Tales of Taste #2: Winning the Taste Lottery
Updated: Mar 5, 2019
We get down to the nitty-gritty of salt and sugar.
You could say that salty/sweet has had it’s fifteen minutes in the last few years. It started simply, a little flaky sea salt on a bar of chocolate here, a salted caramel latte there, but the viral popularity of chocolate covered bacon (and the ensuing bacon + literally-anything-else-sweet trend) put this addictive combo on the map. Or back on the map, I should say, because as with many fads in the world of taste, this one goes back a lot farther than the latest craze would have you believe. In fact, it’s probably one of the most popular flavor combinations in history.
Scientists generally agree that our taste buds and brains developed to sense the five basic tastes we’re most sensitive to - salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami - as a survival mechanism. Food tasting “good” or “bad” was originally the only guide we had to help us eat the right things. Salt, for example, is a mineral necessary for our bodies to function, yet we have no way to store it (as we do with calcium in our bones) and cannot produce it ourselves. Put simply: salt tastes good to us because we need to eat it. We crave sweet foods for a similar reason. Sweetness is a signal for high caloric density. Caloric density = energy, so eating sweet foods made our brains respond as if we’d won the lottery - which, if you’re surviving on foraged food, isn’t far from the truth.
So, part of our compulsion to chow down on an entire bag of chocolate-covered peanut butter-filled pretzels comes from what chefs call the “layering” effect: two pleasure-filled sensory experiences happening at the same time. Salty/sweet foods are basically the taste equivalent of listening to your favorite song while getting a massage. What we learned about cola vs orange soda in the first post of the series is a good example of how layering flavors makes something taste more interesting in a way we find pleasurable. But there's more to our love affair with salty/sweet than just doubling up on the good stuff [insert "double your pleasure, double your fun" joke here].
Salt, as any home cook knows, is a flavor enhancer. The right amount of salt intensifies flavors, making savory foods ever-so-much-more savory, and desserts ever-so-much more delicious. And therein lies the real magic of salty/sweet: salt increases our sensitivity to sweetness by way of counter-balancing it. When our taste buds are overwhelmed by overly-sweet foods nuances in the flavor profile can disappear. That’s why a little sprinkling of salt makes a big difference, cutting through the sweetness just enough to take a plain old chocolate chip cookie from this cookie is good to I just won the lottery.
Classic examples of salty/sweet foods in American cuisine include: chocolate dipped pretzels, pb and j or pb and marshmallow fluff sandwiches, french fries and ketchup (or french fries dipped in a milkshake - I'm looking at you, 10-year-old me), bbq chips and kettle corn. But versions of this combination abound worldwide, often in combination with other tastes. Margaritas, for example, use a salted rim to cut the intense sweet/sour mix they’re made with. Chanh muối, or Vietnamese salted lemonade, incorporates salt, sweet and sour as well. Lemons or limes that have been preserved in salt are mixed with sugar and water or soda to produce a salty, sweet and surprisingly refreshing summertime beverage.
Recipe for Chanh muối (Vietnamese Salted Lemonade)
It'll take a few weeks to let the salt work its magic on the lemons, so get this started well before you plan to serve it. Once the lemons are preserved, however, they'll keep practically forever, so a jar of salted lemons on hand means you're never more than 5 minutes away from a tall glass of Chanh muối. Not a bad thing.
For the preserved lemons:
Thoroughly wash and scrub several lemons, enough to fill your jar. Cut off the ends so that you see a bit of the fruit. Then cut the lemons into quarters without cutting through the bottom, so you can splay them out a bit.
Boil some water and use the water to rinse out the inside of your jar. Add a half teaspoon of salt to the jar, then sprinkle a half teaspoon of salt all over the inside of each lemon (on the cut surfaces). Add the lemons to the jar one by one, with the cut end down. Push down on the top of each lemon as you add it, so it's squeezed down a bit, and add another half teaspoon of salt in between each one as you go. Then when they're all pressed tightly in the jar, fill the rest of the jar with the hot water and turn it upside down several times to dissolve the salt.
Leave the lid of the jar a little loose so gasses can escape as the lemons ferment. You can start to use the lemons in 3 weeks, but they'll keep indefinitely. No need to refrigerate.
For the drink:
Use a clean spoon to remove one of the lemon wedges. You can rinse it off for a less salty version, or leave the salt on and add more sugar to your finished drink. Muddle the lemon in a glass, add soda (lemon-lime flavored soda is perfect) and ice, and serve. You can also dissolve some sugar (to taste) in a glass of soda water. Some people eat the preserved lemon when they've finished the drink!