Salty Like the Sea

Following recipes can be treacherous. Sometimes they’re badly tested, just plain wrong or skip steps, and sometimes they seem to lie.

In culinary school, there’s a day dedicated to salt and a presentation designed to shock and inform the students. A student volunteer is called to the front and asked to add salt to a boiling pot of water for poaching vegetables. The class tastes the water and all agree more salt is needed. A little more salt goes into the pot, the students taste the water, and the group agrees that the salt is now sufficient. At this point the teacher makes his or her own pot of poaching water with what appears to be a ghastly amount of salt. The students taste the heavily salted water, grimace, and declare it horrible and definitively over-salted. The all-knowing teacher then poaches some cut vegetables in both pots. Students taste, compare, and all agree the vegetables cooked in the “over-salted” water not only taste better but taste more complex. Other flavors come forward and the vegetables taste more like what they are. Carrots, taste more carroty, green beans taste more green beany. And voila, students learn that salt is magic.

Court bouillon is defined as a flavorful poaching liquid. It can be as simple as water, salt, and wine, or it can include aromatic vegetables, spices, and herbs. The flavoring agents simmer in salty and acidic liquid, creating a flavorful quick stock, before foods like vegetables, fish, or other tender foods are added and poached.

Salt is unpopular for health reasons and the amounts used in restaurants, arguably to make food taste the way customers like it to taste, is not a popular subject amongst food writers. This might explain why most of the recipes for poaching liquid available to the home cook use such small amounts of it.

A quick search online brings up Court Bouillon recipes from some trusted sources. The amounts of salt vary, but none list the salt amounts typically used by chefs in restaurants around the country.

Martha Stewart recommends a little less than a teaspoon of salt per quart of water, barely enough to register to the palette; Epicurious nearly half that, and most surprising, Alton Brown, the original truth-teller and why-recipes-work guy, lists no salt whatsoever.

It’s arguable whether an unsalted liquid even qualifies as court bouillon, in that a flavorful poaching liquid isn’t very flavorful without salt. Alton Brown, knows a lot about cooking and culinary definitions, and he knows what a court bouillon is and isn’t. He also knows what makes food taste good, or as he would say “good eats”. So why does he omit the salt for his recipe and why do others use such timid amounts? In my experience, chefs often use three times as much salt or more for poaching liquid. Although, to be honest, I doubt most of them could give you advice on exactly how much to use, except maybe to quote the classic guideline of: salt the water until it tastes like the sea.

If I had to put a number on it, I’d bet two and a half to three teaspoons to a quart is about right in most cases. Root vegetables typically can take a lot of salt, while seafood and greens might take less. The best way to test the salt levels is to taste it, just like we try to teach at culinary school. Take a little bit of whatever it is you are cooking. Poach it for a few minutes in the court bouillon and taste it. Once you taste it, you’ll know, and you’ll wonder about those other recipes too.