The science of salt: How to bring out the hidden flavours in your dishes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Knowing how to season properly separates the top chefs from the kitchen amateurs.

In April, The Independent ran a feature revealing some of Britain's best chefs' secret kitchen tips. They ranged from peeling ginger with a spoon to using kachri powder. But perhaps most surprising were the words of Jacob Kennedy and Rowley Leigh. Both cooks' tips involved that most common of kitchen ingredients – salt.

Kennedy mused that "'correct' seasoning, to a chef, is as much salt as you can possibly get into the dish without it tasting too salty." While Leigh suggested that "the biggest difference between professional and amateur cooking is the seasoning… I think a lot of cooks just add salt as an afterthought, whereas professionals use more salt, but they use it earlier as well."

This got me thinking. Almost every recipe I've ever used has either barely mentioned seasoning or just elliptically added "season to taste" at the end of an instruction. If it's so key, surely there's more to it? A flick through almost every cookbook in The Independent's substantial collection didn't offer much more by way of advice.

The only two to feature sections specifically on salt were Hawksmoor at Home, which explained that the London steak restaurants use their own blend of sea salt and smoked salt. The venerable Elizabeth David merely offered, "how you season gives character to your food." So far, so vague...

To learn the wonders of salt – and, more importantly, improve my cooking – I needed the help of a pro. Enter Michael Wignall, head chef of Michael Wignall at the Latymer, the Michelin-starred restaurant at Pennyhill Park, the luxury Surrey hotel that's home to the England rugby team before Tests. During his stay at the Latymer, Wignall has earned and maintained a Michelin star and was recently awarded the maximum five AA rosettes. This is a man who knows his seasoning. I headed down to Wignall's kitchen to get the lowdown on the kitchen's most important ingredient.

Salt brings out the best in food

As you'd expect, Wignall is evangelical about the importance of salt and good seasoning. Overseasoned dishes simply don't make the pass at kitchens like his. And underseasoned ones will be fixed before being served: "It's the basis for any great cooking," he says, "you can have a great dish, but if you've not seasoned it, it's just not there. Salt brings the best out of food and – regardless of whether people say it's bad for you or not – the body needs salt to work properly."

Choose your salt wisely

Thankfully, most home chefs are past the big tub of Paxo table salt and now use sea salt instead. Wignall, whose kitchen gets through a case of the stuff a week, recommends the widely available Maldon sea salt for home cooks. Table salt, full of sulphates and anti-caking agents, is too impure for good food, he suggests – "if you season consommé, or something clear, with table salt, you can see it start clouding because of the agents. It's not good for you."

But Maldon isn't the only salt the Latymer has to hand. When I arrive, Wignall has a spread of different products laid out, ranging from vanilla to smoky Hawaiian lava salt; Cadiz moon salt and the frankly indulgent truffle salt. You can get most of them online or at specialist shops but, for most cooking, Maldon is a good bet.

Remember though, sea salt comes in great big crystals, which makes it much more difficult to add the tiniest pinch to a dish. Either mill the salt or blitz it in a blender to get a finer grade.

Taste, taste and taste again

To make sure your seasoning is correct, you need to constantly taste your food. And not just the sauce or food – but the water or butter you're cooking them in, too. "It's like a sommelier," Wignall tells me as we sniff at his smorgasbord of salts, "you've got to be tasting wine all the time to get your palette accustomed to all the different grapes. It's the same with cooking – you've got to be there saying, 'have you seasoned that? Have you seasoned that? Taste your water.' It's a basic element the home cook overlooks, like not waiting for your oven to warm up."

Be warned, though – if you're dehydrated your body, craving salts, will want to add more. This is how, Wignall says, he can tell if his cooks have been out on the booze the night before – they accidentally add too much salt.

Salt giveth moisture

It might seem counterintuitive, but salt is key to adding moisture to food. "A lot of people think that if you season meat it takes the moisture out," explains Wignall, "but salt actually affects the protein cells' walls. It makes them bigger, so that they actually absorb more liquid. We brine a lot of things, which puts more liquid into them. A piece of meat weighing a kilo will, once it's been brined, weigh more because the water content has increased."

With other things, salt can replace water. About halfway through our masterclass, Wignall pulls out an oven tray with three carrots baked on beds of salt and oil, without any water. Something that, he explains, means that once you've cleared the salt off, you're left with a strong taste of carrots. Rather than water. Later, we taste a beetroot that's been packed in salt and baked in foil – part of a dish that makes up the Latymer's stupendous tasting menu. The taste, for those only used to vinegary beets, is impossibly deep. Try it at home.

Salt can transform an entire dish

As well as enhancing flavour, adding salt can completely transform the character of a dish. To demonstrate, Wignall makes a caramel ganache and invites me to try it. The condensed milk and 60 per cent chocolate mix is tasty, obviously, but once mixed with the Cadiz moon salt, the entire flavour is transformed, creating a sharp, sweet, delicious goo.

Go up, you can't go down

One of the key reasons for seasoning in increments is so you can find the optimum level of flavour and – crucially – not go past it. If you've put too much in, no amount of lemon juice will rescue your dish. "You can always add more if underseasoned," says Wignall "You can never take away. There are some tricks to counteract it – but you're just altering the dish then."

Know when to use it

With some products, salt is vital from the beginning. Others, you need to add it before serving. Wignall shows me two fish dishes. For a piece of halibut he'd season it just before it goes in the pan. Whereas, a scallop is sealed for a minute, cooked in foamy butter, and then seasoned for the last few seconds of cooking. What to season and when seems like something that can only be learnt by constant experimentation and constant tasting. For instance, vegetables such as asparagus will lose their colour if cooked in salted water, but if you cook them without and add salt at the end then the salt will overpower the vegetables. For professional chefs, it's a constant battle to get it just right. For amateurs, well, close enough will do fine. Just don't forget to keep on tasting.

Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress and 100 others on 'master list' after massive hack
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor