Salt: why we can't live without it

Taking in matters of mouth and mind, we look at what salt has ever done for us and what life might be like if it wasn’t around

Figuring out salt’s role in our lives can be hard. It can’t be judged solely in a kitchen context, measured by teaspoons and pinches. Its significance goes way beyond factors of flavour – not only how salt affects our everyday cooking, but also its contribution to our cultures and impact on generations before us.

Take a daily view of the way we use salt and you see the sprinkles that separate cooks from good dishes and great ones. But zoom out and its wider influence comes into view. Salt is so much more than a vehicle on the road to deliciousness. For our ancestors (pre-refrigeration and year-round food production) it was a way of survival. Nothing else stalls the spread of bacteria quite like salt – it is the most effective natural preservative humanity has ever known.

Centuries on and the lay of our culinary land owes much to salt, with a brief global roll call of foods that wouldn’t be here were it not for salt’s preservative powers speaking volumes. There would be no cheese or much in the way of bread, cured meats and fish. The words miso, kimchi and sauerkraut would mean nothing to anybody, just a jumble of letters and mess of sounds.

This isn’t the only trick up salt’s sleeve. Take the magic of what happens when salt meets sweet. This is no fluke of the kitchen or soon-to-pass fad. To cut a long story short, salt contains a family of glucose transporters (SGLT) that transports glucose through our system and heightens our ability to notice sweetness.

The value of salt has always been high. Around 120 BC, Chinese Emperor Wu of Han decreed a monopoly on salt production so the government could keep control over its citizens. Later, during Roman rule, soldiers were paid in salt. The Latin word for salt, sal, is the origin of ‘salary’. And one way or another it’s also where salsa, sausage and sauce all derive from, as well as phrases like ‘worth one’s salt’.

Salt is equally important to our bodies. We are genetically engineered to crave sodium chloride, so much so that it’s an essential chemical we couldn’t live without. Over the course of our lives, our relationship with salt changes. The salt intake of our young needs to be monitored and kept to a minimum. When we exercise and sweat, it’s crucial to get salt back into our system quickly and readdress the balance. And the older we get, the harder we find it to detect salt (due to dying taste buds), so end up using more of the stuff.

Back to the everyday, and the question of how to use salt. Adopt the mantra of taste, taste, taste, and trust your instincts when cooking. Have confidence in deciding when it’s the right time to season with gusto or a restrained hand. Know that not all salts are equal – a teaspoon of table salt is much more than the equivalent in sea salt. And be sure to embrace what each different salt has to offer. Table salt is fastest to dissolve and best used early in the cooking process. Sea salt flakes bring bursts of crunch and can be used as a final flourish, while lesser-seen salts like black salt are a dream in South Asian cuisine.

Head to your nearest store to find chilli, garlic, black and natural salt flakes in the SpinneysFood range.