Dan Geltner is a consultant chef and executive chef at Montreal's SuWu. He began his culinary career two decades ago, right down the street from SuWu at the now-defunct Globe supper club under the tutelage of future Joe Beef chef and owner Dave McMillan. But he quickly embarked on a global journey that soon found him working in Michelin-starred kitchens like Château du Domaine St. Martin in France, and Bar Boulud in New York, all the while developing an interest in the more scientific and molecular side of cooking. He spoke to MUNCHIES about why one of the most simple ingredients can actually be one of the most complex.
A lot of young cooks nowadays are not into the science behind the simplest of things. And salting is the best example. Salt is a flavor enhancer. We need sodium chloride to survive, and built into us as human beings is a taste for salt. We need salt and our body looks for it.
Salt is the original refrigerator, in a way. Salt has the properties which allow you to preserve things for a really long time. By drawing moisture out of meats, for example, it dehydrates it and makes it hard for bacteria to survive. For things like charcuterie, the salt basically cooks the food and preserves the food.
And the flavor of salt is perceived differently depending on which ingredients it's paired with, so you have to adapt. A lot of fancier salts have these beautiful shapes, and the way they dissolve on your tongue creates a different perspective. It can change the way you taste something. Carbs like potatoes absorb salt.
Sugar and salt both create a rush of saliva in your mouth, which gives us the impression of deliciousness. Anything that makes your mouth water is perceived as deliciousness.
In our fried chicken dish, for example, we don't brine with buttermilk, like most chefs are taught to do. We brine it with lemon, salt, garlic, and fresh herbs, which gives it way more flavour than buttermilk. And you don't really need the acidity of buttermilk if you have the right amount of salt and lemon.
Generally with a steak, I won't season too long before before. Right before I sear, I'll use kosher salt because that forms a crust and it also keeps the meat from sticking to the pan. But then when it's done I'll slice the meat and put a finishing salt, a different kind of salt, on the open cut of the meat because they affect the flavour differently, because it dissolves slower on the tongue.
And in the salmon dish that we do, we use lemon and salt to cook the fish a little bit. We salt the fish a little bit before and what that does is it firms up the flesh a little and changes the texture.
There are big myths like salt will make water boil faster. A lot of grandmas say that. But the truth is that the reason why you put salt in cooking water, in pasta, for example, is to add flavor. It might affect the temperature, but you would have to put such an insane amount of salt to actually make a difference in the speed [of the water boiling]. And you're not even ingesting all of that salt you put in the water. You need to put enough salt in the water so that enough flavour comes through, and most people don't do that because they think it's for temperature. You have to know how to make the salt useful.
Sea salt is basically 99 percent sodium chloride with a little bit minerals from the sea inside it. But you would have to eat an insane amount of sea salt to get any kind of health benefits from it. It's really just a marketing tool, but people just blindly listen to these claims. And don't put expensive salt in the water because you're just dissolving the salt! It doesn't even matter if you put it in the water. We're often told that sea salt is healthier, [but people] don't ask, "Why is it healthier?" I love asking those questions, and I love researching.
I guess my biggest complaint is that cooks don't really challenge traditions. They learn early on that the chef tells them how it's done and it's the only way. The thing about the science of cooking, is that if you break it down like this, it takes the romance out of cooking for a lot of people. But I get as much enjoyment from understanding the reason why things work the way they do.
As told to Nick Rose.