A General Guide To Salting


As noted in the previous chapter, food preservation quite possibly began by accident when someone noticed that the sun and wind removed enough moisture from a food to keep it from spoiling. This process took some time, and because people have been looking for shortcuts since the beginning, someone else probably wondered what would happen if some salt got tossed onto the food being dried. The answer, of course, is the salt hastened the drying process. In a way, this was the creation of the first recipe.

Salt is a naturally occurring mineral and it’s necessary for life—human and animal. We seek it instinctively and animals will travel miles to find a salt lick. In fact, salt is one of our five tastes, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and savory.

Historical Perspective on Salting

Hanging dried salami sausages in a row

Every culture has found a source for salt. The exact moment when salting food became a common practice is lost in the mists of history, but we do know that the Chinese and Egyptians were among the earliest users of this product of the earth and sea. A salt lake in northern China, Lake Yuncheng, supplied the Chinese with salt at least as early as about 6000 BCE. The ancient Egyptians were also salt consumers. They probably deduced that if salt was good for preserving mummies, then it might work equally well on meat they were planning to eat at some later date.

At any rate, in addition to personal consumption, salting food to preserve it caught on and salt mining became a major trade. Salt became so important that the money the Romans paid their military so they could purchase salt was known as salarium, from which we get the word salary.

Salt also played an important role in the Age of Exploration. Once it was discovered that salt could be used to preserve fish and that the salted fish kept almost indefinitely, it became a staple for sailors’ diets and allowed long ocean voyages to get underway.

Salt was expensive because it wasn’t easily obtained. It had to be evaporated from seawater or mined from salt beds, so if a meat were to be “worth its salt,” it would have to be worth the trouble of salting in the first place. It would need to be meaty and fatty.

Today, salting is more of a decision point in food preservation than a goal. It’s the fork in the road at the intersection of pickling and smoking. It’s a useful emergency measure if you’ve no other way to put up food, but it leaches nutrients out of foods that then require freshening to remove as much salt as possible before the food is usable. Freshening is the process of rinsing and soaking meats, vegetables, or fruit in cold water to remove as much salt as possible before cooking. As we shall see, a great deal of salt is necessary for food preservation. As far as fruits and vegetables are concerned, salting is more of a curiosity than a standard practice, and for meat, it’s usually just one step in the preservation process.

You might run across the term curing. This is just another term for salting.

A Little Science

Bowl of white granulated sugar with a wooden scoop

All salt, except that created in the laboratory, comes from the sea. It’s either processed in evaporation facilities by the ocean or mined from deposits deep in the earth, left behind when ancient seas dried up when the Earth was young.

Salt dries things out. That’s not exactly a news flash, but it’s important when it comes to preserving foods. Because certain types of harmful bacteria, yeasts, molds, and other spoilage microorganisms thrive in moist environments, salt can be used to wick away this moisture through the process of osmosis. However, there are some microorganisms that love salt and these are called halophiles—literally, salt lovers.

As mentioned earlier, we’re talking about a lot of salt. A salt concentration of more than 10% inhibits the growth of most bacteria, but molds simply laugh at this. It takes concentrations of salt up to 20% to either kill these microorganisms or cause them to go dormant. To give you an idea of how much salt this is, the ocean is only about 3% salt. And probably the saltiest item in your pantry, soy sauce, can range from 12 to 18%. That’s why your brining solution—the mixture of salt and water you’ll use with vegetables—will be generally 1 part salt to 4 parts water, a solution of 25% salt.

When salt dissolves, it breaks down into its elements of sodium and chloride. Our nerves and muscles require sodium for proper functioning and this element also plays
a role in regulating our blood pressure. Chloride is also involved in regulating our blood pressure and helps with the production of stomach acid (HCI). It’s a delicate balance to consume the right amount of salt, as either too little or too much can create health problems. This knowledge has implications in the use of salt for food preservation, an issue we’ll discuss later on in this chapter.

In these times, everyone with a phone seems to have become an instant expert on just about any topic. Unfortunately, what people refer to as research isn’t. True research involves laboratories, double-blind studies, and that most precious commodity: time. We’re inundated with information, but separating what’s true from what’s false is beyond the capabilities of a quick internet scan. Case in point: We’ve become aware that too much salt in our diet can contribute to a host of medical issues, ranging from hypertension to heart attack to stroke. As a result, conscientious people are reducing their salt intake for their health—and that’s to the good. However, it’s to the bad when we decide to reduce the amount of salt we use when we’re preserving food by this method. The results can be dire.

Not following scientifically approved recipes or procedures for salt when preserving food can lead to an increased risk of listeriosis—one of the most serious foodborne illnesses—as well as toxin formation by Clostridium botulinium, the organism that causes botulism and other foodborne pathogens. You really, really, really don’t want to mess with these—and you won’t if you follow the established regimens to the letter and develop a healthy respect for nature in all her forms. Be educated, be aware, and be safe. Words to live by. You need to know about freezing.

A Few Notes About Salt

Lemons preserved in salt in glass jars

There are three general varieties of salt: table, pickling, and kosher. Each has its specific uses. Table salt has been refined to be, well, fine. It sprinkles easily and contains additives, such as an anticlumping ingredient. It might or might not contain iodine It’s not suitable for drying foods, as the iodine can make pickles dark and unattractive and the anti-clumping additive can make pickling solutions cloudy. Pickling salt is also a fine-grained salt but contains no additives.

Kosher salt is coarser-grained and might or might not contain additives. If using kosher salt, be sure it’s additive-free. Keep in mind that 1½ cups of kosher salt is usually equivalent to 1 cup of pickling salt.

General Principles & Procedures for Vegetables

There are two main ways to go about salting vegetables: brine salting or dry salting. Actually, to be more precise, there are also two subgroups that involve using either a lot of salt or using less salt. Dry salting works with vegetables that contain quite a bit of moisture or that have been cut into small pieces. Brining is used for vegetables that don’t have sufficient moisture in them to make enough liquid during curing. Brining is the process of preserving foods by immersing them in a saltwater solution.

When brining involves vinegar in addition to salt, it causes fermentation. It’s the way corned beef and pastrami are made. (The corning process is discussed in Chapter 15.) If you don’t want fermented vegetables, then you’ll forego the vinegar and pack in the salt—lots of salt.

Dry salting is the process of combining salt with the juices from the food being salted to form a concentrated brine. The stronger the salt solution, the greater its ability to reduce or destroy spoilage microorganisms. The weaker the salt solution, the greater the tendency for the vegetables to ferment. This is desirable if you’re making sauerkraut; it’s not desirable if you’re trying to preserve your green beans.

Equipment & Supplies

Cured meats hanging in a traditional smokehouse

In addition to regular kitchen utensils, you’ll need your kitchen scales, a crock, and something to weigh down the top layer of vegetables. You can use a glass or wood container if you don’t have a crock, but don’t use anything metal because it will react with the acid created during brining. A plate works well. So does a plastic bag filled with water and securely tied. Get informed about boiling water bath canning.

Dry Salting Vegetables

Wash the vegetables and discard any that aren’t in great shape. Just as with other forms of preserving food, you’re not going to improve on what you start with, so always start with the best. Weigh the vegetables. You’ll be working with a ratio of 4:1. That means for every 4 pounds (1.8kg) of vegetables, you’ll use 1 pound (450g) of salt. As noted previously, use medium-coarse pickling salt or kosher salt without additives for curing. These have larger-sized crystals than other salts and their greater surface area absorbs moisture quickly. Don’t use iodized or regular table salt. Iodized salt can turn foods dark and regular salt will cake. You need to have the salt dissolve quickly and evenly to achieve a good brine.

Next, prepare the vegetables as follows:

  • Shred cabbage.
  • Cut celery and okra into pieces.
  • Cut corn from the cob.
  • Shell and blanch peas and lima beans.
  • Snip the tips and tails off green beans, cut them into pieces, and blanch.
  • Peel and shred turnips and rutabagas.
  • Place a layer of vegetables on the bottom of a crock. Cover this with a layer of salt. Repeat the layers until you’ve used up all the vegetables and all the salt, ending with a layer of salt. Cover with a clean cloth or dish towel and weigh it down with a plate. Set the crock in a cool location and let it rest overnight. The next morning, check to be sure that brine has formed and is covering the top layer of vegetables. This brine comes from the moisture in the vegetables being drawn out by the salt. The vegetables need to be covered with the brine to prevent mold from forming.

If you need to add more brine to make sure the vegetables are covered, dissolve 1 pound (450g) of salt in 2 quarts of water and pour it into the crock. You might notice some bubbling. Any bubbling will stop within a few days. This bubbling isn’t an indicator of fermentation. It’s gas and air escaping from the vegetables. Do skim off any scum that forms early on in the salting process.

Store the crock in a cool location away from direct sunlight until you’re ready to use the vegetables. Their storage life varies according to many factors. Many will keep for 1 year or more, while others need to be used up within a few months. As with all methods of home food preservation, it’s good sense to have a plan for your produce in mind as you put it up. Nothing is meant to keep forever.

When it’s time to dip into the crock, you’ll notice that the vegetables have shrunk. That’s because the salt drew out the moisture they contained. When you soak them in cool water they’ll plump out again, so take about one-third the amount you’ll need. For example, if you ultimately want 1 cup of vegetables, take ⅓ cup out of the crock. To use them, rinse them in cool water. If they’re saltier than you like, you can soak them in cool water briefly and then drain and use. Never taste vegetables that have been preserved by salting without first boiling them for 10 minutes to be sure they’re safe to eat.

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