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Salt

I love salt and use it liberally, but purposefully in my cooking. Not your blue-container-with-a-little-girl-and-an-umbrella-iodized-salt, but sea salt, kosher salt, Hawaiian salt, flavor-infused salts, smoked salt and my very favorite, Maldon sea salt made by a 4th-generation company in Essex, England. Maldon's large flakes are prized as a finishing salt to achieve a crunchy salty finish. I admit to using Maldon for more than finishing.

How to season with salt

Generally, I prefer to use salt as the last step in the cooking process. This allows you to get the biggest bang for your buck, and prevents over salting. Particularly if you are reducing something, you don't want to salt until the end of the process because the salt will become more concentrated as the dish reduces. For pasta or parboiled vegetables, you want to salt the water a lot, to the point where the water is like sea water. Don't worry, you pour most of the salted water down the drain. By salting your pasta or vegetable water you flavor the pasta or vegetable and will need less salt with your sauce. There are other uses for salt in cooking, such as pulling the juices from certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers or eggplants. Or roasting meat and vegetables in beds of rock salt.

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A brief history of salt

Salt is one of the most highly prized substances in human history, going back 6500 years. Salt is an essential dietary element and an effective food preservative that transformed opportunities for long-distance travel and for storing foods for future use.  We know that salt extraction goes back at least 5000 years and salt was an ancient form of currency. Linguistically, many words in our vocabulary are derived from salt and attest to the importance of salt in our history:  salary, salad, sauce, sausage and Salzberg. Salt has global political, economic and religious significance with vast salt history documented in ancient China, Europe, the Roman empire, Egypt, the Adriatic and Balkins, the Middle East, Greece, India, Russia, Africa as well as the Americas.

The great salt debate

For a long time we have been told Americans eat too much salt, resulting in elevated blood pressure, cardiac disease and cardiac-related death. Unfortunately, much of the science we have used to guide us nutritionally has been incomplete and sometimes flat out-and-out wrong. We need more effective studies before we know the optimal amount of salt in our diet. There are two sides to the U.S. salt debate:

The anti-salters

On one side of the debate, it is believed that the average salt consumption by Americans causes increased blood pressure, cardiac disease and death. A 2010 study in The New England Journal of Medicine estimates reducing American salt intake by 3 gm per day would save 44,000 to 90,000 lives and tens of billions of healthcare dollars annually. The trouble with the anti-salt argument is the studies are inconclusive and generally observational studies, not studies that actually monitored salt intake and health outcome.

The pro-salters

On the other side of the salt debate, authors of a 2010 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, agree that lowering salt intake reduces blood pressure. But that is where the agreement ends. The pro-salters do not agree that lowering salt intake results in lower cardiac disease and death. They argue that sodium has other actions including decreasing insulin sensitivity, that also have an effect on health, in many cases a positive effect.

Is there an internal salt meter?

Dr. McCarron and colleagues from UC Davis and Univeristy of Washington studied salt intake of 33 countries around the world and found that despite great differences in diet, salt intake did not vary significantly between cultures. And with the exception of a couple remote cultures, most populations ate significantly more salt than the current recommended salt allowance for Americans. Because salt intake is fairly uniform across the world and across various cultures, Dr. McCarron theorizes that there may be an internal salt set point that people naturally eat to insure they get their biological needs met.

The bottom line on salt

Salt needs to be studied more thoroughly before we can determine optimum amounts and draw health conclusions. In the mean time, I minimize processed foods which have a lot of hidden salt, and liberally, but purposefully use salt to flavor whole foods. I'm not sure if I will win or lose the salt debate, but this approach works for me.

Salt travel opportunity

Salt mines can provide fascinating stops on your travels. I had the opportunity to visit a an ancient salt mine in the mountains of Hallstatt, Austria. Once the most important salt mine in all of Europe, it now sits on the edge of a beautiful, but sleepy alpine village populated by less than 1000 people. The mine tour was fascinating, and took us up a funicular to get to the mountain, inward on a tram ride deep into the mountain and down a series of no-arm-straddle slides to the core of the salt mine. Highly recommended. 

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