The Role of Salt in Baking

For most cooking, salt is used to add or enhance flavor to a dish or platter. In baking, however, salt plays a far more important role. It not only enhances flavor, but also controls bacteria, strengthens dough by tightening gluten, and prolongs shelf life. Various salts are available for baking, and each form influences how easily the salt blends with dough. Granular, or table, salts are in the form of dense cubes, due to vacuum evaporation.

Sea salts and Diamond Crystal kosher salts are formed from surface evaporation, causing flakier pyramid salts. Morton’s kosher salt is granular salt that is pressed into flakes by rollers. Each form of salt is different in volume as well as the way they dissolve, mix, and adhere. For example, 1 tablespoon of granular salt is the equivalent of 11/2 tablespoons of Morton’s kosher salt or 2 tablespoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Most bakers prefer flaky sea salt and Diamond Crystal kosher salt to granular salt because it provides a greater surface area when blending, allowing for greater distribution.

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Once an appropriate salt is designated, one must then determine when to add the salt. Salt strengthens and tightens the gluten in dough by adjusting the solubility and swelling capacity of the dough. This increases dough strength and prevents weakness and stickiness while increasing the mixing time needed to reach maximum dough development. The end result is a more elastic and pliable dough.

Some bakers argue that salt should be added after kneading and then be worked into the dough. Others dispute that salt needs to be added before kneading for better incorporation. Kneading the dough first and then working in the salt makes the dough easier to knead and requires less work from the mixer and a shorter kneading time without salt. Adding salt before kneading allows it to be better distributed throughout the dough. Either method is effective, and the more appropriate method is up to the baker.

Another common argument between bakers is whether to add the salt into the flour or to allow it to dissolve in the liquid. If salt is added to the flour, some of it will be greased by fat, covering up the granules. This will result in less gluten formation and a lesser pliable dough. Adding salt to liquid allows for greater dispersion, which enhances gluten formation and toughness. There is, however, a risk that adding too much salt to the liquid will cause excess toughness because it is difficult to know exactly how much liquid the dough requires. To overcome this dilemma, put all of the salt in part of the liquid, add that, then add the rest of the liquid. As shown, both methods are effective, however, which one is used depends on the desired end product. If one desires a tougher baked good, one should add the salt to the liquid, whereas adding salt to the flour results in a less firm product.

In yeast breads, salt controls yeast growth; one-third teaspoon of salt per cup of flour slows yeast growth tremendously. Without salt, fermentation would be too rapid, causing the dough to rise too quickly and the dough to stickier and less manageable. Too little salt produces a more flowing, sticky dough with a low volume, uneven cell structure, lack of color, and a bland taste. However, too much salt destroys the yeast, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide gas produced. The end result is a firm dough with a low volume, dense cells, and a too salty taste. For these reasons, it is important to add the right amount of salt to the baked good. The required measurement for breads is usually between 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons of salt per loaf of bread.

The final important factor when considering salt in baking is the flavor it adds. Salt is the major component of flavor in bread. The small amount of salt in bread does not provide a salty taste. Instead, it enhances the flavor of the fermentation products and the components of fresh bread. In fact, it has been proven in various taste tests that tasters prefer breads that contain higher salt contents. This causes a predicament because bread tastes better with more salt, while the amount required (between 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon per load of bread) is not enough to affect the bread’s flavor. Adding more salt to the dough mixture will negatively impact yeast fermentation, as described above.

There are only two viable methods of adding salt to the bread. The first is accomplished by adding salt to a glaze for the bread or via putting salty ingredients, such as cheese, butter, and other products on top of the bread. The other method is effective if the bread contains cooked rice or other grains. In this situation, one can cook the rice with an excess of salt to contribute to the overall flavor of the loaf. Salt plays three roles in baking; it enhances flavor, controls yeast, and strengthens the dough by tightening gluten. Salt is a vital ingredient in baking because it improves the dough’s volume, firmness, texture, evenness of cell structure, shelf-life, and, most importantly, taste.

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