made up of large crystals and has been used in the Jewish community to remove the blood from meat before butchering, thus its name. Kosher salt contains no additives and because of the large crystal can take longer to dissolve. Many cooks prefer using kosher salt in soups and stew and for the top of baked goods.
If you’ve never tried anything other than Morton’s table salt, consider buying a few different types and have yourself a taste test, you might be surprised with the differences.
If you don’t want to invest in a variety of salts, some high end grocery stores and cookware stores will allow you to sample the different types. If you purchase pure salt that doesn’t contain an anti-clumping agent, you can add a few grains of rice to the container to keep it from sticking together.
As I mentioned earlier, the most interesting use of salt that I came across is adding salt to your coffee grounds to reduce bitterness and boost flavor. Apparently adding approximately a quarter teaspoon of kosher salt to six tablespoons of grounds makes for an extraordinarily tasty up of coffee. I don’t’ have a coffee maker so I haven’t tried but if you are so inclined, give it a whirl and let me know how it turned out!