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Can you believe this is the 12th issue of Indulge? You folks have actually tolerated me for one whole year. I set out to write the kind of column not typically found in food and drink magazines, where you will get a stronger foundation in the things that really matter in cooking—principles, food science and basic techniques—and not just recipes that would be restricted in usefulness. If you have missed one of the earlier columns(they run the gamut from choosing knives to cooking meat, vegetables and fish properly), look them up on the Mint website.

So I figured, hey, I have to write about something special on completing a year. Asking people on Twitter for suggestions produced a range of responses, from how to make chutney for dosas, to how to make a great biryani. But I picked the one seemingly mundane question that more than one person wanted to be answered. It was a term seen in nearly every cookbook and recipe, and yet,beginner cooks are left scratching their heads over what it really means.

‘‘Salt to taste".

What is so different about salt that cookbooks can’t specify exact quantities? Why don’t they say things like ‘‘chilli to taste"? To understand this, one has to realize a few things about salt.

First, preferred saltiness is very subjective. I have family members who add salt to food without even tasting it, so clearly they like their food salty. These preferences are also moulded by the kind of food you’ve grown up with. If you’ve eaten very salty food throughout your life, that’s what you’ll like. Over time, your sensitivity to salt will decrease. This isn’t just for traditionally cooked food. It holds true even if you’ve binged on junk food such as potato wafers and other snacks that are loaded with salt, as most processed snacks usually are. So what’s right for one person may have to be recalibrated for another. And since salt is usually added in relatively small amounts (half a teaspoon per person for a curry is my usual starting point), it’s fairly easy to over-salt your dish if you’re not careful. Excessive saltiness can ruin a dish.

Next, saltiness doesn’t come from just good old table salt. Other ingredients in your dish too may have salt in varying levels. Soy sauce, fish sauce, bacon, pickles, table butter, processed foods such as ketchup, commercial ginger-garlic paste, chilli sauce, etc., all have salt in them and they’re not consistent. One brand of soya sauce may be much saltier than another, for instance. If you use any of these in your cooking, you’ll need to watch out for saltiness and definitely add ‘‘salt to taste". (At this point, you’re thinking, ‘‘but chilli sauce also has chilli, dude. What the heck?" The answer to that is that you’re probably taking the chilli into account when putting it in, but not realizing how much extra salt is getting added in the process.)

But the most important reason, and it’s something beginners don’t realize, is that salt is much more than just sodium chloride that adds a salty flavour to food. It is something that lifts other flavours up. In cookery, it is the Luke Skywalker of ingredients that brings balance to the Force. Salt brightens other flavours and helps bring a ‘‘rounded" flavour profile to what you cook. If I were stranded on a deserted island (and I have no desire to be on one), the one ingredient I couldn’t do without would be salt. If you taste your dish and the flavours taste ‘‘flat" (I can’t think of a better term to describe the feeling of knowing your other flavours are all individually there, but they aren’t playing well together and becoming a whole), the reason is usually that you don’t have enough salt in there. Add a bit more in small amounts and keep tasting, and you’ll probably rescue your dish. A properly salted dish is one where all the flavours blend beautifully, but you can’t actually taste any saltiness by itself as a separate flavour. Again, there isn’t a reliable formula for this because flavours of fresh ingredients such as ginger, garlic, chillies and spices are so fickle that a chef can’t prescribe an amount of salt that will work well in most situations. So we say,‘‘salt to taste". You’ll even find dessert recipes with salt in them, and it’s for the same reason. A bit of salt can improve desserts too!

Now that I’ve explained in some detail the role of salt, I have some guidelines for using salt when cooking.

Under-salting a dish is always better than adding too much. You can add salt later, but it’s very difficult to remove excess salt from something. (Don’t believe that canard about adding a potato or some other ingredient into your food to soak up saltiness. Sure, it will absorb some saltiness, but it will absorb every other flavour, too. No, I don’t care if your grandma handed that nugget down to you.)The only thing you can do that will work reliably in this situation is to make a little more of your sauce or curry without any salt and add that to your current batch, which is a tedious process.

Good cooks taste their food as they go. This is taught in all culinary institutes. If you don’t, you’re either an amateur or delusional about your abilities. But be careful when checking for saltiness in dishes that require either long cooking or where the sauce/gravy will be reduced in volume. You might find that what tastes balanced at the beginning is way too salty after the sauce has reduced by half. In such recipes, cut the salt by half till the final stages of cooking, and then add it back in small amounts till you get the balance you want.

If you’re scaling up recipes for larger quantities, do not increase salt in the same ratio. Start lower (if you’re doubling a recipe, use only one-and-a-half times the salt to start with). Since salt is used in small amounts, it’s easy to accidentally magnify a difference of, say,quarter of a teaspoon in one portion to two teaspoons in eight portions, mucking up your dish.

So the next time somebody asks you what ‘‘salt to taste" or ‘‘season to taste" mean, you can point them to this pontificating article by chef Madhu Menon for some answers. Thank you for reading one year of my columns, and I look forward to getting more questions by email for future columns.

Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer. He is on Twitter at @madmanweb

Respond to this column at indulge@livemint.com

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