Choosing a salt for all seasonings

Ninety-nine percent of chefs say a little NaCl can make

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When Michele Anna Jordan told friends she was working on a book about salt and pepper, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The cookbook author had previously written about mustard, tomatoes, pasta, and polenta - foods with character and complexity. What, her friends asked, is there to say about these common seasonings?

Plenty, as it turns out. Salt, especially, has been Ms. Jordan's secret passion for years. When she was little, she would squeeze lemon juice onto her hands, sprinkle them with salt, sit in front of the television, and lick away.

She's outgrown that habit, but the passion remains. As host of a workshop on salt and pepper, Jordan spoke engagingly to members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals at a recent conference in Phoenix. She was flanked by a representative from both the salt and the pepper industries.

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Together, they shared many facts about these ubiquitous seasonings.

The United States is the world's leading salt producer and its biggest consumer of pepper, they told us. There are 14,000 uses for salt, and only 4 percent of all salt produced goes into food. And they debunked the theory that salt is bad for one's health.

It's the salt police that spurred Jordan to write "Salt & Pepper" (Broadway Books, 238 pp., $25). "This book began more than a decade ago as self-defense," she says.

Salt is not only beneficial, but it's essential. Most of all, she says, "salt heightens the flavor of everything. It is indispensable to the enjoyment of food."

Professional chefs know this all too well. "The ability to season with salt is what separates the great chefs from all the others," says Stephen Pyles, chef at Star Canyon restaurant in Dallas.

In a recent survey of celebrity chefs, Diamond Crystal Salt company found that 99 percent of chefs say salt has the potential to "make or break" a recipe. Only 1 percent of these chefs measure the amount of salt they use. Most opt to add salt by taste. And 3 out of 4 chefs prefer kosher salt, a mildly flavored coarse crystal that dissolves quickly. Sea salt is the next favorite.

It comes as no surprise that these same chefs have strong feelings about customers who salt their food before tasting it. "I want to slap their hands," and "It's a heinous crime," are just two reactions to the question posed in Diamond Crystal Salt's survey.

But don't expect either salt or its pungent companion to disguise a bad meal, Jordan says. "Without good ingredients, you're fighting a losing battle that salt cannot help you win."

Her advice is this: "If you have banned salt from your kitchen, bring it back and make sure it's a good one, not table salt. If your pepper comes in a big tin and it is already ground, toss it and start over with whole peppercorns."

In addition to a range of recipes from Beef Tenderloin in a Salt Crust to Black Pepper Ice Cream, her book features tips, resources, and a glossary.

Readers of Jordan's book may never again take these everyday seasonings for granted.

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