Table Salt
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Table Salt

The problem with salt is that it sits atop every dining table is America, so it's always seen as a garnish for food, not a vital ingredient to a dish. "When people build a Ferrari, they don't put a crappy engine in it," says 2013 James Beard outstanding chef, Paul Kahan. "Using good salt can make a huge difference in the final taste." It's so important that at his restaurants across Chicago, including Blackbird, The Publican, and Avec, Kahan conducts salt tastings with his staff, just as they would do them for wine, olive oil, or beef.

The three most common types are table, kosher, and sea. Table salt, with its fine grains and anti-caking agents, should rarely, if never, be used. Due to its clean taste and low cost, most professional kitchens use kosher salt, which has a coarse consistency and contains no additives. For those willing to splurge, flakey sea salt is the best option since it's usually harvested by hand and undergoes the least amount of processing.

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Depending on his purpose, Kahan switches it up between sea salt and kosher. For a more delicate dish, such as crudo or steamed fresh vegetables tossed with butter, he will finish it with a sprinkling of the lighter sea salt. (He prefers Jacobsen's brand.) "You feel the crunch in your teeth and get that blast of mild saltiness," says Kahan. When grilling, he generously showers the cut of meat in kosher salt. "I then let it sit for an hour before I grill it to really drive that flavor through the meat," he says.

As more flavored salts come on the market, Kahan suggests experimenting with them to find the right match. Some recent winners he's found include using fennel seed and orange salt to balance out the gaminess of wild salmon and applying smoked salt to roasted Brussels sprouts to add a layer of complexity. He even recommends salting sweets. "That salty-savory element makes your mouth fight in two directions and stimulates your palate," he says. "I'm a big fan."

Finally, if a home cook ever accidentally overdoes it on a dish, Kahan has the solution. "To take away the bite of the salt and dilute it, squeeze some lemon juice on it," he says. "Actually," he adds, "A squeeze of fresh lemon juice helps with just about anything."