By Fiona Sims

Don’t know how much salt to put in your pasta water? Should you salt your meat before searing? Is salting your aubergines before cooking a waste of time? I chat salt with top food and drink writer and author, Fiona Beckett.


To salt or not to salt

FS: I never salt my aubergines, do you?

FB: Well, I did. Then I stopped. Then I started again, because I don’t fry my aubergines anymore, I bake them. And salting them first seem to make them a bit less absorbent. I leave them for about 20 minutes, then rinse them off and pat them dry, and bake them, before adding to a recipe.

FS: People seem to be split, don’t they? Some say it makes no difference whatsoever, others say it does. Ottolenghi is the aubergine king and he doesn’t.  Nor does Sabrina Ghayour. But Marcella Hazan does. Though I have read that you don’t need to salt modern varieties of aubergine.

FB: So, I guess then the answer is, do if you feel like it.

FS: I never eat tomatoes without first crumbling over a few flakes of Maldon sea salt. In fact, it’s criminal not to.

FB: Agree. Tomatoes really need salt.

FS: Do you add salt to meat after or before cooking? I’m thinking of steak. There is an argument that if you season the meat before you cook it, you get that sought-after crust, but that’s when you are cooking a steak over a very high heat – say, in a Josper charcoal oven, which I haven’t got. I’ve tried it at home in a grill pan both ways and salting the steak before cooking draws out the juices and makes the steak less succulent, so I salt after.

FB: Me too. I salt the side I’ve just seared, which makes it nicely salty, though not crusty in the way that I like. And according to the Hawksmoor at Home, which of course is the bible (though I would say that) you should season the meat “more than you probably think sensible.” They season with a mix of 45% Maldon sea salt, 45% smoked Maldon sea salt and 10% coarsely ground black pepper.


How much is too much?

FB: In general, though, I don’t think I salt nearly comprehensively enough. Proper chefs will salt all the way through cooking. I suspect both of us are slightly nervous about salting. Check out Molly Baz’s latest, Cook This Book. She does this dish of cold and crunchy green beans with a garlic pistachio vinaigrette, which sounds absolutely delicious. But watching her cook it on a video on her Instagram account she puts in great handfuls of salt into the boiling water. The first line of the recipe is for 3.5 litres of water add 375g of salt!

FB: The book everybody needs if you’re interested in salt, is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. There is an entire section on salt, with some really great little diagrams and guides. Her general rule is 1% salt by weight for meats vegetables and grains and 2% salinity for water for blanching vegetables and pasta. That translates into a tablespoon of table salt per quart (just under a litre). Basically, Italians use a heck of a lot of salt for cooking pasta. Rachel Roddy says use 1 litre of boiling water and 10g of coarse salt (5g) of fine for every 100g of pasta in her A-Z of Pasta, which I love by the way.

FS: Yup, some cooks put in an amount that you and I would think - you can’t be serious. Chefs add salt all the way through, I just add salt at the end of cooking – but hardly ever once it’s on the plate, except for tomatoes, and a boiled egg. If I add salt at the beginning of cooking, I’m worried that I might spoil the dish.

FB: I think people have to find their own comfort zone when it comes to salt, but we should re-examine our prejudices about salt and read up about it.


Brine and dine

FS: The only time I use fistfuls of salt is for brining. I always brine a turkey, do you? I try different brines every year, but whatever the recipe it definitely makes the turkey juicier.

FB: I haven’t brined a turkey, but I have brined a pork chop and it makes all the difference – so tender. And I recently made legendary San Francisco restaurant Zuni Café’s roast chicken and bread salad, which involves rubbing the chicken with salt first and leaving it for at least 24 hours in the fridge before wiping it off, then roasting in a really hot oven for an hour. It’s just gorgeous.


Flavour savour

FS: What ingredients do you like to use to add flavour to a dish instead of using salt? Anchovies are at the top of my list, followed by capers, Parmesan, and olives. Plus, I’m using a lot of seaweed right now, too, from Mara.

FB: You can’t beat anchovies. Though I also use lemon juice to accentuate flavour, and cumin, oddly. Both are good if you want those slightly sharp flavours. Like the sound of the seaweed though.

FB: How many salts do you have?

FS: About four usually, including Maldon’s Smoked Sea Salt, which is fun to play with, and new discovery Mami Salt from Kensal Provisions, which a mate brought me (Himalayan salt, dried herbs, mushroom powder, pink peppercorns, and chilli flakes). Though I recently went to the Isles of Scilly and brought back some flavoured sea salts from a guy who also makes vodka and rum, SCsalt - they make a quick, clever flavour hit.


Four sea salts we love


Maldon Smoked Sea Salt

The Tomato Stall’s Tomato Sea Salt

SCsalt Garlic Salt

Anglesey’s Halen Mon


Salt usage

FS: How do you use your different salts?

FB: I tend to use table salt for pasta, fine sea salt for seasoning, and sea salt flakes to finish a dish. My best tip? Buy salt online, it’s much cheaper - I buy big bags from Mevalco.

FS: Favourite salty dishes? I love whole fish baked in salt, ever since great Argentinean chef Francis Mallman cooked one for me at his home in Buenos Aires; and ceviche, thanks to another South America chef trip, to Lima with Martin Morales– the recipe I most often use is the one in my Boat Cookbook (natch).

FB: And I love salt cod. It’s a very useful technique. You can salt cod for as little as 10 minutes before cooking it and it makes such a difference.

FS: I agree. I turn to Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes for all matters salt cod. Did you know that there are at least 365 salt cod recipes in Portuguese cuisine? One of the most popular is Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, with caramelised onions and potatoes, which Nuno has helpfully included in his brilliant cookbook, Lisboeta, advising a cure of only 20 minutes.