When a baker combines flour, water, yeast and salt to make bread, chemistry begins. Despite its small volume, salt splays a dynamic role in determining the taste, texture and color of the bread.
What chefs notice
The first thing chefs notice about bread baked without salt, is that it tastes flat. Unsalted dough also feels stickier and shows little resistance when stretched. When salt is added the dough tightens and becomes more resilient when stretched. Chefs need to find the right balance because too much or too little salt affects the rise of the bread, and ultimately its texture.
Salt's main function in bread is to enhance flavor. According to the Bread Bakers Guild of America (BBGA) adding approximately 2% of the flour weight in salt to the average bread formula changes the perception of bread's flavor and elicits the full spectrum of complex flavor notes, including a sweetness that would be otherwise absent. Yet, salt's role in baking goes beyond flavor.
In a recent issue of Bon Appétit, Chef Stuart Brioza from San Francisco's State Bird Provisions restaurant explains how he is using a variety of "Sour Salts" to provide a unique flavor burst.
Anyone with a dehydrator and a decent blender can make these unique salts, which when paired with the right dish can really set your dish apart from competing restaurants!
Essentially, here is how Chef Brioza does it:
Wetlands are essential for maintaining a healthy ecosystem by helping to ensure an area's water quality, wildlife habitat and, in coastal areas, helping to prevent shoreline erosion. What's more, wetlands provide food and shelter for countless wildlife and plant species.
Unfortunately, for more than a century, dating back to the California Gold Rush era, the wetlands of the San Francisco Bay area have been degraded by development of one kind or another, including urban development and agricultural conversion. By the turn of the millennium, 85% of the San Francisco Bay's historic tidal wetlands had been affected. The drastic reduction in habitats has consequently jeopardized populations of marsh-dependent fish and wildlife, not to mention water quality.
Determined to help restore the Bay Area wetlands and revitalize the accompanying shorelines, various citizen activist organizations and government agencies began a concerted effort to develop a multi-year restoration project. Key to the area's revitalization was a complex of solar salt production ponds located at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay that were owned by Cargill.
Saltscapes, a new book by Cris Benton that features more than 100 stunning kite aerial photographs of the Cargill salt ponds and surrounding area in San Francisco's South Bay, is more than just a wonderful coffee table book you can proudly display in your home or restaurant. It also provides an education on the history and development of solar sea salt production in the United States and the ongoing effort to restore thousands of acres of eroded wetlands. I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of this fascinating hardcover book and simply could not put it down.
If you've ever flown over the Bay Area, you've probably noticed a sprawling multi-color patchwork at the southern tip of the bay. Those are sea salt evaporation ponds. The vibrant green and red hues are caused by microorganisms that thrive at varying levels of salinity but disappear as the ponds reach their highest salinity levels.
Those technicolor ponds also have a rich history that dates back to the 1850s when the first mud levees were constructed in the Bay Area for the purpose of solar salt evaporation. As time progressed --- and dredging technology with it --- the ponds grew exponentially in size along with solar salt production. The various salt companies grew, consolidated and changed hands over the years, and for the last 35 years, Cargill has been the sole producer of solar sea salt in the South Bay area.
Chefs commonly use a pinch of salt to bring out the flavor in sweet or savory recipes. But how does it work? Adding a pinch of salt reduces bitterness so that sweet and umami taste are increased. It is the sodium in salt that suppresses bitterness.
There is more to flavor than just taste. A pinch of salt can influence temperature (in water), adds texture and increases aroma. Aroma definitely affects the taste sensation. Scientists estimate that between 75 and 95 percent of what we "taste" is actually smell. When a pinch of salt is added to food, more aroma is released. The salt actually prods aromatic compounds from food cells into the air, volatizing them. So what we smell is also a part of what we ingest.
The taste buds are the next sensory organ to be stimulated by taste. Containing 50 to 100 taste cells, each cell has its own taste receptor. The cells' outer membranes allow ions to move in and out of the receptors. Sodium is an ion that can travel through membrane channels to taste receptors. It actively blocks bitter taste while accelerating the release of other flavor compounds such as sugar. This is why chefs add a pinch of salt to hot chocolate or a dessert sauce; the salt diminishes bitterness.