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It’s the start of a new year, and without even noticing, we tend to think of new beginnings. We make plans, we dream of the future and remember old beginnings and where they’ve led us. In our history, we see many things that have meant the beginning of beautiful things, or even tragic destinies, but two stand tall in this crowd: bread and salt.
As I am writing these words, there are three breads in my house in different stages of the bread making process. When finished, each will look different, taste different and will delight us in different ways, but all three have started with just three basic ingredients: flour, water and salt.
It seems most of the time, we tend to take bread for granted, but most of all it is the ingredients we take for granted, which is why today, I want to take you on a journey: a journey of bread and salt.
Salt is a chemical compound made of sodium and chloride, which has been extremely important for the human race for thousands of years.
Our love story probably began when humans realized the power of salt in preserving food. It was miraculous what salt could do for us: it removed the dependence on seasonal produce and also allowed us to travel over longer distances while still being able to feed ourselves on salt preserved foods.
Even though salt has been around for centuries, it wasn’t always easy to obtain. Our search for it has led, during the course of history, to kingdoms being enriched or impoverished, it has truly shaped the course of our lives. We started building roads to transport salt, such as via Salaria, in the Roman Empire, connecting Rome to the Adriatic Sea. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, hence the word “salary,” coming from the Latin “salarium.” They say the soldiers who did their job well were “worth their salt.”
Salt was, at one point, the economic foundation of the Kingdom of Poland and it was salt, sea salt this time — people at that point considered it superior to rock salt — brought by the Germans, that led to the demise of this Kingdom.
Salzburg, Austria was named by the Germanic word for salt, while in the United Kingdom, the city of Liverpool’s wealth, at one point, was coming from the salt mines of nearby towns Nantwich, Northwich, Leftwich and Middlewich — meaning “brine spring.” In Africa, salt was sold ounce for ounce with gold, from caravans stretching all along the Sahara desert, whilst the first known city in Europe, Solnitsata, located in present-day Bulgaria, was built around a salt production facility.
On Salt and Health
Salt is like no other substance we eat. It doesn’t come from plants, or animals, or microbes. It comes from the oceans, long lost seas and the rocks that erode them. It is an essential nutrient, a chemical compound without which our bodies would not be able to function. Salt is also one of the basic tastes our tongues can detect, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and the newly discovered umami.
We seem to be very fond of salt these days, sprinkling it liberally in our pots or constantly consuming salty delights, the likes of peanuts or crisps. I guess there is no wonder why “bland” both means low on salt and tasteless. At the same time, there are many articles out there today that will tell you salt is bad for you. And in some ways, it is: If you consider that some days, when we indulge in our love for salty chips and take-aways, we might pack 40 times the amount of necessary salt, on top of other things like fats, then salt might really become a problem.
Medical scientists have suspected for a while now that high salt intake can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, but should salt be the only one to take the blame for it? Sure, any type of food consumption in excess can’t lead to good things, but can it be that foods high in salt are often high in fats as well and that this combination is actually to blame for some of our medical problems, like the ones described above?
What we are not often told is that low salt diets aren’t really proven to lower the chances of high blood pressure and actually in some cases were related to undesirable increases in blood cholesterol levels. It has also been shown that salt deficiency — hyponatremia — is a dangerous condition that can manifest itself with headaches, vomiting, muscle cramps, fainting, and in some, very rare cases, coma.
Most scientists and doctors agree that it is the total intake of salt that matters. The French eat their highly salted bread with unsalted butter for balance. Richard Bertinet says in his book, Dough, that he would rather give up chips than take salt away from the bread, as salt is more than just a seasoning for bread.
This brings me to the following question: should I bake no salt bread? Maybe, but for now I will stick to my three ingredients proven to give us the tastiest of breads: flour, water and salt. Let’s talk about salt in bread, the types of salt we might think of using and what is the entire purpose of using salt when baking bread.
Salt in Our Bread
We have been baking bread for centuries. Larousse Gastronomique mentions that: “Bread-making dates back to at least 9000 BC,” while “The invention of leavened bread (around 5000BC) is attributed to the Egyptians.” Even though we’ve been baking bread for such a long time, it seems our ancestors only started using salt in their breads around the 1700s.
Salt is one of our oldest condiments and therefore no one can deny its flavor impairing qualities. But that isn’t salt’s only effect on the bread dough.
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