In the second episode of Broadsheet’s new podcast FYI, we delve into some big, important questions: how do chefs use salt in the kitchen? And why is one person’s perfectly seasoned someone else’s horrifically over-salted? To help us learn more, we spoke to Danielle Alvarez, head chef of Fred’s restaurant in Sydney’s Paddington, about how she uses salt. She told us how she uses the white stuff not just to add a salty flavour, but to balance out sweetness, subdue bitterness and draw water out of vegetables.
But it was her admission that she sometimes adds a couple of flakes of salt to balance out a bitter coffee that got us thinking – in what other unexpected ways do chefs use salt? So, we asked them.
Danielle Alvarez, Fred’s
“Salt still really has a place in desserts … Whenever I make an ice-cream, I always add a pinch of salt,” Alvarez told us when we spoke for the podcast. “Because sometimes sweetness can become just too cloyingly sweet. But a little pinch of salt will bring out the flavours of whatever you have mixed in with the sugar – it brings out that flavour of vanilla, it brings out the flavour of lemon in a custard or whatever dessert you're making. And it really does help to balance bitterness.
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“Even if I’m drinking a particularly bitter coffee, the tiniest little pinch of salt will just take that bitterness away.”
Anna Ugarte-Carral, The Old Fitzroy
“I sometimes put a tiny bit of salt in my water while I’m working, as a cowboy hydralyte,” says Ugarte-Carral. “Just a tiny bit.”
Linyi Yuan, Lotus Dining Group
Chef Lin is Lotus’s Peking duck master – and salt is integral to what he does.
“At the very beginning of creating Peking duck at Lotus The Galeries, one of the most important stages of the labour-intensive process is using salt to clean the ducks,” he says. “We wash the duck in salt water, using about 500 grams of salt per 10 ducks, which draws the blood out of the meat and means we don’t need to use chemicals. It has an added function of giving the duck a very base flavour, which is so subtle that you might not even notice, then we build on that flavour throughout the process.”
“We use quite a bit of salt in the bar and in our bottled cocktails also for that matter,” says Madrusan. “Our bottled Palomita uses Murray River pink salt, which gives the drink a great mouthfeel and real moreish taste, complementing the pink grapefruit and the spice of the tequila.”
James Kidman, Cafe Sydney
At this classic Sydney diner, Kidman makes a seaweed salt to delicately season seafood dishes such as tuna tartare, raw kingfish or simple white-fish dishes that don’t need a lot of extra flavour added. To make the salt, he dehydrates cos lettuce with sheets of nori to get them nice and crispy, then blends with salt. The lettuce acts as a binding agent, and the nori means the seafood isn’t overpowered by salt, rather its flavours are accentuated.
“We get the best of the best seafood produce so there’s no need to go overboard with the seasoning. If I have a glamour Christy Turlington piece of white fish that I am serving with a simple garnish, I will use our nori salt to bring out all the beautiful flavours without dominating it,” says Kidman.
Neil Perry, Margaret
“Salt is the only seasoning,” Perry told Broadsheet in 2017. “Everything else is flavouring. Salt brings the natural flavour out in things. Even lettuce. Really great salt, olive [oil] and pepper, a salad can taste great with that simplicity.”
Rick Stein, Rick Stein at Bannisters
More is more says the affable fish-loving Brit.
“You just hit people with flavour, you turn the volume up, you ‘exaggerate’,” he told Broadsheet in 2019. “You put more tomato in than what the recipe says, you put more salt in, and you add more sugar to round out those flavours.”
Steve Wu, Lotus
For Wu, head chef at Chinese restaurant group Lotus, salt is the key to turning a sweet ingredient into a savoury dish.
“Normally when you’re wok frying, you only need to add soy or a bit of sugar, but for working with yam beans, salt is the key element,” Wu tells Broadsheet. “Yam beans are normally considered a kind of vegetable/fruit [hybrid] because of their sweetness, but when we’re cooking wok-fried yam beans with Thai basil and chilli, adding enough salt turns the beans into more of a vegetable, removing the ‘fruity’ flavour and creating a savoury dish.”
Listen to episode two of FYI, Is Perfect Seasoning a Myth? here.