Getting to Know: Salts and Peppers
Not all salts and peppers are created equal. Here are 12 we like to cook with.
What one line do you find in nearly every savory recipe? “Season with salt and pepper.” But not all salts and peppers are created equal. Here are 12 we like to cook with.
Its small crystals and quickness at dissolving make table salt our go-to in most recipes. Calcium silicate, an anticaking agent, makes it fast-flowing. Iodine was added to this salt beginning in 1924 to prevent thyroid-related diseases; most table salt today is iodized. We use table salt to season, to make brines, and to preserve bright color when we’re blanching green vegetables.
Whatever the variety, all peppercorns are defined by the heat-bearing compound piperine. Freshly ground pepper adds distinctive flavor and heat to many dishes and plays a starring role in our Steak Tips au Poivre (see related content). For cracked pepper, gently crush peppercorns with the bottom of a heavy pan while using a rocking motion.
This coarse salt’s large crystal size makes it easy to pick up with your fingers and distribute evenly on food; we often use it to season large cuts of meat. To convert table salt into kosher salt in recipes, you need a greater volume of the big crystals. The amounts are inconsistent from brand to brand: Increase the salt by 50 percent for Morton Coarse Kosher Salt (say from 1 to 1½ teaspoons) and by 100 percent for Diamond Crystal (from 1 to 2 teaspoons).
This rose-hued pepper isn’t a peppercorn at all: It’s actually a berry from a tropical evergreen. In the 1980s, nouvelle cuisine made the pink peppercorn a star. Like true peppercorns, it has a savory heat but its “light, fruity flavor,” as well as its pretty color make it an excellent addition to soft cheeses, salads, and popcorn. It’s often sold as part of a mixed peppercorn medley.
Green peppercorns, which resemble capers, are simply unripe black peppercorns and are usually soft (so put down that pepper mill). They are sold packed in brine or vinegar, so rinse them before using. Use them crushed or whole in light sauces or salads in which their “piney,” “citrus-like,” “juniper” flavors can shine.
Most sea salt comes from seawater held in large, shallow ponds or large pans. As the water evaporates—naturally or by heating—coarse salt crystals fall to the bottom. The crystals are then collected by raking. We sprinkle sea salt on salad, meat, and cooked vegetables just before serving so that it maintains its satisfying crunch. Our favorite, Maldon Sea Salt, has especially delicate, crunchy flakes.
Pink Curing Salt
Commonly labeled pink salt, curing salt also answers to DQ Curing Salt and Insta Cure #1. This rose-colored salt contains sodium nitrite, which is a compound that inhibits bacterial growth, boosts meaty flavor, and preserves the color of fully cured bacon. Find curing salt in specialty food stores or order it online.
White peppercorns are fully ripe black peppercorns; the black outer husk is removed and the berries are dried. They lose much of their heat in this process but have a sharpness and a pronounced citrus flavor (“floral,” “potpourri,” and “licorice,” tasters noted). Many chefs like the way that these peppercorns blend into white sauces, while Asian cooks use them in stir-fries and to flavor hot-and-sour soup.
Made without anticaking agents, iodine, or other additives, pickling salt (also called canning salt) is prized for its purity as a brine maker—in fact, it’s basically finely milled kosher salt. When mixed into a pickling brine, the crystals contribute to the flavor of the pickles without turning the brine cloudy or dark, as iodized salt will. You can find pickling salt at the grocery store or any hardware store that sells canning supplies.
These spice cabinet staples range from stalwarts like Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (a blend of salt, sugar, spices, and other ingredients) to celery salt, onion salt, and garlic salt. While many seasoned salts merely combine granulated spice powders with salt and an anticaking agent, some flavored salt blends add monosodium glutamate for deeper flavor.
These large, chunky crystals are too big to dissolve easily in cooked dishes, but they’re used around the kitchen for a number of odd jobs. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, so a rock salt and water solution will quickly chill a bottle of wine. Or mix rock salt with ice and you’re on your way to chilling homemade ice cream. The crystals also make a suitable bed for shellfish dishes like clams casino. Buy food-grade rock salt, not the sort used to melt ice on roadways.
Until recently, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from the United States; the shrub that bears them was thought to carry a disease that could harm citrus crops. These peppercorns are a staple in Sichuan recipes, such as ma pao tofu. They have an intense flavor that “hits you in the nose,” but they are even better known for their numbing effect. Said one taster: “Musky and woodsy, and then my tongue went numb.” Find them in Asian markets and large grocery stores.