Behind the ingredient: Kosher salt

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If you cook from American blogs or cookbooks, you may have come across recipes that specify ‘kosher salt’. You might have wondered how this is different from other salt, and what on earth is it that makes it kosher?

What is Kosher Salt?

Kosher salt
Kosher salt

In fact, not all kosher salt *is* kosher; it refers most often to koshering salt, i.e. salt for koshering meat, by drawing out the blood. This means that the critical difference between table salt and kosher salt has nothing to do with Rabbis, and everything to do with the shape of the salt grains.

Kosher salt is usually shaped as square or pyramid shapes, instead of the cube-shaped grains of table salt. This is produced either from evaporation (the same process as most sea salt) or by compressing the salt grains to produce flat flakes.

The biggest reason why American chefs love to use kosher salt is that it is much easier to pick up between your fingers and thus gives you tighter control over your seasoning. It sticks to your fingers less than table salt and is easier to sprinkle by hand into an even layer over meat or vegetables. If you’re dissolving the salt into water to cook vegetables or pasta, it makes no difference what you use – table salt is just as good.

How much salt to use

The other effect of the shape of the flakes is that it takes up much more volume for a given weight.

My measurements (on a scale that only measures to the nearest 2 grams):

You can see that 1 teaspoon of kosher salt weighs about half the amount of a teaspoon of table salt, so if you’re using a recipe that calls for kosher salt, you need to use about half as much table salt to get the same effect.

I was really surprised that the sea salt and table salt were a very similar density. Despite having similar sized flakes, the sea salt and kosher salt pack very differently, because of their different shapes (see below). This explains the problem I had with the Hot Bread Kitchen challah recipe (see here) – I had assumed that the sea salt would be similar enough to kosher salt, but in fact I added about twice as much as I should!

Kosher salt
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Sea salt
Saxa fine sea salt

Which salt to use when:

Sprinkling over meat or veg before cooking – I would use kosher salt or inexpensive sea salt here – it’s easier to distribute it evenly without oversalting things. For meat, it generally makes sense to salt in advance to help draw out water and concentrate the flavour of the meat. This might mean an hour ahead for a steak, or up to 24 hours in advance for a whole chicken or a joint of meat. It has the added advantage of drying out the surface a little, which will help to give you crispy chicken skin or pork crackling.

Table salt
Table salt

Dissolving in cooking water – use fine table salt for this, something cheap. Once salt is dissolved into water, it doesn’t really matter what shape it was in to start with. Bear in mind that it’s particularly important to season water that is used to cook something like pasta, which will absorb the cooking water. For vegetables, you can often get away with seasoning after they are cooked.

Baking – if you want to mix the salt into the dough or batter, then table salt is probably a good choice – you want something fine that will mix in evenly. If you use sea salt or kosher salt, make sure the flakes are nice and fine before mixing in.

Sprinkling over food – this is where those more expensive salts are worth using. Maldon or Fleur de Sel have big, crunchy flakes that add texture to the surface of a crust of bread, the surface of a steak or the top of a brownie. The contrast between the burst of salt from a big, crunchy flake can be really exciting, but is lost if it’s added too far ahead and just dissolves.

Maldon salt
Maldon salt
Fleur de Sel de Guerande
Fleur de Sel de Guerande

More about Kosher Salt:

Serious Eats – Do I Need to Use Kosher Salt

The Kitchn – Kosher salt – where it comes from and why it’s called kosher

 

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Sunday food links – 21 August 2016

Nectarine almond tart

The haphazard nature of this week’s meals is a good indication that this week’s meal plan didn’t really come together. Still, I’ve been working on getting myself a bit more organised, and this week’s staycation should give me a chance to get a bit ahead on that front.

We have been making the most of the stone fruit, a really lovely Charentais melon, and lots of tomatoes (even a small handful from the garden).

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Nectarine almond tart – using up the last of the almond cream
  • Roast chicken, with a loosely interpreted Zuni bread salad, featuring spinach and currants
  • Bought fish pie for us, fish fingers and chips for E, peas and corn on the cob
  • Grilled chicken, marinated in lemon, yoghurt, garlic and sumac – with hummus, pita bread.
  • Burrito bowls – leftover pork and beans, roasted tomatoes and courgettes, leftover avocado, corn on the cob
  • Sausages, roasted courgette and tomato salad with freekeh, bread rolls
  • Tomato pasta

Reading:

I have become increasingly interested (some might say obsessed, ahem) with getting myself organised. This mostly consists of using my bullet journal to put a bit more thought into what I plan to do each day. As I’ve nearly filled up journal #1, I’ve been reflecting on what has worked and what to change as I start joiurnal #2.

In this vein, I’ve got a lot from the following books, articles and podcasts in the last few weeks:

Sunday food links – 14 August 2016


I went for my first run in a couple of weeks this morning, and coming past the mulberry trees in the park, noticed there were a lot of ripe ones, which was enough to make me adjust the route to double back and pick them at the end.

A few minutes and many stained fingers later, I hve a very small bag of mulberries. I don’t have much time to deal with them today, so other than snacking on a few, I will freeze them, and hope to  make jam with them when I have picked some more in a few days.

My Riverford delivery this week contained tomatillos, sweetcorn and coriander, and sparked a few Mexican-inspired meals. A wahaca meal kit to make chipotle roast chicken pieces, with tomatillo salsa and sweetcorn; and then smitten kitchen carnitas, in the slow cooker, with the leftover salsa and pinto beans.

Recipes:

  • Apricot tart – for French potluck lunch at work – a hybrid recipe of Bread Ahead shortcrust pastry + Richard Bertinet almond cream + quartered Natoora French apricots, all baked and then glazed with a little apricot jam and honey
  • Wahaca tomato and smoky chipotle taco meal kit – more about them here
  • Homesick Texan carnitas, via Smitten Kitchen
  • Green beans with freekeh and tahini – from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More
  • Milk bread – my recipe here
  • Justin Gellatly sourdough – Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding
  • Slow-roasted carrots – Five O’Clock Apron

Without a recipe:

  • Chicken stir fry with sugar snap peas and pointed cabbage
  • Lamb kofte (from freezer) with rice, yoghurt and slow-roast carrots (above)
  • Burgers with tomato salad, green bean salad (above) and roast carrots
  • Spinach and ricotta cannelloni (from the freezer)

Reading:

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Sunday food links – 7 August 2016

This was one of those weeks where it was tempting to do nothing but grumble about the British summer: grey skies, occasional rain, and only the warmer nights and Summer-holiday-quiet London commute to remind you that this is August and not April.

But summer definitely returned this weekend, and we made the most of it, with tomato salads, ice-cream cones and meals outside.

Recipes:

  • Pork shoulder ragu from Dinner: A Love Story with homemade tagliatelle (Sunday night dinner)
  • Gateau au yaourt with lemon – Chocolate and Zucchini
  • Anna Jones: Sweet potato quinoa bowls – liberally adapted this, keeping the sweet potato, coconut cream and chickpeas, but adding in shredded cold roast chicken and chicken gravy with shredded cabbage as the greens. No need for quinoa or rice – just a bit of naan on the side to dip into the coconut sauce. One of my favourite templates for a weeknight dinner – this was on the dinner in about 10 minutes.

Without a recipe:

  • Tacos: shredded pork, avocado, creme fraiche, lettuce, cheese
  • Pork ragu and pasta
  • Chicken curry – leftover roast chicken + Spice Tailor sauce + boiled potatoes, cherry toms and peas

Reading:

 

Sunday food links – 31 July 2016

Almost time for a new month. I've gone simple for the monthly log this time. #bujo #bulletjournal

I’ve been all out of kilter this week. Things have been undersalted or oversalted. I’ve forgotten keys, books, cakes. I’ve mismeasured ingredients and forgotten pans. Something isn’t right. I have tried to reset myself by getting out for a couple of runs, more for the solitude than the exercise. And setting up some pages for the start of August in my bullet journal. Here’s hoping that puts things to rest for next week.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Baked cod with breadcrumbs, chips and carrot, cabbage and daikon slaw
  • Pasta with pesto
  • Cheese, challah toast and jam (yes, it’s dinner – don’t judge)
  • Black bean and cheese quesadillas

Reading (and listening):

Reading has mainly been Gretchen Rubin’s ‘Better than Before‘ and Rachael Lucas’s second novel ‘Wildflower Bay‘. Not much time for articles this week, but there was one standout podcast:

The Kitchen Sisters produce a brilliant Radiotopia podcast called Fugitive Waves. The episode I listened to this week is a brilliant example of what they do so well. It combines an interview with George Foreman about his childhood, and how he became ‘King of the Grill’ with stories of people in shelters and hostels using his grill to cook when they don’t have access to a kitchen.
Fugitive Waves Ep #50 – An Unexpected Kitchen: The George Foreman Grill

Oxford Food Symposium – for those curious about food

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I’m not sure I properly thought it through when I registered for a rare weekend away from little E, and chose to spend it hearing about and eating offal. It’s now been two weeks since I returned from my first visit to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, this year on the subject of ‘Offal: Rejected and Reclaimed Foods’. It’s definitely not the subject I would have chosen for my first visit, but despite my ambivalence for ‘variety meats’, it was a fascinating and really enjoyable weekend. I found a really welcoming community who love food, but more than that are really curious about it. Started by Alan Davidson, the legendary food writer and researcher who compiled the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food, it has grown over the last 37 years from a small gathering of mostly friends to a diverse group of 200 encompassing a huge range of ages and nationalities.

Some of the highlights of the weekend for me (with apologies for dreadful photography):

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  • Thomas Eagle (above) from Darsham Nurseries, giving a really thoughtful and reflective talk about food waste, featuring his own cavolo nero stalk kimchi.
  • Paul Rozin’s barnstorming talk about food and disgust, giving a tour through some of the psychology behind our aversion to some foods, and the different factors that cause it.

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  • Fuschia Dunlop on duck tongues (above), and describing all the different ways that the Chinese take pleasure in food that mean that foods we might consider offal are transformed into rare and exciting delicacies. I have a particular affection for all the Chinese terms for food textures, a far wider range of descriptions than we have access to in English.
  • Benjamin Wurgaft’s thoughtful discussion of laboratory-grown meat, and the philosophy of our reactions and discussions of it.

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  • Jennifer McLagan’s passionate enthusiasm for getting blood into home kitchens, through home-made blood sausage, blood meringues, blood brownies and more. I can’t say I was entirely convinced, but I admire her passion for the subject!

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  • Amanda Couch’s brilliant and unforgettable ‘performance’ of liver divination as an after-dinner activity, combining scholarly descriptions of the meaning of ‘reading’ the liver in the ancient world with a very hands-on approach to offal!

There were also a series of lunches and dinners that never failed to leave me stuffed, unable to resist just a little of everything. Some of my favourite dishes from the multi-course menus:

  • Jacob Kenedy’s mushroom risotto – perfectly rich and savoury
  • Jacob Kenedy’s Grandfather’s balls – featherlight deep-fried ricotta with candied orange and chocolate
  • Tongue with carrots and cream sauce – sublime comfort food from Fergus Henderson
  • Bread Ahead’s bread pudding – rich, dense and heavy with spices

Mostly my reflection on the weekend is that it is rare to find such a diverse group of people who are so interested in the details of food – how it tastes, where it comes from, what it means in different cultures. Food is so pervasive in British culture now – so many books, so many TV shows, so many celebrity chefs – that it would be easy to think that these people are everywhere. But being interested in making your ‘signature dish’, or critiquing Masterchef from the sofa, or meal planning for the week aren’t the same thing. It’s not that these are bad, or ‘lesser’ interests – I think there was actually very little food snobbery on display at the weekend. If I could put my finger on the difference, it was that this is  a group of people who start with food. When they look at a Renaissance painting, they see the food on the table. When they examine history, they want to know what’s happening in the kitchens of the palaces and homes. When they think about travelling around the world, they think in terms of regional specialities, and hidden recipes (as Claudia Roden does). They see the world through the lens of what we eat, how it is made, who grows it and who prepares it.

And it’s not that this is a distorted point of view – it’s genuinely a worthwhile perspective to take. Food is what we share. Some argue that cooking is what defines us as humans. Food connects us to the growing of food, how we cultivate the land, what we do with the waste, the carbon we generate, the seas we fish. It’s in everything. I found it exhilerating but also comforting to be surrounded by these people. And I hope I can go back next year.

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Sunday food links – 24 July 2016

Brilliant afternoon @osterleynt doing some vegetable gardening and admiring the flowers

So this was the week that summer arrived – finally – in England. And it seemed to bring weeks of pent up sunshine at once. From cool and grey, we went directly to scorching days and sticky, humid nights. It felt appropriate to eat from Mexico and India, in this heat. There was the first tomato from the garden, and our giant sunflower burst out into flower. We spent the afternoon at Osterley Park on Friday, digging in their garden, and admiring their gorgeous cutting garden (well, I was anyway).

Recipes:

  • Hot Bread Kitchen Traditional Challah (and burger buns) – this recipe called for Kosher salt, and they must use a very flaky brand, as mine was radically oversalted. I made up a second batch of unsalted dough and mixed them together to rescue it, and so made burger buns as well as the loaf.
  • Wholewheat chapattis – from Hot Bread Kitchen, but then needed lots of extra flour to make something that would roll out
  • Mum’s chicken curry from Meera Sodha’s Made in India
  • Indian-spiced grilled chicken from Diana Henry’s A Bird in the Hand with chapattis, yoghurt raita and kachumbar.
  • Gateau au Yaort from Chocolate & Zucchini – with chocolate chips. Baking with yoghurt post coming soon
  • Chili Lime Fish Tacos from Pinch of Yum

Without a recipe:

  • Baked salmon with asian flavours, over rice with broccoli
  • Chicken and black beans from the freezer, with avocado
  • Leftover sausage pasta with broccoli

Reading:

Sunday food links – 17 July 2016

Birthday book haul

It must have been a busy week, because I have very few food links to add, haven’t cooked from recipes until this weekend, and have almost no photos taken in the last week! Perhaps because it was a week full of capital-N News at work, and it was my first week back to four days for a while. But it has been a good week nonetheless.

I cleared out a few cookbooks on Friday, in preparation for more books arriving for my birthday (see the haul above!). As I browsed the (admittedly, overloaded) bookshelves to identify my little-used ones, there are so many that contain more than recipes – they are little time capsules. I hold onto these books because they can take me back to the point where I bought and first read them. Some are signed, by authors or by friends. Some I re-read and love the writing every time. Some I keep as references, because I know that even if I don’t consult them very often, they can answer questions that other books just can’t.

One of the talks at the Food Symposium last weekend was on editing Wikipedia. Cooking, in common with other areas that interest women, is under-represented, and women authors particularly. Despite all the scientific pretence we use around food, much is still unknown and undocumented, which makes holding onto great food books all the more satisfying.

Recipes:

Three(!) birthday cakes:

Without a recipe:

  • Pesto – spinach, basil, pistachio, almond, pecorino and parmesan
  • Pasta with courgette, broccoli and pesto
  • Cappelleti with pesto
  • Cappelleti with roast tomatoes and creme fraiche
  • (and a rare restaurant meal: lunch at Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House in Soho)
  • Mum catering: Roast chicken, and baked fish
  • Sausages with tomato bread salad
  • Lamb kofte (from the freezer) with rice, yoghurt and Five O’Clock Apron slow-roast carrots

Reading:

Sunday food links – 10 Jul 2016

Very pleased with this filo pie for work team lunch today. Much less effort than the little borek I was planning! Filling is from @5oclockapron - spinach and halloumi.

I’m writing this on the train, returning to London after two days at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I first came across this meeting a few years ago, on twitter I think, when I noticed some of the food writers that I follow discussing some fascinating food topics. It seemed that some of the most interesting people in food were there, and I was curious. This year, I was determined to invest in a ticket and see what it was all about.

The theme of this year’s symposium, offal, isn’t one that particularly interested me, but I found many of the discussions fascinating despite this. Above all, it was an amazing experience to be adopted into what is clearly a very strong community of friends and novices, bound together by a common affection for food and eating. The atmosphere was quite different from any other conference or meeting I’ve been part of. A huge range of ages, from 18 to 92, I think, as well as nationalities and cultures, but all encompassing such common ground in our esteem for food and its place in culture and society.

My head and my notepad are full of ideas and questions. My bag is full of new books (oops). And I really feel part of a warm and welcoming community now. I’m going to do my best to think of something to submit as a paper for next year’s symposium, so I can return.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Fish finger tacos – a very inauthentic version of fish tacos, with the slaw below, sweetcorn and cherry toms.
  • Carrot slaw – grated carrot, sliced cucumber, and spring onions, dressed with yoghurt, lime and salt. Very successful for something made up.
  • Hastily-made milk rolls – because otherwise we didn’t have buns for the burgers. 90 minutes top to bottom!
  • Leftover coconut curry (freezer) with leftover rice pilaf

Reading:

Transforming Onions – raw, cooked, pickled and more

 

A brown onion

It’s taken me years to appreciate onions. I thought of them as just something to chop when you were making a stew or spag bol. Then they were for chicken stock – above all, good stock needs the flavour of alliums.

We made a five onion soup at culinary school, pale green with leeks, garlic, onions, spring onions and shallots, and thickened with potato – an exaggerated leek and potato soup, both sweet and savoury – and I started to appreciate the flavour of onions in their own right.

Over time I started to detect when onions were missing, to choose to add them in to keep things balanced. I learnt that I could tolerate raw onions if they were first soaked in vinegar, to remove some of the harshness. In the last couple of weeks I have added extra onions to recipes that didn’t call for them – a carrot filling for an Estonian pie and a Nigel Slater pilaf. An onion sweated in butter is a guarantee of savoury richness for both of these.

Sliced leeks

Onions, and all their brethren, are amazing and versatile ingredients. They have those pungent, tear-inducing chemicals in them that flood out when you cut into them, but when those dissipate, you also get a lot of sweetness and savoury flavour, which make them the most versatile vegetable you can have with you in the kitchen. If you’ve only ever used them when making soups or stews, or if you’re put off by raw onions (as I am), then you’ve got a treat in store.

Behind the recipes – why do we need onions?

Onions are sweet, sugary vegetables, disguised behind a sulphurous attack-force. Cutting or crushing an onion or garlic releases several sulphurous compounds, through the action of an enzyme, that make your eyes water and your breath smell. This process can be slowed down by chilling, the compounds can be washed away, or the enzyme can be deactivated through acid or through cooking. Once these sulphur compounds are out of the way, the sugars in the onion come through, and can create caramelisation with the right cooking. Not all of the onion family have the same compounds in them. The harshest, that cause your eyes to water, are found only in the onions, shallots, leeks and chives. Shallots, red onions, chives and spring onions are all milder in taste than yellow onions and garlic. Spring onions and leeks have more ‘green’ flavours, from the leaves.

Red onions

Ways to prepare onions

Here are some of the ways you can transform onions in the kitchen:

  • Raw – not my preference, although I like the Thomas Keller trick of pouring boiling water over them in a sieve to remove the harshest, oniony notes first.
  • Acidulated – not true pickling, just soaking the raw bits in some vinegar or lime juice keeps the crunch but leaches away some of the eye-watering compounds, making a much nicer salad onion. Bonus: soaking red onion slices in vinegar turns them all pink and lovely. I do this often to add to a Greek salad or a salsa for tacos.
  • Softened/sweated – for a stew or soup, you want to remove the harshest notes, and bring some sweetness, but not too much sugar. Translucency is what you want, and softness to help the flavours fade into the background and form the base flavours. Keep the heat low and stir fairly often. A good puddle of fat helps too.
  • Browned – not the same as caramelised, browned onions are cooked fast and hot, and are good for curries or making a tarka to go on top of dal. To get really nice crispy onions or shallots, good for garnishing Thai salads and many other things, slice very thinly, toss in a little rice flour, and fry in hot oil.
  • Caramelised – these such a useful thing to have around. Their extra sweetness gives a strong base to stand up to other strong flavours: the thick savoury flavour of beef stock in a proper onion soup; a strong cheese in a caramelised onion tart; a counter to the acid in a tomato sauce. Proper caramelisation takes *ages*. Allow 45 minutes to an hour to get them there, and you don’t need to add sugar. But make them in bulk and you can freeze in little portions. Momofuku’s David Chang, via Lucky Peach, has a good method for making them in a large frying pan. I like to use my slow cooker and leave them in there all day.
  • Baked – an underrated vegetable, and one I don’t often think of, is whole onions wrapped in bacon and baked, perhaps with a bit of cream. A brilliant accompaniment to roast chicken.

Roasted onions

  • Roasted – throw wedges around a roasting chicken or joint to create a delicious vegetable, and to massively improve the gravy made from the juices. I can’t remember where I got the idea, but I always roast beef on a layer of thick onion slices, protecting the juices from burning on the bottom during the initial sizzle, and creating deeply caramelised onions which make unbelievable gravy.
  • Pickled – I never think to buy commercial pickled onions – they are always too strong for me. But I have a favourite homemade version from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Their red onion pickles are a bit on the syrupy side, but delicious, and such a beautiful pink colour. Very good on a burger.

If you want a mild onion flavour, use spring onions, shallots or red onions. Or take some of the sting out of the onion by pouring hot water over the chopped onion, or by steeping briefly in vinegar (this works particularly well for sliced red onions, whose colour bleeds out to stain the whole slices fuschia-pink).

When you don’t have time to chop and sweat an onion, use spring onions, scissored into pieces if that’s easier for you than a knife. (And then practice your knife skills on onions when you get a chance – onions are cheap).

How to chop an onion

Chopping onions

First, top and tail the onion, and halve it from top to bottom. When peeling onions, if that outer brown layer will only come away in little shreds, take another layer off the onion. Life is too short, and onions are too cheap, to waste your time chipping off fragments of brown skin.

If you want little squares of onion, take each peeled half and slice in three different directions: start with horizontal slices, parallel to the chopping board. Then vertical slices from stem to root, almost but not quite cutting through. Finally, slice across to create squares.

Sliced red onion

For strips of onion (this is often my preferred cut, if only because it’s so quick to prepare), remove the root end in a wedge from each half. Slice the remainder of the half along the lines from stem to root, starting at an angle to the board, and gradually moving the knife around to be vertical. These slices separate more easily than half-moons cut across the onion, and are a good cut for starting a curry, a stew, or a soup that will be blended later.