Why does salt make flavors stronger??? I have been told countless times of this amazing property of salt and have experienced it first hand, but how and why can it make veges more vege and cookies more COOKIE?!?!?
When I bake desserts with children they are soooo reluctant to add the <teaspoon salt, especially if I hand-wrote the recipe, which I often do to make it in larger print and easier for kids to understand. You know, a nice thing. Kiddies, I can’t even convey to you the extent to which I know what I’m doing. All of the cookies I’ve made can span the Sahara or maybe even TWICE.
Last week I caught Terry Gross’ NPR show Fresh Air playing a 2010 interview she did with extreme food scientist Harold McGee. Maybe this guy is old news to like everyone but me. Okay, apparently he’s been doing this since 1984. Pretty old news.
In any case, I learned a lot!! The most interesting of fact, I think, is the SCIENCE of the magic of salt. Below are quotes from the interview, which you can listen to in full here.
1. Salt changes the chemistry of the food in such a way that it makes aroma molecules want to leave the food and, strange at it may sound, the more an aroma molecule, the flavor, wants to leave a food, the more easily we can perceive it because it has to get up into our nose for us to notice that it’s there. Salt helps flavors jump out of the food and into our nose and so we sense them more vividly.
2. And the other thing is that it seems to have an effect in the processing that the brain does to the experience of flavor. If we eat a food that’s got a certain aroma but it has no salt, our brain registers that and kind of gives us not much of a sensation… [But with salt] the brain seems to be making a judgement, ‘there’s something useful here nutritionally, so pay more attention to that flavor’ and so the flavor becomes more prominent.
It’s just smell! Mystery solved! That part I’m fine with, the second part is a bit harder for the layman to understand, I feel like. I mean I get it, but it seems scary that salt tricks our brain. It’s hard for non-neurologists like myself to accept how much of humanity is just chemical reaction.
But besides that morbid truth, it follows that you should add most of your salt just before serving so that all of this perceived flavor does not just drift about in the kitchen air during cooking, when you WISH you could be eating it. The same with other herbs and spices that you want to be FEATURED, not just in the background. That last taste test and tweak is important not just because of tradition but because of SCIENCE!
Check the article for a few other science-supported tips and explanations and/or McGee’s written works, On Food & Cooking and Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food and Recipes.