Let’s Talk Salt

I mean, why not? There’s already a lively discussion going on about it in my in-box. So what they hey? It’s a pretty darn interesting subject.

The chemical world is filled with all manner of salts. However the particular salt we think of as “salt” is sodium chloride (NaCl). It’s an inorganic compound, the only rock we eat. True, we do consume a wide variety of other minerals: both the so-called “bulk” minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium, as well as “trace” minerals like iron, copper and zinc. Yet the human body can only take those in via organic middlemen like fruits, vegetables and meats. Salt is the only inorganic substance we dig out of the ground and put straight into our mouths. It is absolutely essential to human health (indeed to that of all living things on Earth), as evidenced by the fact that our tongues have receptors specifically designed to detect it.

However our relationship with salt goes beyond mere utility. Our consumption of it has, over the eons, become inextricably bound up with pleasure. Which is to say that for most of us, eating isn’t “eating” without it.

But what exactly does salt do to the foods we eat?. The conventional line states that salt “accents foods”, that it helps them taste “more like themselves” or “excites the taste buds”. But what’s really going on there? The unfortunate answer is that nobody quite knows, though some very interesting research is beginning to provide us with a window into just what role salt plays in the overall sensation of taste.

Studies conducted at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania over the last decade have shown that in addition to stimulating our “salty” taste receptors themselves, salt also acts on other receptors in the mouth, notably the “bitter” receptors. Especially when administered in a triple-play with a sweet-tasting food sample, it’s been found that salt actually suppresses bitter sensations — far more effectively than sweetness does by itself. Exactly how salt does this is still a mystery, yet it does explain why salt makes such an unexpectedly positive contribution to the pastry kitchen, in cake batters, pie crusts and cookie doughs. More than simply turning the volume up on flavors we do like, it also turns the volume down on flavors we don’t like. And that, at least to my mind, makes it something of a miracle rock.

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