Editor’s Note: In April 2017, our colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog wrote “Salt grinders are bullshit, and other lessons from growing up in the spice trade” for our sister site, The A.V. Club. That story yielded a book deal, and two years later, that book has arrived. On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, And History With A Grain Of Saltiness will be out January 15 from Skyhorse Press. This is an excerpt from the book.
A chef, a botanist, an economist, and a scientist get together for dinner. They all love spices, and being argumentative types, they start to break it down. The chef calls the salt at the table a spice. The botanist, offended, says it’s not a plant, but a mineral, and therefore is not a spice at all. The scientist challenges the botanist, asking them to define exactly which part of a plant is the spice: Is it volatile oils that matter, or can spices only come from certain parts of the plant? The economist interjects that the bodies governing trade don’t care if it’s a mineral or a plant.
A geographer at the next table overhears and insists that there’s a big difference between herbs grown locally and in the Mediterranean. The chef, already sorry he started this conversation, can’t stand for that—herbs aren’t spices, but a different category altogether. Although, he ponders out loud, if coriander leaf in an herb, what does that make coriander seed?
I am not a chef, botanist, economist, scientist, or geographer. I am a cook, and I define spices as those powders, seeds, leaves, liquids, and, yes, minerals that I add to food to make it taste better. It’s a very broad definition, and it would never pass muster in the Dewey Decimal System. Lucky for spices, they belong in the kitchen, and food itself keeps mum on the difference between an herb or a spice or where salt belongs. Only recently have we even bothered to consider the issue.
For a long time spice simply meant wares rare and usually expensive: spice shares a root with special. Around the time of the Hundred Years’ War, when Black Death swept through Europe, Europeans considered sugar and oranges to be spices. Like pepper and cassia, they were hard to acquire, delicious, and came from far-away places.
Ambergris, a waxy substance found floating or on seashores, exemplifies how the term spice has long been a loose one. The substance, believed to originate in the intestines of sperm whales, is used in perfumery and is sometimes included in lists of spices. The Oxford Companion To Food explains its inclusion as a spice is “if only for want of any other category into which to put them.”
Lavender exemplifies the sperm whale intestine phenomenon today. It is often categorized as an herb, despite the fact that it is not herbaceous, but a dried flower. No matter: There isn’t a better category to put lavender in, so herbs it is.
I am interested in how we use dried powders, barks, leaves, seeds, flowers, stamens, rhizomes, extracts, nuts, pods, fruits, and minerals in the kitchen, where little else matters except making tasty food. After much thought and reading of other writers’ definitions, I’ve returned to the one I held during my childhood, when I never gave the issue any thought at all: They’re all spices. Categorizing them according to rigid principles like geography or part of the plant is not helpful in understanding how we can use them to make food tasty.
I’d like everyone to see their spice racks as wide-open vistas of culinary possibilities, instead of Tetris shapes you struggle to make fit. Have you ever tried pouring cinnamon into a jar? If you’re not careful, it explodes like a mushroom cloud. Spices are messy. It doesn’t matter how tradition, history, or celebrity chefs says they’re to be used. Spice usage has been flexible since humans first started harvesting them, so why would that change now?
Spices make food tasty; there’s really nothing more complicated to it.
And there’s little competition for the most beloved and frequently used flavor enhancer of them all: salt. Its counterpart, pepper, is the king. He’s the gaudy royalty, the Emperor Caligula, the Marie Antoinette, the Elvis of spices. But while pepper rules by divine right, it is salt who is divine. The Greek Helios, maybe, who brought the sun across the Earth in his chariot. Or Huixtocihuatl, an Aztec fertility goddess who also oversaw salt and saltwater. People can make do without pepper if they must, but they cannot live without salt.
Hyponatraemia is the medical term for sodium deficiency, a condition that might be familiar to marathon runners, who know that if they sweat too much and only drink water, they’re at risk of their bodies shutting down. Sodium plays a crucial role in the body, managing blood pressure, helping the central nervous system, and maintaining the right amount of fluids in blood cells. Some scientists even theorize that this need for salt is why we love it so much: We need it to survive, so we love its taste.
We can get it through consuming animal flesh, or by ingesting it directly. Even thousands of years ago, it seems, people knew that salt was not optional. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist whose extensive writing gives us much of what we know about ancient Rome’s plant life (and who created the model of the encyclopedia), wrote “Heaven knows, a civilized life is impossible without salt.” A few hundred years later, fellow Roman Cassiodorus said, “Mankind can live without gold… but not without salt.” Whether they knew they literally needed salt in their bodies to function is almost beside the point. Salt is in every civilization’s history, sprinkled lovingly on food by people around the world (except, it seems, by certain Native American populations, who didn’t harvest salt but consumed sodium chloride through eating animal meat). There is evidence of humans using salt to preserve food during the last ice age.
For many people who eat meals with salt shaker at the ready, like me, salt seems necessary for what it does to food, not its role in the body. For years my apartment had two salt shakers: one for the kitchen and one for the dining room table. Then, and I’m not sure how it happened (except perhaps it’s the organic way spices flow for members of my family), there was a salt shaker in every room. Now there’s a salt shaker and a salt cellar in my kitchen, giving me the option to either shake or pinch salt onto foods while I’m cooking.
My family can’t be the only one repeatedly asking “can you pass the salt?” at dinnertime. I wonder, though, if salt’s high demand led anyone else’s aunt to show up to Christmas one year, like a goddess out of myth, with a salt shaker for every member of the family, each with our names embossed in glitzy gold lettering. But like disappearing socks or pens, salt shakers seem similarly destined to vanish into the void. Of the dozen salt shakers my aunt doled out like Santa Claus, only a few remain today. That (so I tell myself) is why I have a shaker in every room: They’re in such high demand that they never stick around for long.
It seems almost unnecessary to describe salt’s many uses. Unlike, say, caraway seed, salt’s applications are obvious and endless. You already know when to add salt at the table: whenever you think you need it. Home cooks know that adding salt to a boiling pot of water before throwing in pastas and grains helps to bring out their flavor. And salt, often along with pepper, is added at many steps of the cooking process. Take the humble roasted vegetables. They’re diced and mixed with salt, pepper, and oil. After they’re roasted in the oven, more salt and pepper is added. It seems like this would be enough, but even more is added once the vegetables make it to the table. I’m a proponent of salting food on the plate, just before eating, where I can decide the amount for myself and where salting results in a stronger flavor than if it was done in the kitchen. Of course, you have to salt the water for rice or noodles, but I’m arguing for less overall salting of vegetables and meats while cooking.
Salt is the single most important spice for making foods taste good, but it can be so ubiquitous that it’s almost forgotten about. But salt is a flavor “potentiator,” meaning it brings out the best-tasting flavors already present in the food. Sweet foods taste sweeter, meatier foods taste meatier, fried foods taste fried-ier. Anyone who’s ever added salt to anything knows it simply makes food taste better.
That’s an underappreciated aspect of salt. It’s good to shake onto foods at the dinner table, because you can taste the difference it makes. The salt is right there on the surface. But we use salt to improve the flavor of foods all the time, even when it’s not obvious. There’s a reason virtually all baked goods require a teaspoon or two of salt. Cakes, cookies, brownies, and the like have a weaker overall flavor if salt isn’t added. Salt is crucial in bread baking, as it not only enhances the flavor but subdues the potency of yeast, necessary for a good crumb.
My grandfather had a mantra: “salt is salt.” What he meant was that salt can be broken down into many groupings, but such distinctions hardly matter. The broad categories are rock salt, kosher salt, and the salts with colors: grey sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, Hawaiian red salt, etc. These are different, but when it comes to salting your food, well, they’re all just salt. It’s an adage that’s served me well when it comes to the seduction of the small batch, the rare, the expensive. Luckily with salt, it doesn’t matter if you buy the processed stuff off the grocery store shelf or are able to procure a pinch of brown-colored salt from Japan, where only 600 pounds are mined every year. The expensive salts will not make your food taste any better than the cheap salts. Salt is salt.
My favorite salt is among the cheapest: Kosher salt. Growing up, my family used little else. Though it is traditionally used for preparing kosher foods, the salt itself is not necessarily kosher. Rather, nearly all salt is kosher and may be religiously certified as such (check the box), but not all “kosher salt,” of the distinctive size and shape, has been certified. It’s not the color or origin or religious affiliation that makes salt culinarily different, but the surface area.
The differences can be understood through the example of ice, snow, and rain. A grain of rock salt is like a chunk of ice: it falls on a surface and dissolves very slowly. Kosher salt, on the other hand, is like a snowflake: It lands on the surface and immediately dissipates, spreading out to cover more ground. Table salt is like smaller pieces of ice, or a hard rain. It falls in tiny bits, bouncing around the food and into cracks and crevices like rain in a gutter. That’s why kosher salt is preferred for salting foods at the table: it covers more surface and melts more evenly. My dad, a chef, also likes it for the thick texture, which makes it easy to pinch and disperse. A year or two ago, when I had lost yet another salt shaker and didn’t have any replacement jar and shaker lids on hand, I dumped kosher salt into a small ramekin bowl. With this makeshift salt cellar I realized what my dad was talking about. Using salt this way results in much more direct contact between your fingers, the salt, and the food. You feel how much salt you’re using when you pinch it, and by extension, how much salt you’re actually putting on your food. Now I primarily use the salt cellar in the kitchen, and save the shakers for the other rooms. (Plus, it’s much harder to lose a small bowl of salt than a shaker that may be tucked away out of sight and accidentally disappear into the contours of the house.)
We often view salt as a readily available commodity, but its importance to human history—the way we ate, preserved, traveled, traded, warred—simply cannot be overstated.
Take an unexpected medium where salt appears: fantasy literature.
Fictional characters far and wide, old and new, understand the necessity and value of salt. Salt is all over pop culture, sometimes signifying something crucial—like guest rights and the consequences of betrayal in Game Of Thrones—or simply available despite unclear necessity. Long before George R.R. Martin shocked with the Red Wedding, J.R.R. Tolkien used salt to symbolize home and fond memories of simple pleasures, such as a meal of meat and salt, for the homesick Hobbits.
Perhaps Samwise Gamgee was sage beyond his years: You never know when you’ll need salt, so it’s best to keep it near and be prepared for unexpected journeys.