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Recently I have found myself needing to buy new salt and pepper shakers. I think our Registered Dietitian would be very concerned if she saw what we are currently using--you know that giant container of salt you buy at the store to refill your salt shaker? Yeah, we're using that. Let's just say we've had more than one salty accident.
Festive salt and pepper shakers are an easy way to spice up your kitchen and spark one of those conversations that every host loves to have ("Oh my gosh, these are so adorable! Where'd you get them?").
Eating healthy should still be delicious.
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Here are some of the cutest and most creative salt and pepper shakers I've found. Don't tell my roommates, but the Cow Jumping Over the Moon shakers might just appear in our kitchen next week.
Memory Of Falmouth Salt And Pepper Shaker by Takae Mizutani and Sons ($64.65, notonthehighstreet.com. Photo courtesy of Not On The High Street)
Lamppost Salt and Pepper Shakers ($20, Etsy)
Boston Warehouse Picnic Party Salt and Pepper Set ($10.37, Amazon.com)
Dog & Fire Hydrant Salt & Pepper Shakers ($8.95, Pier1.com)
Cow Jumped Over the Moon Salt & Pepper Shakers ($12.95, Pier1.com)
Koziol PI:P Salt and Pepper Shaker with Tree ($27.89, AllModern.com. Photo courtesy of AllModern.com)
The History of Maldon Salt, the Stuff You Already Put on Everything
Once upon a time, salt was just salt. It was the stuff in shakers and canisters, the gustatory equivalent of the treble dial. You used more, or you used less. Whether it was a little girl with an umbrella, a toss over the left shoulder to ward off bad luck, or a nontaster’s affront to the chef, it was all just salt.
This was more than 20 years ago, but well after people learned that there might be finer coffee than Medaglia D’Oro in a can. Maybe the first inkling was the coarse salt on the rim of a margarita, or a salad invigorated by sparks of La Baleine, or a virgin bite of chocolate sprinkled with fleur de sel. For Mark Bitterman, the author of Salted and the coiner of the term selmelier (which so far seems to have been applied just to Bitterman), the epiphany was a transcendent steak at a relais in northern France in 1986. He deduced that the difference-maker was the rock salt provided by the owner’s brother, a saltmaker in Guérande in Brittany. Bitterman came to learn, as all chefs now have, that before salt was just salt—before it was industrialized and homogenized—it was a regional and idiosyncratic ingredient, perhaps the quintessential one, precisely because it was so universal. You could tell salts apart, prefer one to another, and pair them with different foods. You could acquire a salt vocabulary, tell salt stories. If you could be a snob about coffee, beer, butter, peppers, and pot, why not sodium chloride?
A box of Maldon, something you can find in kitchens across the globe
I was slower to catch on. I’d encountered a certain variant everywhere: delicate flakes of sea salt, in ramekins or little wooden bowls, in snug neo-rustic restaurants with one-syllable names (Prune, Hearth, Salt, et al.) or at the kind of rooftop barbecues where people served mead cocktails and put watermelon in salad. It was a pleasure to pinch it between forefinger and thumb, or absentmindedly dab at it and taste a few flecks, like a narc testing a confiscated drug shipment. It had a sublime effect on a tomato or a pork chop. But I didn’t think of it as a particular kind. It was just “the fancy salt.”
Then I got wise. On a kitchen shelf at home, there was a small box adorned with the Royal Warrant of the Queen of England and some Edwardian-sounding patter in small print, attesting to the “curious crystals of unusual purity” contained within. The brand was Maldon—Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. It came from a 135-year-old family-owned salt works on the southeast coast of England. My wife had been buying it for years.
I soon realized that almost everyone who gave food any thought—professional chefs, restaurant junkies, people who keep a water-stained spiral notebook of a great-aunt’s favorite recipes—knew about Maldon. It had the omnipresence of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, the old-school cred of Walkers shortbread, and the high repute of Gevrey-Chambertin. It had also become trendy. Cameron Diaz carried a tin of it in her bag Gwyneth Paltrow sang its praises on Goop. Chef Judy King revealed it to be her secret prison seasoning in Orange Is the New Black. (“This is my heroin,” she says.)
Along the shores of the River Blackwater
Ruth Rogers, the chef and owner of the River Café in London, declared in her first cookbook, back in 1996, “You must use Maldon salt.” When I visited her at home in London last fall, she said she had been talking about it with some chef friends earlier that day and “one of them said, ‘At last, the British have an ingredient.’ It’s a very chef-y ingredient.”
When cooks talk about Maldon, they inevitably mention the feel of the flakes between the fingers, the pleasing tactility of the pinch. (No one really measures out salt.) The pyramid shape, no bigger than a tab of acid, keeps it from caking. It has the look of something valuable and hard-won, a delicacy that has crossed deserts on camels. It works best as a finishing salt—one sprinkles it on vegetables, butter, caramel, or grilled meat, just before serving. As for the taste, Maldon is considered less bitter, less salty than other salts. There’s a quick savory zing that doesn’t overpower or overstay—“an ephemeral saltiness,” as Bitterman describes it. It’s almost sweet.
“Nothing else has that flaky quality,” Daniel Rose, chef-partner at Le Coucou in New York, told me. Having spent the past 20 years in Paris, where he owns Spring restaurant, he also used a variety of French salt, in addition to the English stuff. But, he recalled, “there is definitely a pre-Maldon time and a post-Maldon time.”
This boom first took hold on Maldon’s home turf, with the British food renaissance of the ’90s. One springboard was the so-called Delia Effect, after Delia Smith, the food personality and cookbook author who championed Maldon in her BBC Series How to Cook around 2000, she named Maldon salt, along with Worcestershire sauce, as one of her ten essentials. As a result, the big supermarket chains in the UK, like Tesco, stocked up on it. Maldon, a tiny operation, had to scramble to ramp up. One of the many viral ways it made it to America was via Paltrow, who apparently was twigged to it when she was married to Chris Martin, pre-uncoupling. “I was living in London, and it was ubiquitous there,” she told me. “I just stumbled on it, in my quotidian life.” Paltrow included it in her second cookbook in 2013 as, among other things, an ingredient in her famous but otherwise scary-sounding vegan and gluten-free almond butter cookies. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who got the Maldon bug as a young cook in Rogers’ kitchen at the River Café, made it his go-to salt in his cookbooks and TV appearances. Before long, it was everywhere: the iPhone of salts.
Most Wanted: Salt Shakers - Recipes
Someone once told me that in a cooking class and I have found it to be quite true. That's why one of the last things a chef does is taste and adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. We take advantage of this at competitions, adding a little smoke, salt, and/or heat at the very end of cooking.
Salt brings out and enhances the natural flavors of food. Finishing salts are a great way to do that and add a dramatic flare to your meals. A small sprinkle of fleur de sel wakes up the taste of your food. But a flavored finishing salt does even more by building on top of the flavor profile of your dish.
Adam Perry Lang has several recipes for gourmet finishing salts in his most recent book, Charred and Scruffed. His process is different than just seasoning salt with some dry herbs and spices. The liquid dries onto the salt as it re-crystalizes in the dehydrator imparting intense tastes.
|Collection of finishing salts, L to R: Lime-Coriander, Worcestershire-Shallot, Lemon-Bourbon-Honey, and St. Augustine Beach Sand.|
The salt needs to be as coarse as you can find. We have had good success with Alessi coarse sea salt that we can get locally. One of these containers will get you 2 batches. We sift ours through a sieve for the fine salt and keep what doesn't go through for a coarse batch. Fine salt works better as a finishing salt but I liked to have the coarse on hand too.
|We use this Nesco dehydrator which we bought a year or two ago. We've been happy with it. It works well, operates quietly, and cleans up easily. If you don't have one, APL says you can also use the lowest setting on a convection oven with the door propped open.|
Lime Coriander Salt
This is one of APL's recipes. Add 1/3 cup fresh lime juice and 1 tablespoon each of lime zest, coriander, and a crumbled dried red chile. Mix together with your cup of salt, spread it out, dry it out, and grind up. (Note: He puts the chile in after grinding, I like it ground up in there.)
This one would go good on grilled seafood, chicken, and anything Tex-Mex. APL says it's also good on pork, specifically pulled pork.
|Worcestershire and Shallot Salt|
Worcestershire and Shallot Salt
Add 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce and 1 1/2 tablespoons dried shallot to 1 cup of coarse salt. Spread it out, dry it out, and grind it up. Add 1 tablespoon of fresh ground black pepper and dry for 2 more hours. We bought this package of dried shallots on Amazon and have used it in rubs and sauces but you could use 1 tablespoon of dried onions instead.
This one obviously goes well with beef. Sprinkle the fine salt on sliced steaks, roasts, or ribs. I want to try the coarse ground salt on a brisket as a dry brine.
|Lemon Bourbon Honey Salt|
Lemon Bourbon Honey Salt
How can you go wrong with those ingredients? One cup of coarse sea salt, zest of one lemon, 1/4 cup honey, 3 tablespoons bourbon, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Spread it out and dry in a dehydrator at 105°f for 10-12 hours. Grind it up and put back into the dehydrator until dry and no longer sticky, about 8 more hours for us.
Tip: Most honey you can buy in the stores is either adulterated with corn syrup and other sweeteners or not honey at all (Tests Show Most Honey Isn't Honey). Find a local supplier - we buy ours from beekeeper and pitmaster, Ken Hess.
This has a bright, slightly sweet and subtlety smoky flavor that is perfect for BBQ.
St. Augustine Beach Sand
One cup very coarse sea salt, 1-2 habanero chile (seeded and diced), zest from 1 lime, 1/4 cup lime juice, and 1-2 ounces of silver tequila. Spread it out and dry in a dehydrator at 105°f for 10-12 hours. Grind it up and put back into the dehydrator until dry, about 2 hours.
This is great for grilled chicken, seafood, and anything TexMex. It has a citrus kick, surprisingly mild heat, and the tequila flavor is in the background. It has a tropical flare to it but it got it's name when Alexis saw it spread out on a plate and declared it looked like beach sand. The name stuck.
|The Gulf Coast of Florida has squeaky white sand but where I grew up in NE Florida, sand is full of small pieces of broken shells and it looks like this salt.|
|I used one habanero but should have gone with two because it was relatively mild in heat.|
|St Augustine Beach Sand before grinding. Notice this is on parchment paper so it doesn't fall through the dehydrator trays. It worked but the salt stuck to some of the parchment. It was easier using plates instead.|
|Sifting the salt. You could simply throw the coarse parts back into the grinder to process again. But I wanted to coarse salt too.|
|St Augustine Beach Sand after grinding.|
|Someone asked me about the salt shakers we use for dry rubs. They are just Ball "jelly jar" sized jars with the Ball flip top shaker lid. We get ours at Target but you can also buy them online. These are great if you make a lot of your own rubs.|
Finishing Salt Put To Use
I couldn't wait to try the Lemon Honey Bourbon salt on a rack of ribs. At competitions, some pitmasters hit the sauced ribs with a little fine salt to bring out the flavors. I hoped the lemon would brighten the flavor, the honey enhance the sweetness, and the bourbon bring out the smokiness.
How to Make Your Own Black Salt for Wiccan Spells
Black salt is extremely easy to make. It takes only a couple of minutes to throw together a decent batch to last you for a while. You probably don&apost even have to go to the store to buy anything for it, because most of the ingredients are probably things you already have in your house.
- 2 parts sea salt or kosher salt
- 1 part skillet scrapings or 1 part ash from fire pit or 1 part crushed black chalk dust or 1 part finely ground charcoal (choose one of these options)
- 1 part finely ground black pepper
Mix the ingredients together, using a mortar and pestle to ground the ingredients together well. Perform a ritual over the salt or use as is. Usually I like to sing or chant a protection spell whenever I make mine.
Never use dyes or food colorings to make the salt black, because it will make the salt clumpy and unusable for ritual purposes. It is always best to use dry ingredients instead.
Kitchen Essentials: Salts and Why The Type and Brand You Use Matters
You know how I mentioned that I want to write about cooking and try some new things? I’m channeling my inner cooking nerd and doing just that.
Yes, I’m totally writing about cooking salts. Why? Because I find this topic fascinating and, more importantly, sorely neglected.
A few weeks ago, I shared a post on books that have helped me become a better cook. It was so well received (and fun to write!) that I couldn’t help but wonder, “why am I not writing about this stuff more often?” I mean, a) I love learning about it, b) I studied it in culinary school and in my previous jobs, and c) I truly want this blog to be a recipe and cooking resource.
So, things are going to get a bit technical today. If you love to cook, I have a feeling you’ll get some incredibly powerful knowledge out of today’s post.
Today’s topic is something I should have addressed years and years ago. Why? Because salt is included in every recipe on this site. Salt is the most important ingredient in your kitchen pantry. Learning how to properly season your food is one of the most powerful cooking skills that you can learn. I truly believe that with all of my heart.
If you’ve ever stood in the grocery aisle and stared at the huge variety of salts available – it is easy to feel overwhelmed and confused.
You may be have wondered why some recipes call for kosher salt, sea salt, or fill-in-the-blank salt, so I’m here to shed some light on the topic. The most important thing to remember is:
Salts are not interchangeable. More importantly, the brand and variety of salt that you buy and use affects every recipe you make. Yes, every single recipe.
In other words, if you’re following a recipe and it calls for /4 teaspoon of ___ salt” (or worse, a recipe simply states /4 teaspoon salt” and does not specify the variety of salt), you can, without even realizing it, use as much as TWO to FOUR to SIX TIMES the quantity of salt that a recipe was designed to contain!
How is that possible? Because every type and, more importantly, every brand of salt differs dramatically by density.
That little fact is insane and worth discussing – especially on a blog all about food! It is one of those deep, dark cooking secrets that no one really talks about.
This chart explains it all:
Chances are you’ve been aware that different types of salts behave or taste more or less ‘salty’ than others. The obvious enemy of choice is table salt (confession: I hate it).
I think most of us are aware that if a recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, you can’t simply substitute 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and expect the same results. It just doesn’t work that way. This all comes back to density.
But if you take a closer look at the table above (and I highly recommend doing so), you’ll notice something much more note-worthy. The density of the same type of salt varies dramatically by brand .
Kosher salt. One of the most popular types of cooking salts. The two most popular and well-loved brands of kosher salt are Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt and Morton Coarse Kosher Salt.
1/4 teaspoon of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weighs approximately 0.7 grams in weight. In comparison, 1/4 teaspoon of Morton Coarse Kosher Salt weighs 1.2 grams. Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt is almost twice as dense as Diamond Crystal kosher salt. To add an even great layer of complexity to the mix, 1/4 teaspoon of Whole Foods Kosher Coarse Sea Salt weighs 2 grams. That is huge!
In other words, if you’re following a recipe that calls for kosher salt (and that recipe does not specify a brand or weight – and let’s face it, no recipes do), you could end up with a very under-seasoned, or worse, over-seasoned dish.
You may not follow specified salt quantities for this reason. But chances are, you might! If you look at almost any savory recipe on this site, you’ll notice that I do not list salt quantities. I will if it’s critical to a recipe, but I try my best to avoid it for this very reason. It makes me nervous.
My favorite (highly recommended) go-to cooking salt is Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. From my own experience, it is the only brand of salt used in most restaurants – chefs love this salt and that endorsement means a lot to me.
I buy a 3-lb box of it every few months and as long as I can get my hands on it, I don’t use anything else. Ok, I’ll occasionally use sea salt or finishing salt (Maldon or Fleur de Sel), but that’s it.
I love it for several reasons:
- It’s incredibly easy to pinch! I keep a small bowl of it near my stove and this is the only way that I season anything. I strongly advise getting rid of a salt shaker or grinder, and using your fingers for pinching and seasoning as you go! You’ll be able to control and adjust the seasoning of dishes much easier this way.
- It dissolves very well, sprinkles evenly, sticks well to foods, and you can physically ‘grind’ it finer with your fingertips for even faster dissolving. For cooking, you want to use easily dissolvable salts. For finishing, you want to use less easily dissolved salts (Maldon sea salt flakes or Fleur del Sel). But I use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt for finishing all the time too.
- It is natural, there are no additives, and the flavor is pure.
- It is the least dense variety of kosher salt available – my preference of choice! You won’t over salt a dish with an extra pinch or two.
While this post is my no means an endorsement of one brand or another, I highly recommend seeking and trying out Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt and seeing what you think. If you don’t, simply adjust the quantity of salt to compensate for density, or avoid following salt quantities.
[Edited to add: Iodine is a very important dietary requirement. I eat enough other foods that are rich in iodine – and take multivitamins that contain iodine – that I do not feel the need to use iodized salt, but please know that kosher salt does not contain iodine. If you prefer and need to use iodized salt, just adjust the amounts in recipes to reflect its higher density.]
Either way, I strongly advise sticking with one type of salt consistently for all of your cooking! If you constantly switch between sea salt or kosher salt or table salt, you’ll lose the intuition that comes from using one type of salt over and over again. I’m so intuitively familiar with the relative ‘saltiness’ of this brand that I know how much I need to use in order to achieve the level of seasoning a recipe calls for.
Seasoning is kind of like learning how to ride a bicycle. It takes a while to figure it out, but eventually it becomes second nature!
Are you still there? Hopefully my crazy technical talk didn’t get too boring. I hope you found this information helpful and useful in the kitchen! Let me know if you want me to share more posts like this in the future or if you have any questions!
Cocktail 101: Shakers and Spoons
Today begins a series on barware basics. I'll tell you what pieces I think are essential for the home bartender, but I'll also look at tools that are nice to have but perhaps not necessary.
To start, let's consider shakers and spoons, two of the most important tools used to make cocktails.
The iconic cocktail shaker, of course, is the so-called cobbler shaker, the three-piece, sleek beauty with a tin, a built-in strainer, and a cap.
Nearly everyone's seen these, and for me at least, it was the first piece of bar kit I ever owned. The cobbler has several advantages going for it:
- The cobbler is available nearly everywhere that sells housewares.
- It's offered in various shapes and sizes. You can get giant, party-sized shakers that allow you to shake up 10 or 15 drinks at once, or you can get individual cobblers that serve one drink (with a little extra for topping off a cocktail).
- It's easy to use: add ice and cocktail ingredients to the tin, pop on the strainer top and cap, shake, remove cap, strain. No other tools necessary.
- It's attractive and looks stylish on a bar or shelf.
However, it has some down sides:
- The metal-on-metal construction causes the pieces to seize up, making the shaker hard to take apart to clean and immediately reuse. If you're making just one cocktail, of course, that's not a problem. But if you have one shaker and guests who want different drinks, it's a pain.
- Straining with these is slow, compared to other options, because the strainer holes are small and few in number.
- Shaking drinks containing herbs or fruit is messy using a cobbler, especially at cleanup.
This is what your favorite bartender probably uses. The Boston shaker consists of a shaking tin and a mixing glass.
Note: Some varieties are all-metal, made of one larger tin and one smaller tin. A lot of pro bartenders love these, but I don't recommend them if you're starting out. By building your cocktail in the mixing glass and then sealing the tin to the top of the glass (as I detailed in a previous post), you can watch what you're doing as you add ingredients to the glass. Using an all-tin shaker denies you the transparency of glass, and you might therefore be more prone to mistakes.
Advantages of the Boston shaker:
- Learning how to use one properly makes you look like a pro.
- They're relatively inexpensive.
- If your mixing glass breaks (it happens to all of us), they're inexpensive to replace.
- They're easy to clean and easy to use.
- They store compactly, with the glass nestling inside the tin.
How the Boston might harsh your mellow:
A two-piece, all-metal shaker. Although they've been growing in popularity among some bartenders over the last couple of years, this style is actually old, and an ancestor of the cobbler style. The Parisian, of course, lacks the built-in strainer.
The Parisian is lovely to look at and, for some reason, moderately easier to open than the cobbler. It requires a separate strainer, of course. I prefer it over a cobbler, but just barely. The biggest disadvantage for those who want to use one is that they're hard to find. Unless you live near a specialty barware store, you'll need to order one online.
For stirring, natch. The long shaft allows it to reach the bottom of even the largest mixing glass, while the twisted (or cylindrical) form allows the spoon to spin freely in your stirring hand while it moves around the glass. Just try moving a standard teaspoon around in a glass in that fashion. You can do it, but it's clumsy and slow.
When I started in this obsession, about the only type of bar spoon you could buy, anywhere in the United States, was the cheap kind with the red, plastic cap on the end. I hated those things. The caps invariably fell off, leaving a poky end that I stabbed my hand on more than once.
I heard that English and European bartenders had a fancier type of spoon available to them, one with a disc welded to the end. Now, the purpose of the disc is debated. Is it there to help you crush a sugar cube? Is it a muddler? Do you use it when layering cocktails? I didn't really care about that (and still don't, mostly) I just wanted a sturdier spoon and one that didn't look like cheap junk. But until a couple of years ago, about the only way to get one was to order an expensive import.
As you can see from the photo above, a number of different styles are now available on the market, and some of them are fairly inexpensive—under $10.
Now, I'm a geek for these things. You don't need more than one or two bar spoons around. I collect them because I think they're cool, because I love the variety of forms available, and because they're compact and easy to store.
What about you? Do any of you have an obsession with certain bar tools, or for that matter, other kitchenware?
The Science of Anti-Caking Agents
I grew up learning to love the science of food while watching my parents cook. My mom is known for her chocolate chip cookie recipe. When we made this recipe together, my first task was always to start measuring out all the ingredients. Her recipe is fairly basic and has a few different powdered ingredients. I’d try and get everything measured out as quickly as possible so she was not waiting on any ingredients to add. Some of the ingredients like baking soda or salt turned into a “hockey puck” and were very difficult to break apart and measure. This helped peak my interest in learning about the science of food, but it wasn’t until later that I began to learn about anti-caking agents.
What are they (anti-caking agents) doing in my food?
Without anti-caking agents, my cookie ingredients (sugar, flour, baking powder etc.) would, over time, become solid blocks of chalk. These dry ingredients slowly suck humidity out of the air as time passes. That water allows the particles to bind with one another. This also leads to lower product quality as the ingredients oxidize and lose their ability to flow when being poured. Anti-caking agents solve this conundrum by either coating the particles themselves to shield them or absorbing moisture before the powder does.
Anti-caking agents are added in very small amounts to powders and other food products like table salt, spices, milk powder, flour, sugar and many more pantry friendly items. While most commonly used in flour, anti-caking agents have other applications too. For example, anticaking agents are popularly used in non-food items like “road salt, fertilizers, cosmetics, synthetic detergents, and in other similar applications.” They allow a wide range of products to freely flow when they’re being used. They often appear in products that are more susceptible to clumping such sugar or flour. These types of staple ingredients often crystallize resulting in solid blocks that do not pour evenly and are harder to mix. This limits their use in baking and cooking applications.
Let’s compare brown sugar and powdered sugar. Brown sugar, with its dark brown color and clumpy texture, contains molasses and high levels of humidity. Powdered sugar on the other hand, with very fine, dry particles, offers a completely different functionality as an ingredient. The difference is the addition of an anti-caking agent like cornstarch or tricalcium phosphate to the powdered sugar. These are added typically at less than 5 percent of the total weight and have tremendous impacts on the functionality of the ingredient.
What foods benefit from them?
The most common anti-caking agent is salt. When you pour out salt from a box, you expect it to flow freely, often thanks to sodium aluminosilicate. Could you imagine having to pick apart salt from a block every time you needed salt to cook or wanted to add flavor to a bag of popcorn? Salt crystals are coated with an anti-caking agent that keeps the particles separate from one another. If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant where they put rice in their salt shakers, they are using a very practical form of an anti-caking agent.
In addition to simple powders, there are many different examples of how anti-caking agents are used to make ingredients flow evenly. They are used in all sorts of products you might not think would clump up while waiting in storage to be used. Sodium dioxide is an anti-caking agent used in powdered eggs and even for filtering beer. In some spices, calcium silicate is used to limit the mobility of oils and absorb water. For mannitol (a sugar replacer), it is used to dust chewing gum and other products, keeping them from sticking together. Cellulose, a common addition to parmesan cheese, works similarly by keeping the cheese from turning back into a block. Stearic acid, a common fatty acid found in cow’s milk fat, can be used to make edible coatings that prevent interaction with water and other food components and help extend shelf life.
Food manufacturers will often add anti-caking agents at some point during the production process to optimize manufacturing. Reducing clumping and moisture-absorption means lower costs for sugar, flour and other staple ingredients in your pantry.
Most importantly, are they safe?
Yes. The bottom-line is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirms the safe use of the anti-caking agents used in food and beverages. They must pass a rigorous evaluation in order to be used. This evaluation requires a dossier containing the scientific evaluation of the safety of the ingredient. Once the FDA reviews the data, an ingredient can be deemed safe and given a status known as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” or “GRAS” certification, which means it is certified and managed by the FDA.
After learning about the components of anti-caking agents, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the science and technology that goes into my ingredients and how they aid my cooking at home. Like many people, I do not have much time to cook and bake, but when I do, it is nice to have food ingredients that function well and aid me in creating the perfect batch of chocolate chip cookies. This will be of even higher importance as the holidays approach and we share our favorite treats and desserts with our loved ones. I look forward to going home and making some of my mom’s cookies with her recipes. Instead of wasting time breaking up a chunk of baking soda, I will focus on enjoying more time with her.
Jacob Farr and Eddie Orzechowski contributed to this post.
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Restaurants are working to cut back sodium without spooking customers.
Salt is one of the world’s oldest seasonings. But pervasive use of the mineral has put it in the crosshairs of modern-day health professionals.
Few people are suggesting that salt—consisting mostly of sodium chloride—be treated like a latter-day trans fat and be banned from restaurants in cities across America. Instead, many eateries are heeding a national initiative to reduce the salt in their menu items.
“A lot of restaurant operators are looking at ways to reduce sodium, on their own or working with suppliers,” says Joan McGlockton, vice president of food policy for the National Restaurant Association (nra). “The industry is challenged on how to do this.”
That’s because it’s not easy to mimic the exact taste and texture of salt, experts say.
“There is not a single ingredient known by man that can simulate salt exactly,” says Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development for flavor-development company Wixon Inc. “It has its own flavor and enhances other flavors.”
Nonetheless, technological advances have come up with various salt substitutes, and chefs are using herbs, spices, citrus, and other methods to replace salt.
In many ways, cutting back on salt can be a Catch 22. Consumers want less sodium in their diets, but they also believe that food low in salt tastes bland, so they won’t buy it. As a result, some restaurants are reducing their sodium without talking much about it.
Salt has been used as a spice and preservative for millennia. It’s mentioned in the Bible and by the ancient story teller Homer, and demand for the mineral led to early trade routes. The phrase “worth his salt” refers to a person’s work value, because the spice was so pricey at one time.
Despite its benefits and long history, ingesting too much sodium isn’t good, doctors say. And with the increased reliance on processed food, which uses salt as a flavor enhancer and preservative, many Americans unknowingly eat more sodium every day.
Studies indicate that 70 percent of the nation’s sodium consumption is from processed food, including meat, cheese, and bread products.
The biggest health concern of sodium intake is hypertension, or high blood pressure.
“Salt retains water,” says Dr. Wallace Johnson, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Think of a garden hose with a lot of water pushing against the walls. That’s what’s happening to the blood vessels.”
Complications range from heart attacks and strokes to kidney disease.
The federal government’s latest dietary guidelines call for the daily sodium intake for healthy Americans to be no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg). The American Heart Association and many physicians put the limit at 1,500 mg a day.
But concerns among health professionals are overwrought, says Martin Satin, vice president of science and research for the Salt Institute, representing North American salt producers.
“The evidence for salt reduction is not there,” he says, contending that the push for sodium limits is being driven by ideologues who want limits on salt used by restaurants and processors. There are better ways to cut hypertension, he says, including exercise.
Even so, the restaurant industry seems committed to offering lower-sodium options.
“We support the dietary guidelines, and we want to help consumers meet them,” the NRA’s McGlockton says. “We’re not in favor of any sort of mandate or compulsory requirements, but the industry is sensitive to what diners want.”
One NRA effort is HealthyDiningFinder.com, which helps Americans identify healthier choices when eating out. Developed with partial funding by the Centers for Disease Control, the site lists “sodium savvy” menu items with less than 750 mg of sodium.
Typical dishes are the Joey Junior chicken burrito from Moe’s Southwest Grill, RedBrick Pizza’s Pizza Bianco, and Corner Bakery’s Corner Combo of tuna salad on harvest bread and a mixed greens side salad.
Despite sodium reduction initiatives, salt mentions on restaurant menus increased by nearly 150 percent over the past five years, according to MenuMonitor, a service developed by Chicago-based Technomic Inc.
These mentions don’t mean, however, that more salt is being used, says Technomic Inc. executive vice president Darren Tristano. Instead, it’s often a marketing effort, highlighting artisan or blended salts.
“You are building the perception of flavor at the description level,” Tristano says. Typical, he notes, is Wendy’s natural cut fries with sea salt.
The easiest way to reduce sodium in the menu, chefs say, is to simply curtail salt.
“If you cut salt by 20 percent, you will be challenged to find any difference in flavor,” says Ron DeSantis, director of CIA Consulting, an affiliate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
At a recent presentation, he cooked some green beans traditionally and others with 20 percent less salt in the water. “No one knew the difference.”
There are other ways to reduce sodium in food, such as having great ingredients and properly executing the cooking fundamentals, DeSantis says. Fresh or dry herbs, wine, juices, and vinegar can enhance flavor, with salt added only “to spark the flavor.”
Another method for reducing sodium is flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate, which may come with its own health concerns. Among newer products is Wixon’s KCLean, which provides the taste and texture of salt but with less sodium.
“There are several salt-replacement options for the industry, and the closest now is potassium chloride,” Gascon says.
“It’s similar to salt, but not as salty and leaves a bitter, metallic aftertaste.”
Wixon uses taste modifiers with potassium chloride to mask the bitterness and improve the flavor. So KCLean is 50 percent salt and 50 percent of the altered potassium chloride.
Moe’s Southwest Grill began using KCLean and other methods to reduce sodium levels across its menu more than a year ago.
“We worked with all of our suppliers to get the salt levels lower,” says Dan Barash, the executive chef of Moe’s who led the company’s sodium-cutting effort. “We looked at every ingredient and were able to reduce sodium by 50 percent.”
Through it all, “we never jeopardized flavor to create a healthy product.”
The company has at least a dozen sodium-savvy items. The Joey Jr. burrito is a flour torilla with chicken, black beans, rice, cheese, and pico de gallo. It has 714 mg of sodium. The Funk Meister taco features a soft flour tortilla, chicken, cheese, pico de gallo, and shredded lettuce, and it checks in at 630 mg sodium.
Moe’s is not through, however it’s looking to cut sodium even further from items such as ground beef and queso.
All of this was done quite quietly, and customers didn’t notice.
“There was zero fanfare,” says Stan Dorsey, vice president of research and development for Moe’s parent, FOCUS Brands. “It was the right thing to do.”
But Dorsey also knows that health claims can backfire. “There’s always a danger. When I was with a previous company we ran a special item and it did really well. Six months later we ran it again, saying it had no carbs, and the product died.”
To many marketers, salt reduction could do the same. So, not surprisingly, Taco Bell waited several months to mention it had secretly cut the sodium content in its menu items at Dallas-area restaurants by 23 percent.
Other companies are quietly plugging away at sodium reduction. Burger King, for instance, reduced sodium by a third in its most popular kids’ meal item, Chicken Tenders. It lowered sodium in several adult menu ingredients, too.
And no salt is added to Burger King’s best-known item, burgers, says spokeswoman Denise Wilson. A four-ounce ground beef patty naturally has less than 100 mg of sodium.
Burger King and many other operators offer small hamburgers, like the Whopper Jr., with sodium counts in the 500–650 mg range. However, regular burgers usually have considerably higher sodium levels, well in excess of 750 mg.
A number of companies have no qualms about their low sodium levels.
RedBrick Pizza, for instance, has been health conscious “from Day 1,” says president Jim Minidis. “When we started, we formulated our items to be healthier and lower in salt than any others out there.”
RedBrick uses fresh herbs, spices, and olive oil rather than salt, in some cases.
“It took quite a bit of time and development to come up with these recipes, but we were determined to make a great, healthy product,” he says.
Many typical pizza ingredients can be heavy in sodium: the crust, canned sauce, meat, and cheese. RedBrick’s sauce has 12 herbs and is organic, without preservatives. There’s no salt or salted butter in the dough, which is baked in a wood-fired oven.
Last year, the company introduced a whole-wheat, multigrain artisan crust made with açai berry, a fruit known for its antioxidant properties.
Meat toppings have been more of a challenge, because even organic meats can be high in sodium. So the company has had to search harder to find what it wants, such as a high-quality, Italian-imported prosciutto, which doesn’t need salt to pump up the taste.
The 9-inch Pizza Bianco with açai crust (660 mg of sodium) features Ricotta and Mozzarella cheese, sausage, mushrooms, roasted pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic sauce. Several Fhazani flatbread sandwiches have sodium counts less than 450 mg.
Meanwhile, Subway, also known for its health-conscious menu, announced this spring it cut the sodium by 15 percent in core sandwiches and 27 percent in its Fresh Fit sandwiches.
“We started working on our sodium reduction before it was in the forefront of industry interest,” says Lanette Kovachi, the company’s corporate dietician.
“It was something we wanted to do to be socially responsible and provide a healthier product for our customers.”
Cutting sodium “was definitely challenging,” Kovachi says.
“We looked at all of our components, breads, meats, and cheeses, and all of these by nature, especially the deli meats, are higher in sodium for flavor and for food safety reasons.”
Company chefs and food developers could only go so far with some ingredients, but sodium in bread (salt keeps bread from rising too quickly) was reduced 25 percent.
“The bread helps make Subway, the smell when you walk in, and the taste,” she says. “You don’t want the customer to notice you did anything to that.”
Several 6-inch subs priced less than $5, including the oven-roasted chicken and the roast beef menu items, are less than 700 mg of sodium.
Most of Subway’s salt-reduction focus has been on meats and breads, so there is still a “to-do list” for sodium reduction.
“We started where we could get the biggest bang for the buck, and now we are looking into sauces and other ingredients that are not as large to the overall sodium count,” Kovachi says. “We know customers expect us to keep getting better.”
Fries are also an area of concern for quick-serve brands looking to reduce sodium while maintaining bold tastes.
Statistics from Technomic found that Americans by more than a 2-to-1 ratio prefer their fries to be seasoned with pepper, Cajun spices, or other flavorings.
“It seems customers are willing to go out of their way for the fries they want,” says Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager at Technomic. And that’s important, since fries “are still the go-to side item” at most quick-service restaurants.
The nation’s biggest burger chains offer traditional french fries, while a number of other quick-service operations, including Checkers/Rally’s, Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, serve up seasoned varieties.
One of Arby’s long-time signature items is curly fries, a spiral-cut fry coated with a secret combination of salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and other savory seasonings.
“Youngsters find them really fun, and older adult eaters recognize us for having a very flavorful product that is unique in the quick-serve segment,” says Brian Kolodziej, vice president of product development and integration for Atlanta-based Arby’s.
The coating of seasonings not only provides a different taste, but it also helps keep the fries crisp and provides their color.
Wendy’s hoped to capitalize on the consumer’s love of french fries and increased interest in healthy eating when it debuted its fries made with sea salt in November 2010.
The fries are made from 100 percent Russet potatoes and sliced “natural style” with the skin on and fried in proprietary oil that’s trans fat free. Then they are dusted with natural sea salt.
According to company research, the new fries, which use less salt, were preferred over competitors’ fries by 56 percent of the public.
“We’ve listened intently to our customers and incorporated their feedback into our products,” says Ken Calwell, Wendy’s chief marketing officer. “The results from the taste test validate our efforts to deliver what our customers want—better tasting fries. And our fries are hot with a golden color and a real potato taste seasoned with sea salt.”
Most Wanted: Salt Shakers - Recipes
I was recently contacted by a friend who tried one of my recipes with a complaint that the dish didn’t taste as good as when I made it for her. After a few questions, she admitted that she didn’t add salt as the recipe called for. “If someone wants salt, they can add it at the table,” was her reasoning.
The difference between tasteless food and tasty food is salt.” Salt is a flavor enhancer. When added while cooking, salt brings out the flavor in food and makes it delicious when added to food after it has finished cooking, all it does it make the food salty. I use kosher salt for everything except filling my salt shakers. I believe kosher salt is less likely to make food taste salty or give you that salty burn.
If you are under 25 years old, you probably have never heard of Chicken Francaise or other classics like Chateaubriand and Steak Diane, which have disappeared from menus over the past few decades. Although it may have gone out of style in the 90's when Nouvelle Cuisine became popular, I continued to make this delicious dish, and it is still one of My Most Requested Recipes.
- 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts
- All-purpose flour, for dredging
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 3 large eggs
- Grated parmesan cheese, for dredging
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a separate pot, cook pasta according to the directions on the package. Remember, pasta, like potatoes and grains, cook by absorbing the liquid in which they are cooked. The better tasting the liquid, the better tasting your final dish. That is why it is important to add salt to the liquid before cooking. I am using Orzo pasta, but you can substitute any pasta to create a bed for the Chicken Francaise.
Unlike your typical dredge of flour, egg and bread crumbs, for Chicken Francaise I use flour, egg and grated parmesan cheese.
Put flour in a shallow dish and add salt and pepper. In a second shallow dish, beat eggs, salt and a splash of water to make an egg wash. In a third shallow dish, add grated parmesan cheese.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saute pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to keep the butter from burning. Dredge each chicken cutlet in the flour and shake off the excess. Dip the floured chicken into the egg wash and allow the excess to drip off. Next, dip the chicken into the grated parmesan cheese until it is completely covered.
Reduce heat to medium and add chicken to the hot oil and butter and saute for 2- 3 minutes until golden brown. Turn and saute the chicken until it is cooked thoroughly and golden brown, approximately 2 -3 minutes longer.
Remove the chicken to a large platter in a single layer and keep warm.
In the same saute pan over medium heat, add the white wine and juice of 1 lemon and cook for 1 minute. Add chicken stock and continue to cook for another minute. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper, if needed. Return the chicken breasts to the saute pan to absorb the sauce. Turn off the flame and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
If you add the butter while the pan is on the flame, the high heat would make the butter separate and look oily. By removing from the heat before adding the butter, the butter will slowly melt, thicken the sauce and make it creamy. Add chopped parsley and serve over pasta.