The Salt Cream Lick
Dessert. Salted-caramel ice cream.
The salted-caramel ice cream here is pretty amazing. The flavor was full-bodied and didn’t “leak” in any sort of way, like cheaper ice creams; the intensity of flavors was only slightly deterred by the desensitization of my taste receptors. The physical consistency was even throughout, and I was fairly satisfied after one scoop (homage to some really good ice cream, and/or extreme discipline, and/or thriving to not be a gluttonous fat-ass).
This post on Sweet Rose Creamery comes after three (now four) trips to the beloved ice cream shop in the heart of Brentwood, Los Angeles. I’ve already posted on ice cream and its intracacies before, but salted-caramel is slightly intriguing. The first time I had it, I was not asked by my server if I wanted rock salt on it. Unknowningly, I ate the ice cream anyway. Still delicious. Second and third time around, I was given the option of sprinkling rock salt on the ice cream. I was hesitant at first, but my instincts knew of the potential effect of salt on taste. Salt, essentially, is seasoning. It makes sweet things sweeter and brings out the culinary tones in savory meals.
So…“what the hell,” I thought.
“Hit me,” I told my server.
First scoop in, the taste profile suddenly revealed hints of toffee, espresso, butter, caramel, condensed milk…complex, varied flavors that I previously did not experience. Magic? Yes. After an explanation? Science, hopefully.
We’ve all read tips about veteran chefs tsk tsking their sous-chefs to always season and taste. “If you start with great ingredients and hone your seasoning and tasting skills, you’re ahead 80% of the game”…blah blah blah. Well, it’s actually a damn good piece of advice. Seasoning is a fundamental skill that should not be messed with.
What’s the deal with salt? How can adding salt make ice cream sweeter? Shouldn’t it make it…saltier?
Early salt use was purely for survival reasons, as heavily salting foodstuffs such as meats allowed for sufficient preservation and extension of “freshness” without the use of ridiculous things, such as refrigerators. Some may even suggest that we evolved to have a preference/taste for salt, as it signified nutrient density.
On taste and the flavor of certain foods, the mechanism as to how salt can potentially make food taste more “colorful” is still unconfirmed. Certain studies point in the direction that sodium may repress bitter-flavored compounds, which may or may not be the cause of the enhancement of other flavors (just because bitterness is repressed does not mean that other flavors are enhanced; it simply may mean that the other flavors are more detectable, with a lower “bitter” baseline). In that particular study, ingredients with sodium were found to reduce the intensity of caffeine, magnesium sulfate, and potassium chloride. (Note sodium-containing ingredients…not sodium itself). Perhaps the addition of rock salt (big chunks of sodium) to ice cream does nothing except mute the bitter-flavored compounds in the sweet concoction. It’s no sweeter, but now, there isn’t a bitter compound competing for your taste buds, so relatively, it’s sweeter.
An influence on water activity is another proposed mechanism to how salt improves the flavor of foods. The more salt that is used, the less unbound (free) water molecules are present, as salt attracts water. Less free water means more free space for other molecules to bounce around, namely, flavor.
So, two proposed main mechanisms of salt, analogy form:
One, the bully in the schoolyard is gone (bitter), so everyone gets to have fun without getting beat up at recess (other tastes are more prominent, relatively).
Two, the horses (water) are all attracted to the salt lick (salt), so all the ponies, camels, and donkeys (flavorants) can run more freely in the pen.
My input? I’m more inclined to believe that sodium chloride has an alternative effect on taste itself, rather than just the movement of water (I’ll go with bitter bully hypothesis). Immediately salting a food item doesn’t give water much of a chance to move much, especially since the action of salting to eating can be as little as 2-3 seconds. Of course, doing this for isolated compounds and isolated foods (testing why tomatoes taste more tomatoey, and avocados taste more avocado-y, because compounds x and y…etc etc), is going to be very, very difficult. But keep your eyes peeled for future studies. I certainly will be.
That aside, basic building block of good cooking: Season and taste as you go. Salt is your friend. A tiny bit here and there can’t hurt. You can always add, but you can’t take back.
Breslin P.A.S., Beauchamp G.K. Suppression of bitterness by sodium: Variation among bitter taste stimuli. Chemical Senses. 1995; 20(6): 609–623.
Delahunty C.M., Piggott J.R. Current methods to evaluate contribution and interactions of components to flavour of solid foods using hard cheese as an example. International Journal of Food Science and Technology. 1995; 30: 555–570.
Hutton T. Sodium: Technological functions of salt in the manufacturing of food and drink products. British Food Journal. 2002; 104(2): 126–152.