Science of Salt

Last month, my oldest sister emailed me with the subject line "settle an argument":

"What does salt do to water?"

She went on to say that she and our mom were disagreeing on what happens to the boiling point of water that's salted, and whether the amount of energy it takes to reach that new boiling point increases or decreases.

"So we googled it," she wrote, "and found that salt increases the boiling point and that cooks add it to water make something cook more quickly. To me, this means: adding salt means you have to heat the water more for it to boil, taking longer for it to boil. But since the boiling point is raised, once you put pasta or rice or whatever in, you can cook it for less time than normal because the temp is higher."

Salt and Water
I replied as best I could, dodging the boiling point question, but trying to be as practical about it as possible:
"Cooks add salt to water to add saltiness to the food being made in that water. Pasta soaks in the saltiness from the water while it's cooking, for example. Same with rice.

There is/was a 'rule' in cooking that beans should never be cooked in salty water. The theory was the salt disrupted the cooking process, as the heated water slowly got into the different layers of the bean, and made the outermost layer tough. This theory has since been proven untrue, but some people still abide by the rule anyway and only salt their beans after they're finished cooking.

I also know that most cooks don't add salt to a pot of water until it's at the boil or nearly at the boil. This has nothing to do with boiling point, but rather is a way to keep your pots untarnished. If you put the salt in when the water is cold, it will settle to the bottom until the water boils, and for some kinds of metal, direct and prolonged exposure to salt can cause tarnishing.

When I drop salt into a nearly-boiling pot of water, there is usually a little explosion of more rapidly boiling water where the salt went it.

Does that help? I can look up the answer about the boiling point if you want, but this is what I know off the top of my head.

Can I blog about this?

Do you know there is a non-fiction book Salt about the history of salt?"

A few days later, I picked up the Salt book. Right in the introduction, it quotes the Diamond Crystal Salt Company's booklet called "One Hundred and One Uses for Diamond Crystal Salt," citing one of the uses as "getting more heat out of boiled water."

To recapitulate, when salt is added to water, the boiling point rises, meaning it takes more energy to reach the boiling point, but food cooks faster because the water is hotter than 212F.

Salt and Oil
Another neat fact I read not long ago has to do with salt and oil, specifically frying oil (from How to Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science). When frying food, it's a bad idea to put salt into the fry batter. When it hits the hot oil, the salt will drop out of the batter and cause the oil to break down faster. Ideally, food should be salted before being dipped in batter, and often a second time after it comes out of the oil.

Salt and Beans
To return to the issue of cooking beans in salted water, here's what Russ Parsons says in How to Ready a French Fry: "One common myth is that beans should never be salted before cooking because that toughens the skins. Not only is there no scientific evidence for this, but practical experience says otherwise as well. Actually, salting before cooking has no effect on cooking, it is seasoned through, allowing you to use less salt than if it were added afterward. Furthermore, many of the same recipes that claim it's necessary to hold back on salt until the beans are soft call for cooking beans with salt pork or bacon: an obvious contradiction" (pp. 158-9).

However, Parsons also says that beans cook best when one starts with cool water and leaves the pot in the oven rather than on the range top so that a the heat is steadier and more easily controlled. Maybe it's possible that cooking the beans in salted water is a problem because the water can reach too high a temperature. Maybe that's how the old wives' tale originated.

Kitchen Gadgets: From Mundane to Inventive

Last week, Boyfriend and I hung out with two friends who are from the U.K. and Argentina, an adorable couple who are engaged to be married this fall. They recently moved into a great, big, new apartment in Manhattan, but they have yet to furnish it.

We took them out to Chelsea Piers to the batting caging. Seeing as they are not American, they've hit very few baseball or softballs in their lives, and I got a kick out of hearing our British friend say things like, "Jolly good! The one surely would have been a home slam!"

After hitting balls, we walked around the Chelsea Markets and talked about how they planned to decorate their apartment, what kinds of things they needed to buy, and so on. It turns out, they need, essentially, everything, and they've been shopping and looking for furniture, kitchen goods, and other housewares for days on end.

Jar and Spigot
They described to us something they had seen in a store, a contraption that believed to be one of those highly unnecessary American kitchen tools that takes up a ton of space and does little else. They said it a was a big glass jar with a spigot, and god only knew why anyone would need one.

"That's a sun tea jar," I told them. "You fill it with cold water, add a few tea bags, and the tea brews with sunlight."

This was as foreign to them as baseball.

"Or," they improvised, "you could fill it with alcohol."

Cheese, Please
About a week before this outing, we had friends in town from Norway. They brought us a barrage of extremely generous gifts, one of which they said, "any six-year old Norwegian could identify as the national invention." It was a cheese slicer, the kind that looks like a pie server but has a rectangular slit in the widest part with a razor-sharp edge. You drag the razor edge along the wedge of cheese, and a lovely slice is produced on the server.

Boyfriend loves using it, though I feel like it slows me down. I'd rather just cut all my slices before sitting down to eat, or before arranging a cheese plate.

Cryogenic Trash?
The cheese slicer and the sun tea jar are both very low-tech kitchen gadgets, which I truly appreciate. I'm the kind of cook who will use (and in fact was taught to use) a mayonnaise jar filled with ice water to roll out pie crust rather than a wood rolling pin. I'll improvise a cookie cutter out of nearly anything within reach. Almost everything in my kitchen is a multi-purpose tool. But there's a new uni-purpose, high-tech gadget in development that I have my eye on: the Minus Frozen Garbage Container.

It's a small trash can that freezes the contents. Unfortunately, it's only in concept phase, not on the market. One of the advertised purposes is to keep critters out of your trash, though why not just buy a canister with a very tight-fitting lid if rodents and insects are the problem? But the major reason to have one of these puppies is to freeze compost material.

Over the winter, I tried to keep a compost bucket in the fridge -- in addition to a bag of vegetable-only scraps that I use to make broth. I intended to take the compost to one of the green markets in New York because I had read that many farmers will accept compost right at their stands. This seemed like a brilliant idea.

It started with egg shells and some odds and ends that I didn't want in my vegetable broth, like red cabbage leaves, fennel fronds, eggplant tops. Then I started chucking in the coffee grounds and filter paper. Then banana peels. Then leaves from my houseplants. Then chicken bones.

One small plastic bag grew to two. "I'll take them this weekend," I said to myself.

But "this weekend" turned into "never," and the bags started to ferment and leak. But rather than throw it all away (surely I was going to take it to the farmers next weekend), I moved the two plastic bags to a giant bowl, covered it, and left it in the bottom of the fridge for a few more weeks. It took up more than half of the bottom shelf of my fridge.

When I gave in and admitted to myself that this composting plan was never going to fully mature, I waited until trash day and threw out the bags, which had to be triple-bagged to contain the leakage and more importantly, the smell.

Certainly, I could just freeze my compost scraps in the freezer, but the idea of keeping trash near food really isn't appealing to most people. And freezer space can be scarce, as I already have buckets upon buckets of stock, tomato sauce, ends of loaves of bread, and three bags of chicken skins and fat (for my friend who makes gribenes). A dedicated freezer bucket would be a perfect solution, though I'm concerned about how much energy it would eat up. Maybe one might save their compost in the fridge until the bag swells to a considerable size and then move it to the Minus can, leaving it unplugged until the time it's needed.

What Do You Feed a Visiting Baby? Chicken Cacciatore?

We have friends coming to visit tomorrow and their bringing their 15-month old baby.

Today, I went to the grocery store to make sure we had some food in the house for when they're here. I am notoriously bad at keeping food in the house for guests. (Boyfriend would argue that I'm notoriously bad at keeping food in the house period. I have high anxiety when there are too many perishable goods. "Quick! We have to eat all that kale before it wilts! Hurry!")

Luckily, we live in a neighborhood with enough bakeries, delis, bodegas, and produce markets that in a pinch, we can always run out and grab something to nosh. But I was stumped on what to put in the house for the baby.

On the one hand, I don't want to buy anything that the little guy is not going to eat. It would be absurd to stock up on zwieback and instant baby food rice porridge. On the other hand, we really should have something suitable at the ready in case he's cranky.

We have a package of crackers, so that's a start. There are a bunch of bananas, though some of them are still quite green. Should I buy Cheerios? Babies love Cheerios. But what if he's got some kind of food allergy that I don't know about.

I realize that often what I think is a "problem" is not in fact a problem, like having to throw out four leaves of kale. That is not a problem. Feeding this baby is not a problem. I'm sure his mom and dad will bring snacks.

Still, shouldn't I make something?

My solution was to cook a huge batch of chicken cacciatore. If he doesn't like that, he can eat the green bananas.

Chicken Cacciatore (American style)
2 pounds chicken pieces, skin and fat removed (thighs, drumsticks, breasts)
1 cup flour
2 cups canola oil
1 tablespoon diced pancetta
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock (or water, or a combination of water and stock)
1 tablespoon capers
4 sprigs fresh thyme (for Maremma-style cacciatore, use rosemary)
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Heat oil in a large skillet, Dutch oven, or deep fryer over medium heat until it reaches a frying temperature. To test this, stick a chopstick or wood skewer into the oil and press it against the bottom of the pan. If a few small bubbles rise, the oil is ready. If many bubbles rise very quickly, lower the heat a bit, wait three or four minutes, and then test again.

Stir together flour and salt in a shallow bowl.

Dredge chicken pieces in flour and shake off excess. Fry chicken in batches, turning as it browns. Set aside on paper towel.

When all the chicken has been fried, set a Dutch oven or deep and heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until it is fragrant. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds. Pour in the crushed tomatoes. Nestle the chicken pieces into the tomato sauce. Add stock or water to barely cover the chicken. Drop in the thyme sprigs, parsley, and capers, and stir gently to lower them into the sauce. Lower to a simmer. Cook partially covered about 30 minutes. Remove thyme sprigs before serving.

Recipes and Communication

I think the world is changing rapidly, mostly in response to technology, but in ways that are unexpected.

As a writer and editor, I primarily think about the way communication, reading, and writing have changed. And while the various ways that we communicate have changed drastically (the "how" of communication), why we communicate has evolved, too. We check in, keeps tabs, send updates, and announce our states of being through text messages, Facebook, Twitter, IM, and so on.

I think the same can be said for how we communicate recipes. It's funny to me to watch the pendulum of trends swing. Years ago, there were no standards of weights and measures, so recipes would literally call for a "teacup" or a "spoonful" or a "good pinch." But once standardization happened, recipe writers and editors became obsessed with precision, noting not just how much of this or that to add, and what temperature to achieve, but also the exact dimensions of the pan, how to save leftovers and for how long, and with what to serve the food. If you think about it, that's really overboard, though I'm sure many of us have become used to it to the point that we expect those details to be given.

Now, with new forms of shorthand and new levels of informality taking over (what's more informal than getting "poked" by your uncle on Facebook?), recipe writers are testing the waters for how loose and free-wheeling they can be, too. Narrative cookbooks are just starting to regain popularity -- didn't Jacqes Pepin write a narrative cook book not long ago?

On blogs, I've noticed people often share recipes for different reasons today than they might have in the past. Bloggers will write about a personal emotional experience or memory to set up a recipe, rather than share a recipe simply because they think it's really tasty.

As multi-taskers, we digest written recipes differently now, too (I'm even writing this post while listening in on a non-critical webinar).

I've been editing a cook book that's in development and have been pleasantly surprised to see how different people respond to imprecise recipes. I asked some friends to help me try out the untested recipes before they're edited. So far, one person was abhorred, one gave me feedback that was full of short-hand suggestions, another went into deep detail about exactly everything that happened and everything that needed adjustment.

What will be interesting, from a publishing perspective, is whether printed cook books will be differentiated or whether they will go across the range from informal to formal, as is happening on the web.