Salt-baked potato

Salt-baked potato: Just the right amount of flavor.

Ari Levaux for Lee Montana Newspapers

BUTTE — It’s one thing to know that salt makes food taste good. It’s another to understand that every single bite of food, from oatmeal to steak Oscar, is a culinary opportunity that can be optimized with the right amount of salt. When applied appropriately, salt makes food taste more like itself. The corn is sweeter, the meat is more savory, the carrot soup is brighter. Without salt, food would be all bass and no treble.

But oversalted food is no fun either, when all you can taste is salt. Sometimes it’s by design, to compensate for ingredients that are somehow inadequate.

All too often, home-cooked meals end up undersalted, and not just by kitchen newbies. But when eating out or heating up pre-cooked or processed food at home, our food is usually oversalted.

I’m guilty of undersalting at times. I try to make sure a shaker is within reach so my guests can self-salinate.

For those with healthy blood pressure, there is no correlation between sodium intake and cardiovascular disease or stroke. This has been widely known since about 2011, yet organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association are still pushing for lower salt intake across the entire population.

Meanwhile, a pair of recent studies conducted on Russian cosmonauts have presented compelling evidence that other fundamental assumptions about salt are wrong as well. To the researchers’ surprise, eating more salt made the cosmonauts less thirsty. They also ate more, if food was available, and if it wasn’t they complained and lost weight.

It was expected that more dietary salt would compel the cosmonauts to drink more water, in order to dilute the extra salt and therefore stabilize the blood’s salt concentration. But instead they drank less water. Nonetheless, their blood sodium levels remained steady. They eventually realized that the cosmonauts were diluting the sodium by burning fat, which produces water.

Some are celebrating salt as the new weight-loss pill, but that’s not really the case. If these findings are replicated, it would mean that salt encourages you to burn fat, and make you hungry. If you resist this hunger and don’t eat, yeah, you will lose weight. But that isn’t exactly news.

In honor of not fearing salt (unless you have high blood pressure, in which case you should), here is a recipe for salt-crusted baked potato. It’s based on a technique I learned by studying the work of Alain Ducasse, the French chef who famously abandoned animal-based cuisine in favor of cuisine vegetal. He once enclosed a beet within a pyramid of sea salt and baked it. When it was done, the salt was rock hard, and the beet could only be extracted after the salt shell was smashed with a hammer.

I’ve been salt-coating and baking large potatoes with glorious results.

I no longer use sea salt, thanks to a recent report that most of the world’s sea salt is contaminated with micro plastic residue from all of the trash in the ocean. One exception would be salt that is mined from ancient sea beds. That kind of sea salt is OK. Kosher salt is really good too.

For one large potato, mix a quarter cup of salt with a splash of water, just enough so that you can mix it into something the consistency of a snowball. Place the potato onto a baking dish and pack the salt atop and around it. Bake at 350 for an hour, then turn off the oven and let it sit there until serving time.

Flip over the potato and break it open from the bottom, adding potato fixings like butter, bacon or chives, if you wish. But first, take a taste of just plain potato. The salt will have permeated the flesh, accentuating its potato-ey essence, and then stepped aside so as not hog the spotlight. Salted, not salty, the baked potato is elevated to something wonderful.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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