Jun 3, 2011

Why Salt Is Important in Baking

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When I first starting obsessively baking in earnest, I was living in a breezy little apartment four blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. Newly married and childless, I slept past 8:00 a.m. more often than not and baked at all hours since I wouldn’t be woken at the crack of dawn by tiny feet pattering on the floors. I also wore way too many tank tops with my bra straps peeking out and had a thing for aviator sunglasses that were too big for my face. So it wasn’t all rosy. But none of this is actually my point.

My point is that when I first started baking, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of salt when whipping up sweets. Now I know that salt is my best friend in the kitchen, the Gayle to my Oprah. Sometimes salt plays a crucial role in the chemistry of a recipe. In bread baking, salt controls yeast growth and has a strengthening effect on the gluten in the dough. In pastry-making, it helps cut the oily mouthfeel of buttery doughs and encourages browning.

But mostly, salt is about making things more delicious. It’s the key to waking up flavors, creating balance and making desserts totally crave-worthy, giving everything that little edge that makes you take one more bite. For someone with a serious sweet tooth, I seriously have the hots for salt. And I love it so much so that I have three kinds in the Piece of Cake kitchen at all times. As your friend, I suggest you consider doing the same. Of course, all of these salts pull double duty for savory recipes, too. Here are my salty essentials.

Fine Sea Salt. This is what I use in place of table salt in my recipes. Most recipes, unless they specify kosher salt or another type of salt, use your standard-issue table salt where salt is called for. I like fine sea salt because it has the same level of saltiness as table salt, but without the sort chemical-y tinniness that regular iodized table salt can have. It’s an overall cleaner flavor. It’s also great for baking because it’s fine-grained, so it will fall easily through a sifter with your dry ingredients and it dissolves easily. Love it.

Kosher Salt. I think this kind of salt has kind of become trendy in the home kitchen because all the chefs on food TV shows tend to use it. And I don’t know about you, but I love to pretend I’m a TV chef when I’m alone in the house. Sometimes I even talk to myself. But that is neither here nor there.
Kosher salt has long been an essential in professional kitchens. It has a coarser grain than your typical table salt, and it’s perfect for picking up a big pinch with your fingertips and really feeling how much salt you’re adding to your food. Like the aforementioned fine sea salt, it also has a fabulously clean, non-astringent salty flavor.
Something really important to remember about kosher salt is that not all brands are created equal. Morton kosher salt, for example, is made in such a way that it actually ends up denser and twice as salty as Diamond brand kosher salt. Diamond kosher salt is the gold standard of professionals, and is often the kind with which recipes calling for kosher salt are tested. To use Diamond kosher salt in place of table salt, roughly double the amount. For Morton, use the same amount as you would table salt. For baking, kosher salt is best in recipes where’s there’s a lot of liquid, so you can be sure the large grains will dissolve.

Fleur de Sel. Another salty buzzword as of late, this is basically a fancy French way of saying “sea salt” (literally translated as “flower of salt”–ooh la la). Like so many things food-related, the French do this one just un petit peu better than the rest of us. Fleur de Sel is typically hand-harvested, skimmed off the surface of bodies of salt water. It’s a flaky, large-grained salt that has the most beautifully clean and complex salty flavor, an extra-special level above kosher salt. This is the kind of salt you’ll find in specialty shops in nifty little containers. It begs for special occasions. This isn’t the kind of salt you toss by the handful into pasta water, people. It’s the glamorous sort of finishing salt you see sprinkled on things like sea salt caramels and other high-end confections. It adds saltiness, visual appeal and a tiny bit of crunch. It makes you feel fancy. So dreamy, and the final essential in my kitchen’s salty trifecta.

13 Comments

  • Ah! So enlightening. I do have a fancy little container of fleur de sel in my kitchen which gets used… never. Nothing feels quite fancy enough.

    How about salted vs. unsalted butter? I use them almost interchangeably and don't taste/feel much of a difference in the final product. Educate me!

  • How appropriate that you posted this today, as I was just wondering about the differences between different kids of salts, and which I should really be using in my kitchen! Thank you!!

  • I rarely use table salt, because like you said Kosher just has a cleaner flavor.

  • I use Maldon salt in everything.

    It's like fleur de sel and is pretty inexpensive. The crystals are beautiful to look at. I rarely used salt before trying this at a friend's.

    I have a small kitchen so don't have the space, if I did I'd grind Maldon salt to a finer grain for use in baking with a mortle and pestle.

    http://www.maldonsalt.co.uk/

  • Aim–I strictly use unsalted for baking just because it allows me to control how much salt is in a recipe. Salted butters vary by brand in their salt contents–anywhere from 1/2 to a full teaspoon of salt per stick. There's no way to know exactly how much salt you're getting in a stick of salted butter.

    Another thing is the what some people refer to as salted butter "funk". Salt's a preservative, so salted butter can be on a store's shelves for way longer than unsalted, so it might not be as fresh as you'd like. So for those reasons, I'm an unsalted butter kind of lady. :)

  • I don't remember when I last used table salt. most of the time I go with kosher salt, just like you said, you feel exactly how much you have between your fingers.

    feur de sel i use in all chocolate cakes, love the combo

  • I swore by fleur de sel until I discovered alaea sea salt. :) A MUST HAVE for my favorite bread recipe!

  • I am looking for information as to the necessary chemistry of salt in foods. My husband has had to begin a no-low salt menu, which is going to require me to bake/make everything. Great, I don’t mind, except that I am sure salt is needed for baking to achieve it’s fineness. Do any of you know of sites that would help me in this endeavor? Just starting at this and can use all the help I can get. I have questions such as, Can I just bake bread without the salt, and what will happen? Will it be a total waste of my time and ingredients? What’s the least amount I must use to have successful breads? I will be asking similar questions when it comes to canning tomatoes and green beans, if anyone has knowledge of that. Thanks!

  • [...] is a great post by Joy the Baker on What’s the best salt for baking? and another post by Shauna Sever on Why Salt Is Important in Baking, both informative reads so be sure to stop on over [...]

  • Salt snobbery is all a bit pointless. Salt is salt. It’s a mineral. The only thing that varies is its purity.

    Kosher salt is pure salt.

    Regular salt is pretty close to that, but has a bit of iodine added. It isn’t tasty, but it IS good for you. Iodine deficiency was a tremendous problem before it was added to salt… and in countries where it isn’t used, it remains an issue. Goiters, reduced intelligence, and other fun stuff.

    Sea salt is relatively impure salt, which also doesn’t contain iodine. The impurities of sea salt can make it rather tasty and unique.

    Himalaya salt is a type of mined salt with impurities. It’s attractive, tasty, and you can get it in all sorts of shapes. Including huge slabs on which to cook your food.

    At any rate, keep in mind that salt really is but a mineral. It isn’t as though it’s organically grown. You can’t get a better vintage of salt. 100% pure salt won’t get better if prepared by French artisans.
    Decide what purity is suitable for your purposes, and decide accordingly. The size and density of the grains is unlikely to matter much, unless it makes the cook feel good.

  • […] An awesome blog with more info: PIECEofCAKE […]

  • […] Why Salt Is Important in Baking | Shauna Sever. […]

  • I rarely use salt, I don’t like my baking to be salty. It does go in bread and stew, not really anything else. If what you are baking has flavour, why add more things? Let the flavour of the ingredients speak for themselves.

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