Imagine your favorite foods like pizza, eggs, and French fries without salt. They would be bland and tasteless. You probably won’t even be able to eat them. That’s what makes salt the most crucial ingredient in any meal. But salt isn’t just for adding flavor. The human body requires it to perform some core functions. In fact, when the sodium level is too low, one can suffer from a condition called hyponatremia. Perhaps you already knew that. But do you understand the science behind salt that makes food taste better, so delicious? Read on to find out.
The Origin of Salt
Did you know that most salt varieties come from the sea? Other types are mined, but the most common salt we use is evaporated from saltwater solutions, which might be seawater (thus, sea salt).
The method of evaporation determines the crystal shape, quality, and minerality of the salt. Rapid evaporation in closed containers (vacuum evaporators) forms uniform granules, while evaporation in open containers results in light, hollow salt flakes.
Why Does Salt Make Everything Taste Good?
It turns out, our brains are hardwired to crave salt because the body needs it for survival. Salt, usually in the sodium form of sodium chloride, is an essential nutrient that the body uses to regulate body fluids, blood pressure, and nerve impulses. Since our bodies can’t make it naturally, we rely on adding salt to food.
We can taste saltiness due to epithelial sodium channels (eNaC) – pores that allow sodium ions to travel to the taste receptors cells (TRCs) in our taste buds. The TRCs then signal the brain that the food is salty.
We all relate sugar to sweet taste. This is because our mouths comprise sugar sensors, which can also be found in our intestines. Sugar sensors can also be found in other organs, whose main role is to process glucose and insulin in the blood. However, salt also enhances the flavor of sweetness in our meals. Scientific studies show that salt pushes glucose into the sweet taste cell when it detects the presence of sodium in our meals. This causes the cell to register sweetness.
Additionally, salt is said to suppress bitterness better than sugar. While research on this finding is still inconclusive, studies suggest that it all boils down to the tongue and brain. Typically, most of the bitterness is blocked in the taste buds and researchers think that sodium interferes with the bonding that happens between bitter elements and their taste receptors.
Salt has also been found to improve the smell of food. The salt ions are attracted to the water in the food, allowing volatile compounds – molecules that evaporate quickly and are responsible for the aroma we smell – to escape into the air. While we may not taste these compounds, they enhance our perception of flavor.
Salt has other benefits as well. One study showed that adding salt to food increased the thickness of soup and gave it a fuller, more balanced flavor. Scientists can’t explain how it does this exactly, but it’s just one of the marvels of salt.
Adding just a pinch of salt awakens certain flavors that you’d otherwise not taste or detect in food. For example, adding a dash of salt in bread dough or roasted squash doesn’t make the bread or squash salty. Rather, it brings out myriad complex flavors, giving them their distinct taste.
Timing Is Everything
When it comes to salt, timing is everything. For the best results, add salt gradually throughout your cooking. This gives salt ample time to disperse and merge with the food molecules. If you sprinkle salt just before serving, it won’t have enough time to dissolve and mix with the molecules, hence the food won’t taste as good.
Salt Makes Meat Juicier
The reason why brine (salty water) works wonders is that it makes the meat juicier. Whether it’s steak, turkey, pork, shrimp, or chicken, soaking meat in brine ensures that salt gets into the protein cells, untwining the strands of protein and letting them sop up in the brine.
While some of the moisture will be lost during cooking, you’ll get delicious meat with the distinct flavor that salt helped to bring out due to brining. When preparing rib roast, turkey, pork shoulder, or leg of lamb, try salting the meat a couple of days in advance. If you don’t have the time, season food a day before cooking or at least a few hours in advance.
You can also add salt to your dessert to get a more rounded and balanced flavor. A dash of salt on citrus makes it fresher and gives warm spice more fragrance.