Salt is the most important spice in the kitchen, and also the most fraught. The most important, because without it, virtually any dish will taste bland. Salt is a flavor enhancer. Its role in cooking is not to add a specific taste to a dish, but rather to enhance the flavors that are already there. As we add salt, the flavors of the dish assert themselves. There is no good substitute for proper salting. The most fraught because adding too much salt quickly ruins the dish. At our kitchen we’ve found that adding 10% more salt can mean the difference between an under-salted dish and a properly seasoned on. But adding 25% above that renders it virtually inedible. You’ve got to get it right.
Culinary schools emphasize that chefs need to be able to taste for salt and adjust it accordingly in any situation. Cookbooks that otherwise provide guidance on quantities for spices will usually say to add salt “to taste.”
At our kitchen, we take the opposite approach. We don’t like leaving proper salting to chance, or even to skill. That’s why one of the first things we do when we work out a recipe, is figure out the correct quantity of salt. Once that’s done, we can repeat it every time we cook, without worrying that we will over-salt or, in worrying about over-salting, under-salt. We achieve consistency, ensuring that each dish comes out as close to our original as possible.
What would I recommend for the home cook? First of all, for any recipe that you cook repeatedly, try to measure the amount of salt you use and mark it (my recipe books are all marked up). That way, when you hit on the right amount, you’ll be able to repeat it without having to do an incremental salt and taste process.
Second, remember that the taste of a dish can change a bit after it cools and settles. When in doubt, put a little less salt, and then add more as needed after the dish cools down a bit.
Third, try to use the same type salt each time you cook a specific dish. There is some variability among salts, so using a different one might slightly change the numbers. We always use a fine-grained standard sea salt.
Here are some rules of thumb that will give you a starting point in determining how much salt a dish needs. These were measured with a fine-grained sea salt. I’d suggest to start with less than these amounts, and add as needed, but this will give you a ballpark idea. Then make sure to record how much you actually used!
1. Meat, poultry, and fish: 1/2 teaspoon per raw pound
2. Vegetables: 1/3-1/2 teaspoon per raw pound (for leafy vegetables that reduce in cooking like spinach use the lesser amount)
3. Soup: 1/4 teaspoon per 10oz serving
4. Salt water for cooking pasta or poaching vegetables (this will make the water as salty as the ocean, which is what you need here): 1/2 tablespoon per quart of water.
5. Salad greens: 1/4 teaspoon for 8 ounces (or 1/2 teaspoon per pound)
Remember that some ingredients, like soy sauce, will add salt to your dish. If you’re using salty ingredients, you need to start with much less salt, and add until you reach the correct amount.