Home Cooking Tips - The Importance of Salt

Monday, September 24, 2012

You cook regularly. And like me, you always want to improve on your dishes.

You appreciate good food and you want to serve others the same.

That is an attitude I have learnt from my late Mum. She always wanted to serve her best.
She was such an accomplished cook and to be expected, her food was always good. So, I was puzzled when she asked for feedback all the time. Was she fishing for praise? Did she have a fragile ego? I knew it was not in her to be self-focused. But I have sometimes wondered.

It was when I started to cook in earnest, that I came to understand why she always did this. It was not just about satisfying her palate, let alone, her ego. She wanted to know what others think. Did they enjoy it? Was it too salty? Did the dish have an "off day?" She was constantly looking for ways to improve her dishes or make them more consistent. You may have seen the chef coming out of the kitchen in the restaurant occasionally and asking for feedback.

And if the cook is self-aware, he can be his own critic too. There will be off days. Home cooks do not cook the same dish everyday. In fact the more complicated recipes sometimes return to the table only once every few weeks or even months. One of my favourite recipes is Beef Rendang but the last time I cooked it was more than a year ago! Yeap, you can bet that I will be checking up my own blog the next time I make it.

The desire to cook well motivates a home cook to analyse, read up, seek feedback and criticise his own cooking. Talking about cookbooks, you can imagine that I have quite a library. Given that our cuisine culture (Malaysian & Singapore) predisposes us to multicultural cuisine, I have cookbooks of all types. I hope to blog about some cookbooks which I have found helpful.  

This desire to improve is why I am always trying out new recipes and types of food (such as recently, pizza).

What I learn from making one dish can be used for another. Unlike most restaurants which needs a cuisine-focus, in home cooking, we need not be boxed in.

Along the way, I have discovered some tips which I find helpful across all cuisines. The Western approach to brining, Japanese way of salting fish and more modern techniques like Sous Vide can help us to gather important tips to improve one's cooking overall.

I will share some tips here with focus on the use of salt.  

Tip 1: Don't be afraid to use enough salt

I will start with something as basic as the use of salt for flavoring.

Salt is flavour.

This culinary truth is basic to all cuisines.

If your diners say that your dish is tasty, it is likely due to the sufficient use of salt. I have seen dishes which have everything right except for salt, or rather it's absence or lack. This is a mistake which even experienced cooks will make sometimes. The dish will be bland. After all the effort put in, it fell short simply because a pinch of salt is missing.

And here is my point to health buffs. A pinch is all you need to elevate a dish. Overcome fear with reason and you will find that a healthy and tasty dish need not be a contradiction in terms.

Think of curries. For a whole pot, just two teaspoons will make an important difference. And no matter how fresh your spices are, without sufficient saltiness, the curry will be bland. 

Consider desserts. The next time you taste a good lava chocolate cake, take note of the saltiness. Desserts are not just about the 'sweets.' Without a proper use of salt, a cake or cookie will be missing something.

The key to cooking with salt is to taste all the time. Add your salt incrementally. If you need to, use table salt as it is less salty compared to cooking ones. What I normally do is to go for 50% at the start (as you need salt to braise, steep flavours etc) and then add incrementally. I will do this with Hokkien Prawn Mee broth.

Tip 2: Brining improves Meat dishes

I do have some cookbooks by Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, and they all recommend brining meat. I have done this for Southern fried chicken and brining makes a marked difference to the meat. It will be more flavourful (i.e. lemony, if you use lemon in your brine) and moist.
Preparing the lemon-based brine for the Southern Fried Chicken

A brine is normally a 10% salt solution (10g to 100 g of water). What it does is three things (paraphrasing Blumenthal):
1. It tenderizes the meat by breaking down muscle filaments
2. Once the filaments have broken down, flavours from the brine can be absorbed more easily.
3. The brine reacts with proteins to improve the water-holding capacity of muscles cells, which then absorb water (and flavours) from the brine. This increased intake of liquid ensures that the meat is more able to withstand moisture loss in cooking.
This means that brining results in meat which is flavorful and succulent (tender and moist).

I have cooked Claypot Chicken Rice many times now. I have gotten the rice right in texture and flavours. But the chicken is often dry and no matter what I do, it doesn't turn out as succulent as what I eat at outside stalls.

I once observed one stall leaving their chicken meat in a huge pot of marinate. It took me a while to figure out that the key is to use sufficient water in the marinate. Effectively, that is brining the meat as oppose to dry marinating. And so, I added more water to the 'marinate' for the chicken and voila, the chicken turned out wonderful.

Brining beforehand made a huge different to the chicken meat: making it succulent and flavourful
Now you can try the same technique for Chicken stir-fried in Oyster Sauce and Ginger, a quintessential Cantonese home dish. Brine your meat beforehand i.e. add more water to the marinate and leave it there for 1-2 hours. Your family will think that you packed it from a Cze Char stall. 

This is a very simple additional step. Just add more water to your salty marinate. For this reason, cooking Sous Vide in vacuum packs for long hours is one way of brining and cooking the meat at the same time. The wok-cooked Char Siew also benefits from cooking cum brining in its sauce.

Tip 3: Salting Fish

So why add salt to fish when it comes from the sea? Mind you, it has swam in salt for all it's life.

According to Shizuo Tsuji ("Japanese Cooking - A anything but Simple Art" - crossed lettering, mine), almost without exception, fish is salted before it is cooked. Salting will extract moisture and any odor. It will make it denser and moister. It will also prevent albumin - those ugly white blobs - from appearing. It will remove moisture in which microbes might thrive (great way of preparing fish for BBQ where it has to sit outside the fridge for long while). It will also create a drier surface, which means that the skin will crisped easier when pan seared or grilled.

I quote Shizuo here:
Take a handful of salt and holding your hand about 14 inches above the cutting board, sprinkle salt first on the board. Then placing the filler skin side down on the salted board, let salt sift through your fingers onto the fish. Wait 40-60 minutes for salt to penetrate.
In short, just salt the fish :). Wipe away after 60 minutes and cook. You can also dry salt it, i.e. salt the fish and leave it to dry under the sun. This is a common practise in Chinese cooking too to ensure the removing of odor and that the fish will be crisped when fried.

Here in Singapore, we do not own land but air space. We do not have gardens but at most, just small balconies, angling the sunlight as the sun earth moves throughout the day. What you can do is to use the oven to dehydrate the fish. Put it at about 40 -50°C and leave the oven door ajar. Dry the fish on the rack for about an hour.

Salting and Drying Cod Fillets in the oven
When I am pan frying sea bass, salmon or cod fillets, this simple step ensures a firm piece of fish with crispy skin. Salting Saba Fish beforehand removes the strong fishy odor while ensuring a crisped skin.

By the way, brining (adding water) will change the texture and flavour of the fish as well, especially for salmon. Generally, fish meat needs more tender loving care and will need less time in the marinate or brine cf to chicken or pork. Give it a try.

Salting techniques can be more advance including curing meat and chefs make use of it in a variety of ways in combination with other cooking techniques.

The next time you eat in a good Japanese restaurant, you may wonder whether they catch their fish from. It tastes "out of this world." The last time you heard, there is hardly any water on Mars. This must be an earthly fish.

The secret?


I leave these tips with you. Be curious. Some of these tips are counter-intuitive but now that you know, try and experiment.

You will be surprised what salt - and some water - can do.

(Editor notes: I have written two other tip post here and here

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  1. thaks for this new fish dish.

  2. As a housewife I too like to improve my cooking and always like to get good comments from others. So these would be very helpful for me.