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Salt, simply put humans cannot live without it. It is an agent for moving oxygen throughout the blood stream, it helps maintain the fluid in our blood cells, is used to transmit information in our nerves and muscles, and is found in almost every part of the human body. Our biological dependence on salt has fed an ancient thriving trade, wars have been waged, cities built and destroyed near its veins and waters. The Roman armies were paid in salt and it was the Basques’ discovery in the 11th century that salt-cured cod lasted longer that allowed them to sail further from port to discover new lands.
With the advent of mass refrigeration the uses of salt have changed a bit but our dependence on it has naturally remained the same. We use many types of sodium chloride in food processing, cooking or at the table, both at home and in restaurants. Besides contributing a basic “salty” taste, salt brings out natural flavors and makes foods acceptable, protects food safety by retarding the growth of spoilage microorganisms, gives proper texture to processed foods, serves as a control agent to regulate the rate of fermentation in food processing, strengthens gluten in bread, provides the color, aroma and appearance consumers expect and is used to create the gel necessary to process meats and sausages. As a result, more heavily processed foods usually contain more sodium and salt. Many countries’ food labeling regulations include sodium. The world’s great chefs appreciate salt’s many culinary benefits, including surprising applications like salt in desserts. Salt should be part of every family’s food storage program.
Beyond nutrition, people use sodium chloride for several necessary functions in food processing and cooking, including:
Salt preserves foods by creating a hostile environment for certain microorganisms. Within foods, salt brine dehydrates bacterial cells, alters osmotic pressure and inhibits bacterial growth and subsequent spoilage. Salting fish made long-range explorations possible in the age of sailing ships.
Salt strengthens gluten in bread dough, providing uniform grain, texture and dough strength. With salt present, gluten holds more water and carbon dioxide, allowing the dough to expand without tearing. Salt improves the tenderness in cured meats such as ham by promoting the binding of water by protein. It also gives a smooth, firm texture to processed meats. Salt develops the characteristic rind hardness in cheese and helps produce a desirable, even consistency.
Salt helps extract the proteins in processed and formed meats, providing binding strength between adjacent pieces of meat. Water binding properties are increased and, as a result, cooking losses are reduced. Salt increases the solubility of muscle proteins in water. In sausage making, stable emulsions are formed when the salt-soluble protein solutions coat the finely-formed globules of fat, providing a binding gel consisting of meat, fat and moisture.
In baked products, salt controls fermentation by retarding and controlling the rate of fermentation, important in making a uniform product. During pickle making, salt brine is gradually increased in concentration, reducing the fermentation rate as the process proceeds to completion. Salt is also used to control fermentation in making cheese, sauerkraut and summer sausage.
Salt promotes the development of color in ham, bacon, hotdogs and sauerkraut. Used with sugar and nitrate or nitrite, salt produces a color in processed meats which consumers find appealing. Salt enhances the golden color in bread crust by reducing sugar destruction in the dough and increasing caramelization.