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Salt: the Unrecognized Key to Cooking

Growing up, many of us think of salt as something that belongs in a shaker on the table, rather than as something to cook with. What the average person fails to realize is that oftentimes, when a dish isn't coming out the way we hoped, the key is how much or how little salt we added during the cooking process, and how we incorporated it. Whether it is added as large salt crystals for a burst of flavor, or as a subtle sprinkling stirred in while cooking, salt can make or break a dish. In one New York Times article, chef Samin Nosrat recounts her time in culinary school, learning to make polenta. She had been instructed to add salt to her dish, and treated it as something to be used in amounts as minute as possible. To her shock, her cooking instructor shook his head and added "not one, but three enormous palmfuls" of salt. Doubtful about this technique, she prepared herself for her polenta to come out tasting way too salty- but that didn't happen. "The corn was somehow sweeter," she recounted. "the butter richer. All of the flavors were more pronounced. I had been certain he had ruined the pot and turned my polenta into a salt lick, but the term salty did not apply to what I tasted. All I felt was a satisfying zing with each mouthful." Salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient. It not only brings its own articular taste, but enriches and blends the other tastes in a meal together, both balancing and enhancing ingredients. One example Nosrat used was the addition of salt to something as simple as an espresso brownie. "The salt minimizes the espresso's bitterness, intensifies the flavor of the chocolate and offers a savory contrast to the sugar's sweetness." This doesn't mean cooks should just add as much salt as possible with wild abandon- rather, use salt more smartly, and taste what you cook as you add salt to find the amount perfect for you.

Another common mistake is thinking of salt as just one substance, when in reality, there are a variety of different salts to use, all of them with different flavors, texture, and uses. The length of evaporation of salt water effects what shape and size the salt crystals taste. For example, fine salt will have a stronger taste and pack more punch into a few grains than a larger, coarser salt. Often, your average table salt is very small and dense, and therefore extremely salty. Usually iodine has been added, giving it a metallic taste, and it has been exposed to a variety of anti-caking agents, or to dextrose to stabilize the iodine. "While neither of these additives is harmful, there is no reason to put them in your food," Nosrat writes, and instead recommends kosher salt for everyday use. When using sea salt, the recommendation is that it is used in a way that allows the texture to stand out, as providing texture is sea salt's primary purpose and difference between table salt. Kosher salt and table salt is better used in a shaker of for dumping into pasta water, for example, while sea salt would have a better acting as a garnish. Check out the recipe below for a great way to put all this info to use!

Buttermilk-Marinated Roast Chicken with WillYum Spice Jalapeno Seasoning Salt

One chicken, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds

2 cups buttermilk

WillYum Spice Jalapeno Seasoning Salt to taste

1. The day before you cook the chicken, remove the wingtips by cutting through the first wing joint with poultry shears or a sharp knife. Reserve for stock. Season chicken generously with salt and let it sit for 30 minutes.

2. Stir 2 tablespoons WillYum Spice Jalapeno Seasoning Salt into the buttermilk to dissolve. Place the chicken in a gallon size resealable plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk.

3. Seal the bag squish the buttermilk all around the chicken, place on a rimmed plate, and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. If you have time, turn the bag periodically to ensure that every part of the chicken gets marinated.

4. Pull the chicken from the fridge an hour before cooking. Heat the oven to 425 degrees with a rack in the center.

5. Remove the chicken from the plastic bag and scrape off as much buttermilk as you can. Tightly tie the legs together with a piece of butcher's twine. Place the chicken in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or a shallow roasting pan.

6. Slide the pan all the way to the back of the oven on the center rack. Rotate the pan so that the legs are pointing toward the rear left corner and the breast is pointing towards the center of the oven. The chicken should start sizzling quickly.

7. After 20 minutes the chicken should begin to brown. Reduce heat to 400 and continue roasting for 10 minutes.

8. Move the pan so the legs face the rear right corner. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, until the chicken is brown. When you insert a knife down to the bone between the leg and the thigh, the juice should run clear. If the skin begins to overcook before the chicken is cooked through, place tinfoil over the chicken. Remove to a platter when done and let rest for ten minutes before serving.

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