Why is NaCl, according to some cooks, the most important ingredient when cooking? The reason is simple, added NaCl has a positive influence on liking and preference for foods. And it is not just due to saltiness, although saltiness is one component. Apart from savoury foods where it appears naturally complementary, it is also added to caramel, chocolate and foods we associate with another taste, sweet. Perhaps it is the subtleness of small amounts of salt in sweet foods we like, maybe the sharp contrast when you taste a some NaCl in a sweet food, or maybe it is something else.
When two compounds with different taste qualities are mixed a number of interactions may occur including suppression of bitterness by NaCl. NaCl also enhances sweetness at low concentrations, and through NaCl effect on bitterness, sweetness maybe further enhanced. NaCl also has the ability to enhance aromas associated with sweetness (we like them) and suppress aromas associated with bitterness (we don’t like them). In this situation, adding NaCl to a food has created saltiness, increased sweetness and sweetness associated aromas, all aspects of food that we like. NaCl has also decreased bitterness and bitterness associated aromas, thereby reducing the negative aspects of food and also increasing our liking of food. You start to appreciate the wisdom of Heston Blumenthal’s statement – but there is even more. NaCl also acts as a preservative and water binding agent in processed meats and influences on the texture of foods such as breads.
When you have one compound with so many positive influences on the flavour of food, and is cheap, convenient to use, and not acutely toxic, all this adds weight to being the cooks most useful ingredient. In a way I agree with Heston Blumenthal, NaCl is the most useful ingredient for the cook, just as the hammer is the most useful tool for the builder. Using an analogy, a builder (or handy person) faces a problem, the hammer is close by, the hammer becomes the solution; it is low tech, easy to use and it may work. The same happens with NaCl in the kitchen, perhaps it becomes the ingredient that is the solution to everything, it is at hand and easy to add some NaCl to every dish, at every stage of production. The accumulation of NaCl in a food adds up and there begins another problem. Much of the added sodium is trapped within the food matrix and unavailable to fulfill its role in taste, it becomes taste invisible (this will come up in Part 4 of salt). Yet when the food is swallowed and the food matrix broken down, the NaCl is adsorbed and available for physiological function.
After consideration and remembering the old nutrition mantra, ‘everything in moderation’, I would qualify the Blumenthal statement that ‘salt is the most important ingredient for the cook’, by saying NaCl is the easiest ingredient a cook can use to increase liking of a dish. It is a process similar to delayed gratification, using excessive NaCl in the dish you are preparing may (not will) increase the liking of the dish, but the excess sodium may also cause detrimental health effects in a few years. The evidence that we consume excessive sodium which is associated with many detrimental health effects. That is for Part 3.