Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Salt & Peppa

So I thought I would delve into the essence of spice and flavor today. I figured we needed to get a little scientific & research-y, throw in a little history and statistics on the two things we use most in the kitchen: salt & pepper.

I can't imagine cooking food without having these two little bowls at my fingertips. Spices have been so valuable through the ages that they were used as currency.

Here's a whacky piece of trivia: Salad literally means "salted" from the ancient Roman practice of salting leafy vegetables.

Salt is a pretty fascinating thing, actually. Wikipedia tells me that it is a dietary mineral composed of Sodium Chloride. Turns out, salt is essential for animal life, yet toxic for plants. Interesting. It is a crystaline solid, either white, pink or pale grey and is obtained from sea water or rock deposits.

Salt comes in three different forms:
Unrefined (sea salt)
Refined (table salt)

Unrefined salt has different mineral qualities that give them their different flavor. Fluer de sel is the swanky salt I see the Food Network guys using. It is harvested by hand, made by the evaporation of sea water in shallow basins warmed by sunlight. It's unique flavor depends on the region it's harvested in. No wonder it's spendy. Because of it's more natural harvesting, there are those who think it is the healthier option. Makes sense to me.

Refined salt is the most widely used. Food grade salt is only a small part of salt production, the majority is industrial. This is used in things like beauty products, pulp & paper, dyes for textiles & fabrics, soaps & detergents. It comes from rock salt, obtained from mineral deposits.

Salt has been used as the best known preservative for gajillions of years & It's amazing how it has shown up in almost every religion from Christianity, Muslim, Hindu, Judaism, Shinto, Aztec, & even pagan Wicca rituals. Egyptians, Greeks, & Romans also invoked their gods with offerings of salt & water.

Too much or too little salt in our diet can effect such health issues as heartburn, osteoporosis, cancer, high blood pressure, edema, ulcers, heart disease and asthma. The FDA recommends less than 2300 mg of sodium a day.

So there's a little salt 101, most of which are facts that I take for granted. But the simple value of having these little grains from the sea to flavor our savory dishes, balance out our sweets and keep us healthy is a pretty precious thing.

When I did my wikipedia search for black pepper, I had to sift through such options that I did NOT want like: chili pepper, Sgt. Pepper, sweet pepper, Dr. Pepper, and even the Butthole Surfers song, 'pepper'. Seems as though pepper has also had quite an influence!

But alas, black pepper, I discovered, is the fruit from a flowering vine. The fruit; a green, unripe peppercorn, is cooked briefly in hot water then dried and ground to be used as the spice we know & love. This peppercorn is unrelated to the bell or chili varieties that share the same names.

Black pepper is native to India, but is also cultivated in other tropical regions. Vietnam is the worlds largest producer & exporter of pepper.

I've always wondered the difference between black & white pepper, (besides the obvious), and discovered that it is just the wrinkled black skin that is removed to give pepper a colorless appearance in light colored dishes. Seems like a lot of fuss to me. No one I'm cooking for is going to notice, let alone squawk if there is visible pepper in their white sauce.

Some more trivia:
*Pepper has been figuratively used for centuries for "spirit" or "energy".
*The French word "poivre" means pepper! As in steak au poivre. You probably knew that, but I've always wondered!

Pepper also has it's medicinal purposes. In India, it is used to treat constipation, diarrhea, ear ache, gangrene, heart disease, hernia, hoarseness, indigestion, insect bites, insomnia, joint pain, liver & lung problems, sunburn & even tooth decay.

As for the sneezing effect, few controlled studies have been done, but it is thought that either the substance "piperine" found in black pepper irritates the nostrils, or it might be the effect of the fine dust when the pepper is ground.

By monetary value, pepper is the most widely traded spice in the world and made up 20% of imports in 2002.

So the next time you pass the salt or throw in a little cracked pepper, take a second to appreciate the journey these little grains have taken through the ages and the value that they have held. And just try to imagine your dishes with out them!


  1. Sorry for the lengthy-ness. I told you I was going to get all research-y! There was just too much information that I found!