Spices, in general, are really not a big part of cooking in Italy. Italians prefer to let the fresh, natural ingredients stand out on their own without a lot of “manipulation” from a chef.
However, one spice, sale (salt), is extremely important and you have to get it just right. Learning how to salt correctly is probably the simplest thing you can do to improve the taste of your food. If you’re not already a good cook, then this might take a little practice. But it’s not difficult; you just have to keep tasting as you go.
Salt often gets a bad rap, but that’s unfair. Salt has been used for centuries to both preserve and flavor food. Sure, too much sodium in your diet can elevate your blood pressure, which is definitely not a good thing if you have certain medical conditions. But for most healthy people, moderate amounts of salt should be enjoyed without fear or guilt.
However, we must also consider how much salt to add and its source. In a nutshell: don’t be afraid to add salt to your food during or after cooking; rather DO be afraid of the salt that you didn’t add. Added salt and salt compounds (notably MSG, mono-sodium glutamate) are found in almost every type of processed food, often in amounts that are both unnecessary and unhealthy. I would suggest to “check the label,” but if it has a label, you should already be avoiding that particular product, for the most part.
Why is Italian Food So Salty?
The short answer is that it is NOT. If your Italian restaurant meal is too salty, it probably means that the chef is a heavy smoker. Don’t go back to that establishment, obviously.
When you start with fresh whole foods, whether meat or vegetables, adding salt while cooking does wonders for bringing out the natural flavor. And this type of salting is self-limiting. None of us like food that’s TOO salty, and so we’ll naturally only add what tastes good.
For something as simple as a salad in Italy, salt and olive oil are the only condiments.
The ancient Romans understood the importance of this valuable mineral. It was collected from the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber river near Ostia, and then brought to the city for distribution throughout the empire by way of their famous roads. In fact, remnants of the “salt way” (Via Salaria) still exist today in the mountainous sections east of the capital city. This is also the origin of the word “salary,” since Roman soldiers were once paid in salt.
Regarding the type, you should always use sea salt. Sea salt contains iodine and other natural minerals besides just sodium chloride, and this will give your cooking a stronger, more complex taste. The common table salt used in the U.S. and U.K. has chemicals added to keep it from clumping together. These additives will impart strange, unwanted flavors on your food and should be avoided.
Types of Salt
On the western edge of Sicily, during the peak of summer, the salt flats of Trapani put on a show, changing colors as it dries in the sun: first blue, pink, then yellow, and finally white. This natural process is due to the bacteria that are present at different stages, until the conditions become too harsh (even for bacteria) and they all die off leaving only pure white salt rocks.
Here are some other types of salt:
- Salt flower, it is a crude salt that is produced in Northern France and Southern Brittany. It is not a refined salt, and it is not added with anti-thickening and coloring agents. It does not cover the aromas of the foods in which it is used and is therefore very suitable in the kitchen.
- Whole sea salt, which already naturally possesses iodine and is a health ally
- Himalayan salt, pink in color, which has healing properties for some diseases, and which can be used in all dishes
- Salt Yakima produced in the Yakima valley, it has the taste of apple trees. It is used for fish, white meats and barbecues.
How Much Salt to Add, and When
Salt should be added to foods at certain times of cooking, depending on what we are cooking, so here is a small list of common ingredients and foods:
- Boiled vegetables should be salted after cooking
- Dried legumes at the end of cooking, otherwise they harden
- Meat in the oven, only after it has been browned
- Meat to be grilled should be salted before cooking
- Bitter vegetables like eggplant will be less bitter if they are cut into slices and salted 15 minutes before being cooked
- Fried foods should be salted after being drained from oil
Dosing the Salt
Needless to say that dosing the salt during the preparation of a dish is a very difficult moment: the rule is that it is always better to skimp and, if possible, add after having tasted than abounded at the beginning and then not be able to remedy any more. It does not always have to be put at the end, so always program yourself a taste of the food you are preparing, adjusting yourself also with the taste of your guests. If some people like too salty foods, put a salt shaker on the table, but don’t spoil the dish!
For pizza dough, for example, you can weigh it, calculating 25 g. of sea salt per kg of flour, while for the water of the pasta 12 g per liter of water. Or if you’d rather go by taste, the water used for boiling pasta should taste like sea water, like when you accidently get a mouthful when an unexpectedly large wave hits you at the beach.
- Learning how to salt correctly is probably the simplest thing you can do to improve the taste of your food.
- Beware of hidden salt added to processed foods. They can be very high in substances such as MSG, which can significantly raise your sodium to unhealthy levels.
- Always use sea salt, which contains iodine and other natural minerals that will give your cooking a stronger, more complex taste.