Salt and Pepper: Season to Taste!
Salt and pepper are one of those age-old combinations that nobody questions. These seemingly simple ingredients are some of the most widely used in the world. Salt is used for preserving food and for bringing out flavor in both sweet and savory dishes. Pepper, its trusty companion, is most often used for flavoring savory dishes. As simple as they may seem, salt and pepper come in a variety of flavors and forms, and can make or break a dish.
For simplicity’s sake, the world of salt can be divided into three categories – every day salt, finishing salt, and specialty salt. For every day cooking, I use kosher salt, which is readily available and inexpensive. Kosher salt is so named for its role in making meat kosher. Kosher salt crystals are stacked and flat in such a way that makes them blend well and dissolve easily. Another commonly used option is table salt, but I rarely use it. Stripped of all trace minerals, it often contains chemical bleaching agents. As a result of processing, it has tiny crystals, which can deliver a harsh taste.
Flaky sea salts are primarily used as finishing salts, lending both taste and texture to a dish by sprinkling them on top just before serving. On the pricey side, finishing salts are too precious to use for everyday cooking, as their unique qualities get lost in the cooking process. Examples of finishing salts include Maldon Sea Salt, Sel Gris, and Fleur de Sel. Each has its own flavor, color and texture profile. Minimally processed, sea salts contain trace minerals. Finely ground sea salt is a readily available (and good) alternative for everyday cooking.
The last category of salts to consider is specialty salts. Smoked salts, flavored salts, rock salts – there are more options than we can possibly cover here. Typically used as finishing salts, these options often are unique enough to command a dish with their unusual flavors and colors. When I was in the south of France, I visited entire marketplaces dedicated to salts of all types. It was fun to taste and experience the variety. One of my favorite specialty salts is Himalayan Pink Salt, for its color, smooth taste, and texture.
Pepper berries grow on vines. Unripe pepper berries are green, while fully ripe pepper berries are red. Once harvested and dried, they are referred to as peppercorns. Peppercorns come in a variety of colors, reflecting their maturity when picked, how they are processed, and their level of spice. The common black peppercorn is green when it is picked. The process of boiling and drying the pepper berries turns the outer layer black. Green peppercorns come from unripe berries that have been dried and processed in one of a variety of ways to preserve their green color. White peppercorns come from red pepper berries that have been soaked in water, softening and removing their outer husk, revealing the white pepper seed inside. The most mild of all peppercorn options, white pepper is often used when preparing fish, mashed potatoes and other options where black pepper would otherwise be visible. Pink peppercorns are not true peppercorns because they don’t come from the same pepper berries as the other varieties discussed here. Nonetheless, they impart a sweet and only slightly peppery taste when added to dishes.
Pepper is typically ground into a fine powder using a peppermill or coffee grinder reserved for spice grinding. If possible, it is best to purchase peppercorns and grind them as you go using one of these methods. Fresh ground black pepper ensures a fresh, true flavor. The essential oils in purchased ground black pepper erode over time, reducing its effect in flavoring. Coarse black pepper, sometimes referred to as “butcher’s grind,” is great for steaks and for making hearty peppercorn sauces. You can make your own butcher’s grind pepper by placing black peppercorns in a re-sealable bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.
Practically speaking, I have a jar of Himalayan Pink Salt, which I use whenever I need a finishing salt. I have a stash of white peppercorns that I grind for recipes that call it out specifically. I keep a small bowl of kosher salt by my stovetop, along with black peppercorns in a pepper mill. Whenever a recipe says, “Season to taste with salt and pepper,” these are the ingredients I always find myself reaching for.
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