Mas Sal: How Salt is Changing The Way I Cook



“Get used to the way the salt falls from your hands; experience the illicit thrill of using so much of something we’ve all been taught to fear.” - Samin Nosrat, Fat, Salt, Acid, Heat
"Mas sal! Mas sal!" My chef gestures to the finely chopped potatoes I am seasoning - or trying to season. He's not Hispanic, and I'm not Hispanic, so by the time I've finally understood that he wants me to add more salt to the potatoes, he's reverted to English:
"You need more salt
"How much more salt?"
"A lot more."
I pick up perhaps a teaspoon of salt and sprinkle it into the potatoes then begin to mix it in with my fingers. "Sorry, I don't speak Spanish."
Chef rolls his eyes. "That's bullshit. Every line cook speaks Spanish."

I shrug, he laughs and gestures to the kosher salt. "Mas sal! Mas sal!"
"Even more?"
At this point my fellow cooks are paying attention and they laugh. Everyone knows that salt is the magic behind savory food. But I am a pastry cook - the only pastry cook in this particular kitchen - and my artistic ability and fine motor skills are called upon more frequently than anything else. It isn't that I don't know how to cook savory things; I am more or less confident in my abilities to cook rather than bake, but I season to my taste. It makes me nervous when I'm assigned to help with family meal, given a list of certain practical instructions which are then followed by a casual directive to "make it taste good."

Make it taste good?

Make it taste good?

To someone who likes crystalline expectations, this can make me anxious: what tastes good to me might not be what tastes good to someone else, right? My preferred level of flavor might not be Shannon's, and Shannon's might not be Abriel's and Abriel's might not be Kevin's and Kevin's might not be Risa's. "Make it taste good" is an instruction that is just vague enough to send me into a timid spiral which often means I end up seasoning even more conservatively than I typically would. When this happens, my chef circles back to the taste the potatoes. He makes a face and tosses a palmful of salt into the bowl on top of what I consider to be an already risky amount. You see, what chef means when he says "make it taste good" is, "put in enough salt."

Seasoning - the act of adding salt to a dish or a component of a dish - is the first actual revelation I've experienced in the restaurant world. Food has this particular threshold between tasting pretty good and tasting magical, and that threshold (as I'm learning) is not complex techniques or confusing methods or some other form of sorcery...it's the abandon with which you add salt.
For years, we were taught that salt was a bad thing - when we felt that food needed more salt we were told to look elsewhere for flavor (although the fat-free fad occurred at the same time as the low-sodium fad, resulting in general and far-flung sadness). While other flavors are the glamorous components of a dish, salt creates the harmony that makes you say, "I love this." Salt is like the ultimate life coach - it sees the potential in the other flavors and draws them out to new capacities. Put as many flavors as you liked in a dish and if it had no salt (whether from a salt cellar or from salty things like olives, prosciutto, cheese, miso, etc.), it would not seem like good food. If you've ever wondered why carefully made food at a restaurant tastes so much superior to most carefully made food at home, I am now 100% sure it comes down to the level of salt used. And it's not just table salt. There is fine kosher salt (Diamond Crystal brand is our favorite) to use while cooking, and crunchy Maldon salt to finish. We have salty condiments and salty ingredients, salty cheeses and even saltier salt. In the whole entire world of the restaurant, salt is the hero. Add too much and you've ruined the batch, but add more than you dare and a new realm opens to you: the realm of professional food. The creative power of saltiness. Mas sal. More salt. I didn't think cooking was this simple...but on this certain level, at least, it is.

As my perspective on how to season changes, so does my cooking; so does my kitchen. A small, turquoise Le Creuset now abides on my kitchen wall, full of sparkling Maldon flakes. I chase down my long-suffering members of my family, adding a final pinch of salt to their avocado toast or that piece of pork loin...they call me bougie, but their food tastes better than ever. Now when I cook, I season far beyond my means, trying to measure with the borrowed confidence of my chefs: pinch, don't sprinkle; palms, not fingers. Taste it. Think about it. Add more salt. Always mas sal. 2019 is my year to leave behind the under-salting. It's my year to study the confidence of cooking, not just pastry, and to explore it here on the blog. It's a year for abundance and generosity: for scooping handfuls of salt and palmfuls of curiosity. I can't wait. Because salt means flavor. And flavor means satisfaction.

2 comments

  1. I'm definitely more likely to over salt. As persnickety (juvenile, unsophisticated) as I am about other seasonings, I take salt quite seriously.

    I also love using the concept of salt idiomatically (?). When I feel that something in a book or movie is missing, usually humor (the absence of humor doesn't equal deep), I like to say it is missing the salt.

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  2. I love this. I've been reading my way through Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Christmas present to myself), and wondering if you'd read it. It seems like such a Rachel book. :D

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