The Science of Salting: How to Preserve Food With Salt

Salting is a food preservation method that confers a unique flavour to food whose refinement derives from its high degree of salinity: here it’s how it works.

If a time machine could take us back to Ancient Rome, we might find ourselves side by side with the artisans of the period, all intent on stuffing large fish into terracotta urns, in between generous layers of salt. Salting, as it is called, is a technique for preserving food that lives on and is still carried out using the same methods and processes. For the reasons we are about to discover, salt is actually able to preserve most foodstuffs for months and even years. At the same time, this method of preservation confers a unique and delicious flavour to food whose refinement derives from its high degree of salinity. What more can be said about an exquisite plate of herrings? And the tasty capers used to flavour a dish of pasta in tomato sauce? These are just two examples of how important salting is and why it is worth while finding out the secrets behind it.

Let’s start from basics: why does salt act as a preserve? To understand this concept, let’s consider a piece of meat placed in a terrine and covered with cooking salt. After a few minutes, we see the salt crystals “disappear”. In actual fact, they do not disappear: they simply absorb water to the point that they melt completely. No magic is involved here: it is a physical-chemical phenomenon called “osmosis” whereby two solutions, which are brought into contact with each other, achieve the same degree of saline concentration and in order to reach a situation of equalization, the water molecules in the meat simply relocate to our dear old salt grains. To simplify, we could say that the salt absorbs the water in the meat but, if you have a scientist friend, you can impress him by proving that you understand how osmosis works. Usually, however, a salt and water solution is used rather than salt alone: in this way we are sure that osmosis takes place over the entire surface of the meat.

The Science of Salting- How to Preserve Food With Salt

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