Last week I was catching up on some past episodes of Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table.” In one of them, Kasper interviewed Paul Breslin, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Rutgers University. He’s an expert on taste perception, and Kasper spoke with him about salt.
As some of you know, I worked as chemical engineer in food product development after college. So I know something about how salt works chemically, and how we perceive saltiness. The interview reminded me of things I learned way back then about our taste buds and how they operate, although put much more coherently than I could. Then, Kasper asked a question about something I had thought was perhaps an old wives’ tale: that salt decreases bitterness.
Kasper asked Breslin: “Salty caramel is a big deal now in ice cream and everything you can imagine. What’s happening there?”
Breslin replied: “…If you really burn sugar, you’re in effect making it extremely bitter. If you go to the process of just beginning to brown it, it can take on some of the notes or odors that we really like that are part of the caramelization process, but it will become a little bit bitter at the same time. Salt can interact with some of those bitter notes to make them weaker.”
Kasper: “Is that why some people add a little salt when they’re making coffee? Does it take down the bitter side of coffee as well?”
Breslin: “It’s very common for people to add salt to what you might call not great coffee. I don’t know that people would add salt to a really good cup of coffee. But for generic coffee, you are decreasing the bitter taste of it when you add salt to it. It’s not so much that you’re making the coffee taste salty; it’s that a little bit of salt will take down the bitter notes and make it a little bit more pleasant. If the bitterness is low level, a little pinch of salt will probably benefit almost any dish.”
Of course, this made me wonder about salt and wine. I know many people who tell me they can’t take the bitterness of red wines, even light-bodied ones that I think are pretty smooth. Not that you’d necessarily want to add salt to wine. But could eating well-salted food along with the wine make the wine taste less bitter?
While there are some bitter flavor components in all wine, red wines get most of their bitterness from tannins found in the grape skin. Tannins change with exposure to oxygen or proteins. Air, along with cheese, dairy, or meat can soften up some of the bitterness in wine. (This is why cheese makes many wines taste much smoother.) But could salt accomplish some of the same thing? I set out to see if it’s true.
First, the wine. The most bitter wine I’ve ever tasted was a cheap brand of Malbec available in many supermarkets. So I bought a bottle. (Sorry, all you Malbec lovers. I really enjoy some of them, but the ones that cost less than $9 at the grocery store rarely do it for me.) I also decided to try a bottle of light-bodied Côtes du Ventoux red, which is pretty soft-tasting when opened.
Then, the food. My blogger friend Sue Gordon told me she attended a wine tasting where every wine tasted great with potato chips. I thought that might be due to the salt. It was also a lovely excuse to buy potato chips, one of my favorite foods. But I also had to buy a russet potato to make some salt-free chips to use as a comparison. The other thing I decided on was beef sliders. I saw Ina Garten make them on “Barefoot Contessa,” which I watched while on the cross-trainer at the gym earlier this week.
Beef protein binds to tannins and makes them less bitter, so I figured this might be problematic. On the other hand, perhaps the beef could knock out some of the tannins and that would give me a chance to see if the salt would work on the remaining bitterness.
In the Splendid Table interview, Breslin suggests using less salt mixed into or sprinkled on food before cooking if you want to taste the salt. You should use the minimum necessary to do the things salt does in food (some seasoning, controlling browning, etc.), and then salt your food before you eat it. That worked out perfectly here. I made eight one-ounce sliders from a half-pound of 90% lean ground beef, mixed with a little salt, pepper, olive oil, Dijon mustard, and thyme (basically Ina’s recipe, except with less salt since I planned to add it on top later.) I fried them up in a nonstick skillet coated with a little vegetable oil spray. The unsalted potato chips were made with a thinly-sliced, peeled russet potato shallow-fried in grapeseed oil. I bought Cape Cod brand salted chips since they’re a little thicker than other brands and more closely resembled what I could make at home.
I left two of the sliders alone after cooking, and then sprinkled various amounts of salt on top the others in pairs to give three different salt levels, and cut each of the sliders in quarters. The routine was to try the wines with unsalted potato chips, then salted potato chips, then go up the line on the sliders. I had some baguette slices and water to clean my mouth after each try. Here’s the order for sampling the wines: just-opened Ventoux, just opened Malbec, Ventoux after 20 minutes open, Malbec after 30 minutes open. I took a bite of the food and then, just before swallowing, a sip of the wine. All in all, 24 different combinations of wine and food. Then I ate some salad.
The results? Well, nothing could save the just-opened Malbec from bitterness. (For the record, I didn’t think this one was over-the-top bitter, but it was definitely tannic.) It didn’t taste quite the same with no-salt potato chips vs. salted ones, but I couldn’t detect less bitterness with salt. However, the same wine open 30 minutes seemed to respond a little bit to the salt in terms of bitterness, both in the chips and the sliders. But the bitterness didn’t get replaced with other flavors and it actually seemed flatter tasting with more salt rather than less (odd, I know). For the Ventoux, which is less bitter to start, I tasted less bitterness with more salt, and the salt made the wine taste a little fruitier. This was a bit more pronounced in the wine that was open for 20 minutes and more so with the sliders than the potato chips (although the last two slider comparisons tasted the same, so perhaps there’s a limit). Overall, I’m not sure there was a huge change in bitterness, but enough that I did detect it.
The usual caveats apply here, this was just me, and your mileage may vary. I am not extremely sensitive to bitter flavors, and I also admit to being a little bit more excited about eating potato chips than I should have been, which may have skewed things. I wish I’d thought to take photos, but I didn’t — I was here by myself and the cat just wasn’t interested in photography.
My takeaway is that there may be something to it all. So if you’re really sensitive to bitterness in red wine and you’re drinking something others don’t think is bitter, try a little more salt on your food if there’s no cheese around. (Cheese will definitely do more to soften the tannins than salting other foods will). Otherwise, salt can enhance the flavors of wine like it does the flavors in food, so don’t hesitate to add a little salt to your food to get more out of your wine. Or do as Sue does, and eat salted potato chips with any and all wines. I know that works for me!
Since I’ve got sliders on the brain, this week’s recipe is for a sort of slider — Kibbeh. Kibbeh are a North African/Middle-Eastern version of meatballs or small patties. Last fall I gave you a recipe for Kufte, the Persian version, which are bound and moistened with soaked Basmati rice. Kibbeh generally use bulgur, which used to be hard to find. But these days I’ve seen it in Harris Teeter, even in the quick-cooking variety, which is what I suggest you use. You’ll need 2 cups of cooked bulgur for 1 pound of ground beef.
The other ingredient you may have to do a little searching for is Za’atar (sometimes spelled Zahtar). It’s a blend of dried herbs, salt, spices, and sesame seeds. Every brand is a little different, but don’t worry which one you get. My version of Kibbeh also get additional flavor from pine nuts, raisins, and lemon zest. Plus a little zip from crushed red pepper flakes. They’re served with a thick sauce made from Greek yogurt and lemon juice, plus some parsley and mint. The mint is optional — some people don’t like the taste. Basil works well in there, too.
If you have time to chill the kibbeh after your shape them they’ll hold together better. But don’t worry if you don’t, they’ll still be tasty even if they crumble a bit. You can grill the little patties, although I think you have a better chance of keeping them intact if you cook them in a skillet instead. Let them cool a bit before serving, or cool them entirely since they are good at room temperature, too.
And serve them with Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10), the very same wine I used for the salt tasting. Along with potato chips, of course!
1 pound (90%) lean ground beef
2 cups cooked bulgur (cooked from instant is fine), cooled to just barely warm
1 large onion, finely minced
1 cup roughly-chopped parsley
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup golden raisins, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Za’atar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Finely grated zest and juice of one lemon (keep them separate)
3/4 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
Optional add-ins: 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley (chop these just before you add them to the sauce if you’re using them, this keeps them from browning)
Break up the beef into small pieces in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix with a fork, and then let the meat sit for about 15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and lemon zest, along with a little salt and pepper. Cook for a minute, then add the Za’atar and the red pepper flakes. Crank up the heat for a minute until everything’s smelling great. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the pine nuts, half the parsley, and the raisins. Stir for 2-3 minutes while cooking. The raisin pieces should all be separate. Scrape the mixture onto a plate to cool to just barely warm.
Add the cooled bulgur to the bowl with the meat, then the cooled onion mixture. Mix well with your hands. Shape into 24 small patties. If you have time, put the patties on a couple of dinner plates and chill for a half hour or so. This isn’t strictly necessary, but they are less likely to crumble when you cook them if you do. (You can mix and shape them way ahead if you like.)
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick. Cook the Kibbeh patties about 4 minutes per side. They should be nicely crusted and brown, and cooked all the way through. You will probably have to do this in two batches unless you have two skillets — add a little oil to the pan if necessary between batches.
Let the patties cool for a few minutes and make the sauce: combine the lemon juice, yogurt, and remaining parsley, along with some pepper and a little salt if you need it. Stir in the mint or basil, if you’re using them. Serve with the Kibbeh, which can be warm or at room temperature.