Season of Salt: A Primer
I chose the name Season of Salt because I like the way it sounds and it's a triple entendre: each season provides different foods, salting food is called seasoning, and so is the nonstick surface on certain types of pans; all nods to the kitchen. Salt is the star of the show though. Knowing how to use salt is fundamental to cooking and it's always the season of salt.
Salt is magic. It enhances flavors like nothing else can. Yet so many of us fear it, quickly flipping to the nutrition label to see if what we're about to eat will be a lethal dose of sodium. Although some people avoid salt for legitimate health reasons, in the realm of home cooking there's little need for concern. Yes, Americans do consume too much salt, but most of that comes from prepackaged foods that use high levels of sodium not so much for flavor, but as a preservative. When you cook your own food, this isn't really an issue.
Kosher salt will get you 99% of the way there when it comes to seasoning.
I keep a few different kinds of salt around, but the real workhorse among them is kosher salt. Ditching the fine table salt with iodine in favor of coarse kosher salt is the single best place to start if you want to improve your cooking. Though iodized salt does have an off flavor, it's admittedly minimal and my advocating kosher salt also has nothing to do with eating kosher. So what's so great about it? It really comes down to the coarse texture which can be pinched with your fingers and sprinkled over food. Trust me, once you start salting with your hands you will have vastly more control over how much you use -- instead of hoping for the best with a shaker. While we're at it, do me a favor and just throw out your salt and pepper shakers. I know, I know, they're adorable, but their mere existence on your dinner table implies the food needs salt. It shouldn't. Plus that preground black pepper tastes like ash compared to fresh cracked. Get a salt cellar or small dish to keep on your counter and a pepper grinder then start pinching away. Once you've learned how to season properly, you'll never need to reach for a shaker.
Now you might be thinking, "Clearly this guy hates salt and pepper shakers, but why does it matter when you salt the food?" Salting in advance is called seasoning and it's superior for a few reasons. For one, salt will penetrate most foods and season the inside as well as the outside. At this point it's not just salt anymore, the salt dissolves into the food enhancing it's flavor as opposed to just also having salt on it. Salt actually does something to your taste buds to make them more receptive to flavors. So if you cook a chicken breast then salt it at the table, you've got salted chicken. But if you season it first you not only have the salt you're looking for, but a chicken breast that tastes even more like chicken. Not only that, when you preseason meat, it relaxes the proteins in a way that allows them to retain more liquid which helps prevent the meat from drying out.
How to Season
How then, does one season properly? This part takes practice as you get used to feeling how much salt you've pinched up as well as how much you need to use for your personal taste. The technique is simple though. Essentially, you salt your food liberally all over by sprinkling it high above the food so it distributes evenly. Until you know how much to use, a half teaspoon per pound is a good start. Don't be too shy though. I've certainly had over-salted food, but not nearly as often as bland food begging for some salt. With meat, it's best to salt way in advance - days if you can. More time will allow the salt to penetrate more deeply, but there is a limit and you won't notice much improvement beyond 3 days. If you don't have that kind of time, no problem. 45 minutes will still get the job done, however anything more than 10 and less than 45 minutes is a bad idea. You see, salt draws out moisture first, dissolves into it, then this salty liquid (called a dry brine) absorbs back into the meat. Between 10-45 minutes though, the meat will be wet on the outside which means it will not sear well. More on this another time, but for now, trust me. If you can't spare the 45 minutes, just salt your food right before you cook it and use a little more since it won't have a chance to penetrate very deeply.
Varieties of Salt
Kosher salt will get you 99% of the way there when it comes to seasoning. I use Morton's Kosher Salt because it's available everywhere, but the other big brand is Diamond. Any brand is fine, just be consistent because even though they're all coarse, they vary enough that they will have different volumetric measures. That is, a tablespoon of one might not equal a tablespoon of another if you actually weighed them. I do like to have a few other kinds of salt around as well. A nice flake salt is great for when you need more salt after the cook. Something like a sliced prime rib, even if well-seasoned in advance will still be almost devoid of salt in the center so it can be nice to give that part a little extra love. It's also a juicy tomato's best friend. Since these are cases of salting at the end, it's nice to have that crunchy texture. I do also keep table salt around. There are a few instances where the finer grind is useful. It might be a little hard to find, but if you can, smoked salt is an amazing ingredient for making faux smokey barbecue. Used in place of kosher salt, it adds a smokey flavor without having to change anything else. Lastly, I keep a strange one called sodium citrate that I had to buy online. This nifty ingredient can turn any cheese into a perfectly smooth liquid. In a mind-blowing coincidence, the chemical formula for sodium citrate just happens to be Na3C6H5O7 as in “NaCHO.” You don't need it, it's just really cool.