With these two precious ingredients we enter the dominion of fire. They both are the most pleasant substances in gastronomy, we cannot do without salt, but we do not have to forget that they dry up and burn food. Think of the preservation of food under salt; it is a precious technique, but it will never equal the capacity of the sun in this field. No meat dried under salt will ever have scents and flavors comparable to sun dried meat. No cod under salt will ever compare to fish dried by the air. Also, prosciutto are better when they are produced through adequate ageing, rather than an excess of salt. Salt and vinegar represent the extreme limits in the range of flavors, an analogous extremity, since vinegar also has a salted background flavor. This background flavor is clearly perceived in fish soups with vinegar. In the dish you will not perceive the vinegar, but a salted accent instead.
We use them sparingly
These extreme flavors can be overwhelming to some palates, and to their honor I propose the beef steak with salt and vinegar: grill the meat and dress it with romarin, balsamic aceto, and coarse salt before serving. A good culinary rule of thumb, however, holds that salt and vinegar must be used sparingly. Their flavor should lend strength to a dish, but never dominate it. Too much of either can ruin a meal, so err on the side of caution because you can always add more later. If you feel your dish lacks flavor, use other spices and herbs to help flesh it out.
Salt: fine or coarse
Too often the quality of salt and vinegar are neglected and two different products are assumed to be the same. This is a big mistake. The flavor of salt varies if crude or refined, its yield in a dish varies depending on its grain size. French ocean salt, rather moist, is surely the best one to give flavor to raw dishes, but it is not always easy to find in our stores. To cook instead it is better to use a more refined salt, very dry, since it is saltier and small amounts are enough. On salads less refined salt is recommended.
Salt, a precious good
Salt is one of the most diffused minerals on the planet, but the difficulties connected to supplying it in ancient times, rendered it a precious good to which were attributed symbolic and important meanings. Hospitality, one of the most sacred practices, was made legitimate by the ritual of the partitioning of the salt with the host in all of Mediterranean East, Japan and ancient Greece. Still today it is a widely held belief that spilling salt brings misfortune. A pinch of salt is then thrown over the left shoulder, in order to hit the demons who are behind the back. Leonardo da Vinci painted a salt container turned upside down under the elbow of Judas in his painting, the Last supper.
When speaking of quality, vinegar is the big unknown. The product of wine fermentation, but also of fruit, cereal, malt and honey, vinegar is often made with the poorest raw materials like, for example, wine gone bad. This is a big mistake, especially considering that vinegar is not a necessary food for a balanced diet, but a condiment of pleasant and particular feelings. Therefore it must be of good or excellent quality. It cannot be made with poor wine, since the flavor of the wine remains in the vinegar. Fortunately, some manufacturers have understood it and very good vinegars can be found in the markets. The balsamic vinegars fermented naturally and aged for five years in small barrels of various woods, one for every year of aging; chestnut, cherry, mulberry, ash and often juniper to confer the characteristic scent, are a good example. Other vinegars are based on the extraordinary quality of the starting wine to become true gastronomic wonders. Also interesting are the aromatized vinegars: raspberry, blueberry, apple, scallion, and many the others. To be good these need excellent raw materials, fruits and herbs perfumed, not to be aromatized with extracts, therefore the good ones are relatively expensive. But if you like to use vinegar choose a good bottle, or banish it from your kitchen.
No vinegar on salads
Do not put vinegar on green salad since it cooks it and takes away all of its scent. Abandon this bad habit. Take a tender green salad and season it with a fruity olive oil and you will taste the difference. Vinegar must be used mainly for sauces. Always make it to evaporate well so that the best aroma is felt. In salads vinegar is used when it recalls the flavor of one of the ingredients, as an example only put some drops of a raspberry aromatized vinegar in a salad containing raspberries. Pure acetic acid on a salad or, even worse, on tomatoes that are already acidic in their own right, ruins a gift of nature.
David Russo, VMD, PhD
Veterinary Scientist, Gourmet Lover and Amateur Cook
1830 Pilgrim Ave. , Bronx, NY 10461