I was originally introduced to the idea of using salt in cocktails in Kirk’s Search for Delicious, which appeared in rogue cocktails (r.i.p.).  The theoretical underpinning of the salt application in this cocktail was the idea of “seasoning” the artichoke essence of the Cynar, which was used as the base spirit.  Per Kirk’s own words, the cocktail tastes like “blanched artichoke hearts carmelized with belgian endive, and dusted with Maldon sea salt.”

The cocktail, and more specifically, the application of salt, stuck with me for a while.  I did my own riff on the idea, the Growing old and dying happy, blah, blah, blah, which has since evolved into the Italian Heirloom on the Counting Room menu (just substitute a 1/2 oz of Laphroaig 10 Yr and a 1/2 oz of a blended scotch for the Rittenhouse 100), but was never quite satisfied with my understanding of salt, and its effect on the palate.  As anyone who’s ever tasted under-seasoned food can attest, salt worked, I just didn’t understand how.

They say fortune favors the bold, or at least those dumb enough to attempt to read Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy without any formal kitchen or chemistry education (that would be me). Luckily, buried within the dense prose tackling subjects such as how to gelatinize milk without destabilizing it (use as few polyosides as possible, it turns out), was a chapter entitled “How Salt Affects Taste.”

Among other effects, we learn that salt “increases the ionic strength of aqueous solutions, making it easier for odorant molecules to separate themselves from food.  This is why unsalted soup has no flavor and why adding salt amplifies its odor, which is an important part of flavor.”  Got that?

“Sodium chloride is also a taste molecule that stimulates the papillary receptors.”  That too?  Awesome!

But, does salt really “bring out the flavor of a dish?”

Fortunately for Herve (and us), Gary Beauchamp and his colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Institute in Philadelphia were on the job.

The Monell Institute team of psychophysiologists wanted to know whether salt selectively filters tastes, weakening unpleasant tastes while enhancing pleasant ones……they compared aqueous solutions containing one or more of three substances: urea (bitter), sucrose (table sugar), and sodium acetate.  There were reasons for choosing these three: Sucrose added to urea softens its bitterness, and sodium acetate contributes sodium ions without imparting too salty a taste……

As predicted, sodium acetate reduced the bitterness of urea.  What gastronomic empiricism did not predict, however, was that salt masked the bitterness much more effectively than sugar.  Mixtures of sugar, urea, and salt turned out to be sweeter and less bitter than unsalted mixtures of urea and sugar. Moreover, in strong sugar concentrations, the sweet character was increased by the addition of sodium acetate, probably because salt offsets the weakening of the sweet intensity caused by the bitterness of urea.  Consistent with the hypothesis, the addition of sodium acetate by itself to sugar, in the absence of urea, did not increase the intensity of the sweet taste.

Cool, huh?  So, cocktail implications:  In the above examples, not only did the salt “season” the Cynar, but it also helped mask some of bitterness inherent to the Cynar, and brought out of some of its sweeter notes.  Now, lets step up the bitterness quotient just a bit.

In our Ten Trends for 2010 post from a while back we asked y’all to taste “salted” Campari side-by-side with unsalted Campari.  The conclusion that should have been reached is that the “salted” Campari was noticeably less bitter, and almost tasted more like the “essence” of Campari, without the strong, bitter finish.  (Note that Campari contains sugar – it is not a purely bitter substance like urea, but more like the urea/sucrose combination).

Obviously, the next logical step was to create a cocktail featuring this “idea.”  That was fairly simple.  Take the above experiment, increase the volume, add ice, stir, orange twist, and you have the Campari “Martini.”.  Fun, huh?  Its easier to execute if you create a saline solution (roughly 3 parts water to 1 part salt, by weight, as salt has a saturation point in water of around 26%), but whatever works for you.

The Campari “Martini”

3 oz Campari

3-5 drops saline solution (to taste)

Stir, strain into a chilled coupe, orange twist.

This is a relatively extreme application of salt, in that its really acting as the only modifier in the cocktail.  There are certainly more subtle applications out there that I recommend trying, particularly in cocktails containing fresh fruits & vegetables (Toby Maloney’s Juliet & Romeo is a good example of using salt with cucumber in a cocktail), as well as in flips.

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