PRESERVING FOOD WITH SALT

Salt is one of the most misunderstood ingredients of the culinary world. For the past sixty years, it has been engaged in an ongoing battle with its crystalline cousin, sugar. A battle it seems to have lost. But new research points to the fact that salt may be a lot healthier than we think – and it's without a doubt the best natural preservative out there.

Production and Photographs by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen

Words and Graphics by Hanfred Rauch

ADDING SALT TO THE CONVERSATION

Ah, salt. So infinitely useful yet deeply contentious. Very few substances have endured such scrutiny. In ancient Rome, salt was considered so valuable for its role in food preservation that it was used as currency. But over the past six decades, research demonising salt has soared, recently blaming it for 1.65 million annual deaths worldwide.

But according to new research conducted by leading cardiovascular research scientist, Dr. James Dinicolantonio, the vast majority of people don’t need to watch their salt intake. For his book, The Salt Fix, Dinicolantonio and his team reviewed over 500 publications to investigate its impact on blood pressure and heart disease. His conclusion was that salt had unfairly lost the battle against sugar as the main cause of these ailments.

In fact, he argues that too little salt can lead you to crave more sugar and refined carbs, can send the body into starvation mode, lead to weight gain and can even result in insulin resistance. Eating enough salt, on the other hand, can improve your sleep quality, energy levels, mental focus, fertility and even sexual performance.

So, how much salt should we eat? According to the World Health Organisation, the average person should consume between 1500 and 2000 milligrams of sodium per day. That’s about a teaspoon of table salt, of which 40% is sodium and 60% is chloride.

A Pinch of Science

The common belief is that salt kills bacteria, but in fact, salt doesn’t preserve food directly. Instead, it plays an important role in a fascinating process called, osmosis. It boils down to a simple give-and-take scenario. Salt draws out the moisture from whatever substance it comes into contact with – replacing the water molecules with salt molecules. The whole time this happens, the salt tries to reach an equilibrium with the salt content of the food.

Simply put, osmosis is a process of dehydration that inhibits microbial growth. Without water, no life can sustain itself – and since osmosis deprives a substance of water, it creates an environment in which bacteria struggles to grow. In other words, the higher the salt, the lower the bacteria. But be careful, too much salt can compromise the flavour of the dish.

Sugar works in exactly the same way, which is why all curing processes involve either salt or sugar as the key preservation agent. Additional preservation techniques can also be used, such as smoking or adding spices.

Fancy a Pickle?

Pickling or salting food is the most natural way to increase its lifespan. If done properly, you can make your food last for weeks – even months. There are two methods for pickling food – fermenting and curing. Both are equally effective methods of preserving food but differ in the following ways:

HOW TO PICKLE

brine

Before you start, here are a few things you need to consider about making brine:

  • Use enough water to completely cover the food you want to preserve.
  • It’s a fine balance. You need 10% salt to inhibit microbial growth, but the higher the salt concentration goes above 10%, the more detrimental its effects on the flavour, texture and structure of the food.
  • Choose your salt carefully – aim for good quality pickling salt or Kosher salt. Many table salts contain other, undesirable additives like iodine and are low on flavour. 
  • When preserving meat, use lean meat – salt can’t penetrate the fat, so it will go rancid quicker.
  • If you’ve cooked the meat you want to brine, allow it to cool first.
  • If you are planning on becoming your local village pickler, you might consider investing in a salometer to test the salt percentage in your brine, like the pro that you are.

Ingredients:

Different foods call for different strengths of brine. See the guide below for directions on how much salt to use:

How to pickle - by Hanfred Rauch@4x-100.jpg

At the end of this period, change the brine if you want to keep the food in the container. If you’d like to dry-cure it, drain the excess brine and cover the food in salt. To dry out protein, like meat or fish, cover it in salt and place in the oven at a low temperature.

References:

Alison Abrey, www.npr.com, August 2014

James Dinicolantonio, The Salt Fix, 2017

www.homepreservingbible.com

Ricardo Meggiato, www.finedininglovers.com, October 2014

Mickey Parish, www.scientificamerican.com

Sodiumbreakup.heart.org, July 2014

World Health Organisation, www.who.int, January 2013