Salt—sodium chloride—is a glorious compound to cook with. It softens ingredients, enhances flavors, reduces or increases cooking time, and so much more. But to get the proper benefits of salt, you have to know when to add it to your dishes. Beginning of cooking or end of cooking? It all depends on what’s on the stovetop. Check out this easy guide to know when to add salt to some common household recipes.
The jury’s still out on when to salt when cooking dried beans in a large pot of water. Traditional wisdom tells us that adding salt at the beginning of cooking slows down the cooking time, rendering a bean that takes longer to cook and can often come out tough. Some cooks believe that salt both slows down and speeds up the process, in a way cancelling out the difference either way. In culinary school, I was taught to salt at the end, only once the beans have softened in the cooking water. After a classroom trial of adding salt before and after to different pots of beans, I became another believer in traditional wisdom: Add salt after the beans have cooked.
Add salt at the beginning of cooking pasta, directly to the pot of water you are bringing to a boil. Pasta is a hard starch that expands as it cooks in water, and it takes up some of the cooking liquid as it softens and expands. By cooking pasta in salted water, you can actually boost its flavor as some of the salt in the water will become absorbed by the cooking pasta—and you can add less to the finished sauce later. You’ll want to salt your pot of water really well, adding around 1 full tablespoon. Don’t worry, only a very small amount of that salt will actually go into your pasta—but the salt that does get in really enhances the flavor.
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Similar to pasta, rice will benefit from salt added at the beginning of cooking, as it will absorb a bit of it as it cooks—thus demanding less salt be added later on in cooking. And there’s yet another reason to salt at the beginning of cooking rice. Rice, as we all well know, becomes quite sticky when it’s cooked. When you add salt to a finished pot of cooked rice and stir it all around, a large deal of that added salt is going to stick to some chunks of rice more than others. Basically, you are more likely to get inconsistently salted rice. But add it at the beginning, however, and the salt will be well dispersed within the whole pot of rice as it boils and cooks.
Salt brings out the moisture (aka water) from things. When you add it to vegetables sautéed or stir-fried in hot oil, it softens them. Use this fact as your guide for when you want to add salt, based on what you are trying to achieve with your recipe. If you want your onions to be golden, dark, and maybe even have a caramelized crunch to them, add the salt at the end of sautéing them—this will season them but not make them soggy as they cook. Conversely, if you want soft, thin, translucent onions (as the French tend to love), you’ll want to salt at the beginning of cooking, when you first add them to hot oil. This will soften them from the get-go and prevent them from browning.
The key to sautéing a delicious pan of mushrooms is to use high heat, enough oil, and to salt at the end. Mushrooms are full of moisture, and if you salt at the beginning, their yummy juices all get drawn out too quickly, and they risk turning chewy and shriveled. For plump, browned mushrooms, salt to taste at the end of cooking.
Always salt meat at the beginning of cooking. As raw meat cooks, whether on a skillet, in the oven or over a grill, the cell walls begin to close up as the meat contracts, and it essentially becomes more closed off to absorbing flavor later. Add salt (and pepper, and any other dry spices) to raw meat before cooking so that it’s absorbed well within the meat, giving a much richer flavor once cooked.