Salt and pepper have somehow beat out all other spices in your spice cabinet on their way to the American dinner table. But why not stick them in the spice rack alongside those three-year-old cinnamon sticks and that empty jar of paprika? Are salt and pepper really that important?
Used well, pepper adds a kick to a dish that is missing some spice. Used in excess and you’re left cutting the edges off of that inedible piece of chicken you worked so hard for. Keep in mind that unlike salt, pepper can not be sprinkled on just anything (ground pepper in my chocolate mousse? No thanks). Only use pepper on foods that can stand up to its powerful flavor, like meat, mushrooms or potatoes.
Pre-ground pepper often loses flavor when exposed to air and light for a prolonged time. Thus, if you have the option, always choose freshly ground black pepper for fuller flavor that really packs a punch.
Table salt, the king of all spices, is an integral part of the human diet. Our bodies need salt in order to perform basic functions. Too little salt and the fluid levels in our bodies fall out of balance; too much salt and we damage our arteries, increasing our blood pressure.
In fact, salt is so important that it is classified under one of the five basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami). To put it simply, salt makes food taste more like, well, itself. The #1 rule of frying is that you must immediately salt food once it comes out of the deep fryer. Salted French fries have a stronger potato flavor than non-salted French fries; salting a burger before grilling ultimately makes it taste just a bit beefier.
There aren’t many foods out there that couldn’t be improved with salt. Even adding salt to non-savory foods like ice cream or chocolate milk can make them taste better. Salted caramel tastes amazing because it is salted. Check out Alton Brown’s combination of salty and sweet:
Be warned, once you over-salt a dish it is very hard to to go back. Remember that you can always add more, so it may be a good idea to let people add more salt to adjust to their individual tastes.