A Few Grains of Salt About Choosing the Right Seasoning

Most home cooks probably grew up with only one type of salt – table salt, which was kept in a cylindrical can in the pantry, or in a shaker on the table, next to the pepper. But in many kitchens these days, you can easily find kosher salt, sea salt, and specialty salts like Himalayan pink salt or black volcanic salt. And more than any other seasoning, the types of salt you use – and for kosher salt, even the brand you buy – can make a tremendous difference in how your food tastes on the plate.

Professional chefs and experienced cooks typically don’t use table salt because of its small, dense grain that makes it hard to distribute evenly on food. Also, packaged table salt usually contains iodine, which can give food a slightly metallic taste. By contrast, kosher salt granules have a larger surface area that clings more easily to meats and vegetables, and tastes clean and pure.

But all kosher salts aren’t exactly the same. The two major types of salt are Diamond Crystal, which you’ll find in a red box at the grocery store, and Morton’s, which comes in a blue box. Because these brands use different processes to produce the salt crystals, Diamond Crystal granules are larger and more fragile than Morton’s, which are denser and crunchier. And that means that a teaspoon of Morton’s is much saltier than a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal, about 70% more by weight.

As with other dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, one way to ensure you get the right amount in your dish is to measure by weight, not volume. But recipe writers usually specify the amount of salt in teaspoons (or fractions of teaspoons). Because the leading brands of salt have such different salinities, unless your recipe specifies which type it’s using, you risk over-salting your food if it was written with Diamond Crystal in mind, and you’re using Morton’s. (You can often add more salt if a dish is under-seasoned, so the opposite scenario isn’t quite so treacherous.)

That’s why Milk Street announced last year that it was switching to using Morton’s in its kitchen. “By developing our recipes to use less salt by volume (but the same amount by weight, and therefore the same level of saltiness in the finished dish), we believe it will be more difficult for people to unintentionally add too much salt to a recipe,” Milk Street said in its blog.

Another solution for recipe writers is to forego kosher salt entirely rather than specify a favored brand. Samin Nosrat, author of “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” has shifted to using fine sea salt in the recipes she’s written for the New York Times and other publications. Nosrat says that refined sea salt, which comes from evaporated seawater, has the same salinity as table salt but doesn’t have its metallic taste.

Other types of sea salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, are less refined and more expensive. They’re better choices as finishing salts, when you want the contrast of a salty texture on top of a sweet chocolate chip cookie or a sharp and creamy tomato-and-mozzarella salad. “Fleur de sel, one of the most expensive salts in the world, is not something you want to dump into your pasta water, because you just spent $22 to dissolve all of that away,” Nosrat said on a July 2020 episode of her “Home Cooking” podcast.

And what about those specialty pink or black salts? “To me they’re much less about how they taste than how they look,” Nosrat said.

Whichever types of salt you use, remember that salt is a flavor enhancer that can keep your food from turning out bland. Whenever you’re sprinkling it, tasting as you cook will prevent you from being unhappy with how your dish comes out – a disappointment that might lead you to use some salty language.

What I Ate: Cucumber salad with sumac-pickled onions

The types of salt you use for seasoning can make a big difference in how your final dish tastes

Toss Your Useless Cooking Gadgets and Eliminate Kitchen Clutter

The German word “eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” translates as “eggshell predetermined breaking point cause.” It describes one of the most useless cooking gadgets I’ve ever heard of, a tool that lets you remove the top of an egg without cracking the rest of the shell.

If you want to present a softboiled egg in an elegant cup during breakfast, I suppose this tool will get the job done. But it strikes me as the quintessential example of something that only serves to add clutter to your kitchen drawers.

A quick survey of my own kitchen reveals at least 20 devices collected over the years that, while often evoking fond memories of travels or cooking adventures, could mostly be replaced by some essential kitchen tools. These cooking gadgets range from single-use to the practically useless to the completely whimsical (but super-fun!). If you’re a home cook like me, with precious drawer and cabinet space, you might consider relegating some of these items to the storage closet — or the dustbin.

Single-use gadgets

  • The wooden fork with holes that help you measure the right amount of pasta before cooking
  • The ceramic tortilla warmer
  • The quesadilla maker
  • The empanada press
  • The matcha tea whisk
  • The tea ball infuser
  • The cherry pitter
  • The apple corer
  • The pie beads and silicone crust wrapper
  • The cheese shaver

Practically useless tools

  • The battery-operated automatic stirrer called, well, Stirr that I recently received as a gift. I tried using it to mix a cake the other day and it barely stood up in the bowl. A whisk or a stand mixer would have been a much better choice!
  • The battery-powered ice cream cone that, I guess, rotates so you don’t have to turn the ice cream while you’re licking it. As an alternative, I’d suggest using your wrist.
  • The hot chocolate frother that aerates the drink after mixing. Again, a whisk would do a better job here.
  • The Slap Chop that slices! And dices! And minces! I think that’s what knives are for.

Whimsical but fun

  • The bagel guillotine (although, I have to admit, it slices my bagels perfectly every time)
  • The bear claws for shredding pulled pork or other meat
  • The hedgehog-shaped cheese grater
  • The dinosaur-shaped taco holder

Essential tools

In a recent video on Master Class, Chef Thomas Keller explained that both professional chefs and home cooks can benefit by eliminating unnecessary tools in their kitchens. And in this category he includes measuring cups and spoons, which he says can be completely eliminated when you measure by weight instead of volume. “I’m happy enough to be able to use my essential tools to accomplish anything that any gadget can do for me, or any convenience a gadget can offer,” Keller said.

So what are the essential tools a home cook needs? With inspiration from Keller, I’d take these items, along with my digital scale, to my desert island kitchen:

  • Good knives and kitchen shears
  • Cutting boards
  • Spatulas, spoons, ladles, and whisks
  • Tongs and tweezers
  • A microplane grater
  • A vegetable parer
  • A strainer
  • Cheesecloth and kitchen twine

What other cooking tools do you find essential, and what are the most ridiculous gadgets that take up space in your kitchen? Let me know in the comments!

What I Ate: Lemon snacking cake with coconut glaze

No cooking gadgets were used while making this snacking cake


When a Cup Isn’t a Cup: Weigh Your Ingredients to Avoid Cooking Disaster

A caller on a recent episode of the Milk Street Radio podcast presented a cooking conundrum. She made a roux using “equal parts of vegetable oil and flour,” but after cooking her gumbo, there was a thick layer of oil left at the top of the dish. What went wrong? Hosts Christopher Kimball and Sara Moulton asked how she was measuring flour and the other ingredients, and the caller said that she had used 3/4 of a cup of both oil and flour – measuring them by volume.

And that’s why her roux didn’t come out properly. Instead of using a standard liquid measuring cup, the caller should have used a scale and measured everything by weight. She would have found that she needed about twice as much flour for it to properly absorb that much oil. If she had measured everything by weight, she would have had the proper ratio in her roux, and a much more delicious gumbo.

Too many recipes – especially those you might find in older cookbooks or in some corners of the Internet – don’t provide measurements by weight. And it’s too easy to forget that a cup of oil isn’t the same thing as a cup of flour. Even worse, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times points out that there’s no standard measurement for what that cup of flour should weigh. While the New York Times typically uses 128 grams, AllRecipes.com goes with 136 grams, and Cook’s Illustrated with 142 grams. Without a standard set of measurements, the home cook can either follow the recipe blindly and hope it comes out right, or guess that the amount they’re accustomed to using won’t change the end result.

The reality is that unless you’re cooking for a crowd, the differences between those measurements are minor. Also, even if you are measuring flour with a well-calibrated scale, other factors may affect how much of it you’ll need. That’s why it’s so important to cook with your senses. If you’re making a bread dough and it feels too wet, add a little more flour to make it easier to knead. If it’s a very dry day, you might need a little more water to balance out the flour you’ve already added.

For other ingredients, especially salt, it’s important to taste your dish to see if it has the right amount of the ingredient. In a future blog, I’ll explain why a teaspoon of salt can lead to different results depending on what type of salt you’re using, and even which brand. But for flour, just be sure you’re weighing out the amount you need, or like the Milk Street caller, you’ll roux the day your gumbo was (sorry, folks) … roux-ined.

What I Ate: Avocado toast with feta on toasted sourdough

When measuring flour, it's important to use a scale to make sure you have the right amount in your recipe