Cookbooks and Salt

Dietary and culinary theories abounded – and still persist, that salt is adds flavour and should be used in cooking nutritious and tasty food. Salt has been added to food as necessary preservative e.g. ham, sausage, olives, cheese, soy and other sauces. It has become a normal practice to put some salt into any dish, or the water to prepare boiled ingredients.

Some culinary books say that consumers can avoid the wrong processed ingredients and avoid processed foods. That’s true, but that advice may be accompanied by advising home cooks to use salt, as suggested in a recipe, in preparing meals.  Also to brine certain foods to make them cook better. The writers, presenters, and publishers of the  Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen family are an example. This sends contradictory messages about processed food, prepared food, home cooking and eating to satisfy taste and psychological needs:

  • It supports home cooking and food preparation with less reliance on processed ingredients
  • It appears to encourage safe and wise use of salt
  • It is a rationale for trying a salted item for one’s own pleasure or as  comfort food, which is also a rationale for departing from a program.

Recipes from some sources include nutrition facts.  General recipe books generally do not provide this kind of information.   General recipes may involve processed ingredients; these are worthless in a low-sodium diet unless a no sodium alternative can be substituted.

Some culinary books recommend measuring salt by weight, because it is more precise and because of the variations in the densities of salt (oarse, kosher, table, sea salt etc).  Table salt is not uniform.  Recipes assume table salt, at 6 grams per teaspoon. Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen published the weight of a specific brand of iodized table salt (Morton Iodized Salt) in The Science of Good Cooking (2012) at p. 113 as over 7 grams. The extra gram of salt is 400 mg. of sodium.

A cookbook can communicate information about the preparation of food that will please the cook and the consumer.  A book of toxic food does not sound appealing.  Books of novelty dishes based on books and TV shows have some appeal.  Books of dishes made with impossibly expensive ingredients can be marketed if written or endorsed by celebrities.

Some ingredients for popular dishes are in urban grocery stores – unfortunately the ethnic food area of grocery stores is dominated by highly processed sauces for stereotyped dishes. It is hard to stock a pantry.  Most Chinese styles rely on ingredients that are hard to find – and on some high-sodium sauces.

Cookbooks can contain information about techniques and tools.  Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen emphasizes the value of tools such as the modern multi-ply stainless steel pot or skillet (it aired inteviews in which its insistence that an American skillet was an appropriate tool for Chinese cooking was challenged when ATK hosts interviewed Fuschia Dunlop when her 2012 and 2016 books came to market in the USA). Cooking is about techique and ingredients more than about the pans and tools. A skillet may serve as a stir fry pan, and purchases of tools depend on use, need, budget and storage space. Woks (or stir-fry pans) and tools that may be available in the cookware department of a general department store. And woks help to execute some recipes – if the cook knows the technique and has access to the ingredients.

It is possible to understand the techniques of American, West European and some Mediterranean areas and to find the ingredients in most urban centers in the US and Canada. The techniques and ingredients for Asian cooking, African cooking, and Latin American cooking are less accessible.

Some styles of cooking, when presented in books, are just too challenging.  Some styles require sauce and ingredients that are outside the experience and skill of home cooks.  A cook wants to prepare a meal that will please the cook and the cook’s guests without having to purchase a host of pans, and ingredients and spending time on performing new procedures.

Mexican and Indian cooking are more accessible.  It is easy to avoid salt in cooking rice, lentils and beans with spices.

There are accessible resources on Mexican cooking. Rick Bayless‘s books and streamed shows were accompaniments to broadcast journalism which transformed him into a chef, entrepreneur and scholar of Mexican cuisine, culture and history.   His books are useful because they explain why and how to use tools and ingredients. His  books Authentic Mexican, (1987),  Mexico One Plate at a Time (2000),  Mexican Everyday (2005) provide workable approachs to rice and beans and the uses of chile peppers.

English and Scots consumers have adopted curry as the national fast food, as Americans have adopted pizza and Mexican-American chili.  Madhur Jaffrey played a role teaching Europeans and Amercians about South Asian cooking, but there many authors and books.


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