Is Salt A Spice?

Salt is not a spice. Spices are derived from the bark, root, stem, seed, or fruit of a plant, while salt is a mineral. Salt is obtained from mines and evaporated ocean water and is primarily composed of sodium chloride. It is a widely used seasoning but is not considered a spice or herb, as both of these are obtained from plants

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Spices are from the bark, root, stem, seed or fruit of a plant. Herbs are the leaves of the plant. Seasoning is using a combination of herbs and spices to flavor a dish. Salt is actually a mineral, it is not a spice or a herb because it does not loss it's flavor over time.

Answered from Christa

Is Salt A Seasoning Or A Spice?

As a home cook trying to understand how to use salt in cooking properly, you may be wondering – is salt a spice, or is it something else entirely? This is a common question, since we tend to group salt with the other jars of spices and dried herbs in our pantries.

But it has a different origin and properties than botanical spices, so whether or not it qualifies as one is up for debate. This FAQ guide will clear up the uncertainty around salt's classification and culinary usage.

Table of Contents

  • What are spices?
  • Does salt fit the botanical definition of a spice?
  • Why is salt commonly grouped and used as a spice?
  • What are some key differences between salt and spices?
  • When is salt added in the cooking process?
  • What are some spice blends and dishes that rely on salt?
  • How can I use salt appropriately as a seasoning?

What are spices?

Spices are dried parts of plants that are used to add flavor, color, aroma and preservation to foods. They come from roots, barks, seeds, berries, fruits and flowers of plants. Common examples include cinnamon (from bark), paprika (from peppers), cumin (from seeds) and saffron (from flower stamens). Spices can be used whole or ground into powder. Their flavors come from essential oils and other plant compounds.

Herbs are also used to season food, but come from the fresh or dried leaves of plants. Think basil, oregano, rosemary. Herbs have a more delicate flavor than spices and are added at the end of cooking.

So the key characteristics of botanical spices are:

  • Come from parts of plants other than leaves
  • Add flavor, aroma, color
  • Are dried for preservation
  • Contain essential oils and robust flavors

Does salt fit the botanical definition of a spice?

No, salt does not fit the strict botanical definition of a spice. True spices originate from dried plant materials. Salt's geological origins are very different:

  • Salt consists of the mineral sodium chloride.
  • It's obtained by mining and evaporating sources of salt water, like oceans, salt lakes or underground salt deposits.
  • Salt mines and salt pans have produced salt for thousands of years.
  • The main types of salt are sea salt (from ocean water), table salt (finely ground with additives), Himalayan pink salt (from ancient salt mines) and kosher salt (coarsely ground).
  • Salt cannot be classified as a herb either, since it does not come from the leafy parts of a plant.

So salt is a mineral compound, not a botanical product. This means that by definition, it is not technically a spice. But it functions as one in cooking…

Why is salt commonly grouped and used as a spice?

Though not a botanical spice, salt is still universally considered a foundational spice in culinary usage. Here are some reasons why salt is thought of and used like a spice:

  • It brings out flavor. Like spices, salt enhances and improves the taste of foods. It suppresses bitterness, amplifies sweetness and makes flavors “pop”. This flavor-enhancing ability is a hallmark of spices.
  • It is added during cooking. Salt is primarily used as an ingredient added during preparation to season a dish, just as spices are. This sets it apart from table condiments.
  • It is versatile. Salt seasons everything from meat to desserts, across diverse cuisines. Such broad usage and versatility also characterize spices.
  • It is routinely grouped with spices. Salt is found alongside spices in the grocery store, included in spice mixes and blends and placed on the table with other spices. This signals its close association with spices in practice.

So in terms of its seasoning functionality, salt is handled like a spice in both professional and home kitchens. Even though it does not originate from a plant, its culinary usage aligns closely with spices.

What are some key differences between salt and spices?

While salt and spices share some commonalities in use, there are also differences that set them apart:

  • Source. As covered earlier, the geological versus botanical origins differ. Spices come from plant parts, salt comes from mineral deposits.
  • Flavor profile. Spices like cinnamon, turmeric and cumin have unique, complex flavors. Salt tastes purely salty. Its contribution is the elemental taste of sodium chloride, rather than a distinctive flavor mix.
  • Role in food preservation. Salt is heavily used in food preservation, like in curing meat or pickling. Most spices do not significantly aid preservation. Their antimicrobial abilities are more minor than salt's.
  • Shelf life. Spices lose flavor over time due to fading essential oils. Dry salt maintains its pure salty taste indefinitely without spoiling.

So in summary, salt differs from spices in origins, flavor complexity, preservative abilities and shelf stability. But it can still function as a spice.

When is salt added in the cooking process?

  • Early: Salt should be added early on when cooking many foods. Sprinkling it on meat before cooking draws out moisture and enhances tenderness. Adding early in dishes like stews, sauces and doughs allows it to infuse the whole dish evenly.
  • To taste: Finishing or garnishing dishes with a pinch of salt right before serving can also heighten and adjust flavor. This light seasoning at the end ensures the dish is not under-salted.
  • Avoid late: Heavily salting late in the cooking process can lead to uneven distribution in a dish, since there is less time for it to absorb and diffuse through the ingredients.
  • Baking: Salt needs enough time to dissolve when baking, so it should be added at the beginning. Yeast doughs need salt to control the fermentation rate as well.

The appropriate salt timing depends on the dish and ingredients. But like spices, it generally goes in early during preparation or to taste right at the end.

What are some spice blends and dishes that rely on salt?

-Mixed spice blends: Salt appears alongside spices in many blended seasonings. Garam masala, jerk seasoning, herbes de Provence, cajun seasoning, ras el hanout and many more include salt to balance and bring out the spices' flavors.

-Sauces: Soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and other condiments need salt for their characteristic umami, fermented flavors.

-Baked goods: Cookies, cakes, breads – salt subtly enhances sweet flavors and interacts with baking soda and yeast in the dough or batter.

-Cured meats: Salt curing is integral to products like ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef and pastrami.

-Pickled foods: Salt and spices together preserve and flavor vegetables, fruits, and eggs in pickling brines.

-Salted caramel: This beloved sweet treat depends on the interplay of saltiness and caramelized sugar.

In all these cases, salt works hand in hand with spices, enhancing their impact.

How can I use salt appropriately as a seasoning?

Here are some tips for effectively using salt as a spice in your everyday cooking:

  • Know typical amounts. Recipes give a helpful guide, but you'll want to learn seasoned amounts. Use about 1 teaspoon per pound of meat, or 1-2 teaspoons for 6 cups of vegetables.
  • Taste as you go. Don't just dump in salt at the start – add some, taste, and adjust as needed. Salting to taste as you cook gives you control.
  • Use your fingers. Pinching salt between your fingers allows you to sprinkle and evenly distribute just the right amount quickly.
  • Combine with other seasonings. Pair salt with herbs, spices, garlic, citrus etc. to develop deep, balanced flavors.
  • Consider finishing salts. Flaky sea salts, smoked salts, flavored salts – explore specialty salts to use as finishing touches. They add pops of texture and taste.
  • Mind your salt types. While salt is salt, the grind size, mineral content and humidity-resistance of types like kosher and sea salt will affect how they season food. So adjust accordingly.

With practice, you'll gain an intuition for skillfully using salt to elevate flavors just like your other spices. Pay attention as you cook and you'll hone the knack through experience.

So, in summary, while not a true botanical spice, salt is absolutely considered a foundational spice in the kitchen due to its integral role in seasoning and accentuating the flavor of food. Humbly indispensable, this mined mineral occupies a category of its own in the spice drawer.

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