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Pantry Engineering Pt. 3: Salts, Sweeteners & Peppercorns

Pt. 3 of Pantry Engineering series is all about salts, sweeteners and pepper. These are the building blocks of everything we make, and each contribute much more than just saltiness or sweetness. Flavor layering is the act of combining salt and sugar (and, in more complex scenarios, sourness, bitterness and umami) in a finished dish so that stimulates our tastebuds, appetite and brains to want and crave more — these are 2 most addictive flavors for our body because we’re biologically wired to seek them for survival, and IMO a dish’s greatness hinges on the proper balance between the two. (Here’s a great piece about the interplay of salt/sugar via Eater.)

Just like umami agents, to maximize your use of salts, sweeteners and pepper you first need to understand what each component adds beyond its known taste. For example, black lava salt has a mineral smokiness; Sichuan peppercorn is numbing; pomegranate molasses is sweet but also faintly tart. Potency is an important thing to note too — not all salts are the same saltiness, nor sweeteners the same Brix, even if they are the same category (e.g. not all kosher salt brands are the same, just taste Diamond Crystal vs. Morton’s). Using your preferred salt/sugar as a baseline, I recommend tasting & mentally mapping out just how intense each of your salts/sugars are in comparison. Texture is also a key consideration; as you can see, the shape of the salts (and how ground peppers are) can vary wildly and will hit your tongue (and teeth, if big enough) in different ways. (For sweeteners, it’s more about what you want in terms of viscosity and mouthfeel.)

I also find it useful to categorize each of these components into top, middle and base notes, which is something I’ll revisit in the next post on how I use spices (technically pepper should be in spices but I figured most people associate it with salt, so here we are). Every person’s benchmarks are different; to me, white sugar is a middle note while (good, rich) maple syrup forms a base note and clover honey adds a top note (buckwheat honey, shown above, oscillates between both top and base, which is interesting). Fermented white pepper (the Asian variety, which is fermented 2-3 weeks more than European ones) form a fantastic funky base note, while pink peppercorn (actually a berry and part of the cashew family, in case any has nut allergies), offers a bright and floral top note. While I only showed pure salts above, many umami agents are used for their saltiness and should be split along these lines too — white soy is a top note, Vietnamese fish sauce a base, Italian fish sauce in-between medium and base, etc.

By segmenting these basic ingredients into flavor layers across multiple planes, you’re better able to use them to develop complexity. E.g. if you’re stewing fatty, rich lamb perhaps contrast that with a top-note salt/peppercorn & a sour sweetener; crunchy, herb-forward pickles may shine when accented with a smoky base-note salt.

Hope this was helpful, and stay tuned for one final post about spices!

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