Welcome to the newest weekly installment: smart science. Using my biology, chemistry and environmental science background, we’re going to break down food science topics that are important to know – in language that is easy to understand. I have a couple ideas on back burners, but let me know if there is anything you’d like to know about.
Today, we talk about salt.
Salt is a chemical compound, consisting of an equal number of sodium and chlorine ions that bond together. It’s a natural mineral, and humans have loved it for just about as long as it’s been around – in the olden days, it was a totally hot commodity. But lonely, little salt has a lot more to offer to food than simply providing a salty flavor or decorative touch (I’m looking at you, flaky sea salt). Salt is good for food, and good for us – in the right quantities.
Let’s break it down.
- Salt plays an actual, physiological role in the human body! We carry sodium naturally in our fluids, and it provides stability and allows cells to function as they should. We HAVE to ingest some sodium every single day in order to replace the sodium we lose through sweat and bathroom breaks. Additionally, lots of table salt in the US contains added iodine – an essential compound for human function. Without iodine, you can have some pretty serious thyroid issues. But – salt does not naturally contain iodine – we add it in since it was an easily accessible and widespread way to get iodine to the general population.
When doctors hook you up to an IV, they’re actually using saline solution – not pure water. The saline (read: salty) solution allows your cells to feel at home in the incoming liquid – if it was pure water, your cells would explode – which is wildly counterproductive to your stay in the hospital.
Long story short: you cannot and should not eat a no-sodium diet – it would cause a myriad of health issues. Your awesome body needs some salt to function, despite what you might hear in the news. But – too much salt is just as bad as too little. We’re practicing moderation here.
- Salt helps us keep our food fresh. Salt-curing was a practice used before refrigeration in order to preserve food – and we still do it to certain foods for enhanced taste. Essentially, when you put that level of salt on something, it draws out the water in the product. Itty-bitty microbes need water to thrive, so removing the water removes their source of liquid, and they will die. Score one for humans wanting to live past 25.
- Salt is important for bread – got your attention now, carboholics? As we already know, salt loves water and greedily gobbles it up. In bread, this means that the salt is competing with the yeast for water. The salt has a stronger pull, and in doing so, slows down and regulates the fermentation. Since yeast needs water to ferment – a smaller supply creates a longer fermentation, which lets us make bread with only very simple ingredients. It also allows us to knead dough less (jackpot!), since the longer fermentation creates a better web of gluten, which traps gases and makes a fluffy loaf without serious hands-on time.
Also, salt allows the crust to get a nice color. As we already talked about, salt in dough slows down the fermentation – but it also tells the yeast present to slow their roll with sugar consumption! This lets more sugar hang around for the final bake, where it caramelizes and turns yummy shades of brown.
Salt also provides essential flavor to bread. I spent a semester in Tuscany, where traditionally bread is made without salt, and boy can I tell you – it makes a difference both in taste and in color. All that said – your bread should still have taste without salt, just not the full bready taste we’ve come to know here at home.
There you go – a primer on salt. There’s a zillion more things salt does in baking, cooking, and the human body – and if you’re interested, here’s a couple links:
- King Arthur Flour: professional baker’s reference on salt
- Merck Manual: explains the role of sodium in your body – and what happens if you have too much or too little
- NCBI talks about the importance of salt in preservation, prevention of microbes, and fermentation
read up! and happy salting!