There's a funny way some of the pointy-toothed characters in the Anne Rice vampire novels leave messages for one another, etching their notes onto temple walls—hidden to those who don't know to look for them.
I get a bit of that “seeking hidden messages” feeling with the intriguing but hard-to-learn-more-about technique of pre-salting vegetables. I once read about a New Zealand chef who soaked his cauliflower in salty brine, and I’ve seen glimmers of the idea in recipes for smashed cucumbers. We're not talking about pickling veggies, but simply seasoning them in advance, thus giving them extra time to develop more flavor. You don't necessarily want to use more salt than normal, just do it sooner and be more deliberate about it in an effort to make a good dish better.
While home cooks break the internet every holiday season searching for wet and dry brines for their turkeys, and it's easy to look up how to give pork chops a salty bath for an hour before they're grilled, there's surprisingly little out there in that vein for vegetables.
I'm pretty sure there's no good reason for that.
As a regular sauerkraut maker, I knew there had to be something to the idea of salting what might be considered earlier than normal. There's an early step in kraut recipes when the just-chopped cabbage sits in a bowl with salt, letting off water and magically picking up a slightly more intense green after about an hour. I always sneak a bite before popping it into a jar to ferment and though it's lost a bit of crunch, it has picked up what you might call a pleasing “snap,” and, most importantly, flavor.
I asked chef Eric Rivera about the practice of pre-salting veggies, and while he does it, it's in a "super random" way, so he put me in touch with Preeti Mistry, the chef, podcaster, spice merchant, and coauthor of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook. Mistry picked right up on the textural changes I'd noticed, railing a bit against the “European standard” where veggies need to be bright green and al dente.
"On a basic level, there's a sense that you shouldn't pre-salt because you'll lose the crunch," they said, adding that salting ahead "allows the salt and other flavors to get into the flesh of the vegetables."
Mistry particularly likes to pre-salt heartier vegetables like potatoes, corn, and artichokes, adding intense flavors and spices along with the salt.
"I'll toss broccoli with salt, ginger, garlic, cumin, and soy and let it sit out for a couple of hours. If you do it in advance, your flavors create cohesion with the vegetables," they said, warning, "If you season just before grilling, it just falls off."
Mistry particularly likes doing this with food they are going to grill and deep fry. (Subsequent testing revealed why they prefer those methods; doing it in a sauté pan made a smoky mess of my kitchen.)
As we spoke, I realized what I really wanted was pre-salted simplicity—some easy-to-follow rules of thumb, and Mistry was there to help.
"I can't make people do percentage brine," they said, referring to the practice in which a liter of water and half a kilo of vegetables might have 150 grams of salt stirred in. Instead they offered some simpler advice: "Put more salt on than you would … if it were on your plate."
I took that note to heart. During my prep, I could just add a quick salting step, say, right after I cut a cauliflower into wedges, then continue with the recipe as usual.
Keeping that idea in mind, I got cracking, buying veggies and salting them as early as I could in the prep process of whatever I was making. Usually, I'd have positive results, especially noticeable when I remembered to keep an unsalted or “normally salted” sample to compare it to. I noticed with green beans that I needed to start early and toss them once or twice to distribute the salt evenly. I'd sprinkle it onto and into whole heads of broccoli, sometimes misting the greenery with water to get the salt to stick. I'd also salt big trays of cut vegetables, rearranging my prep to give them more time than usual before throwing them on the grill. Radish slices for crudités could only hang out in the salty brine for a little while before taking on a bit of slipperiness, so I’d only hit them with the magic crystals late in the game. Sometimes I'd run into issues like the salt pulling so much water out of a squash or zucchini that I had to pat it dry to keep it from steaming on the grill. Mostly, I was on a good path, not over-salting, just salting sooner, and generally making food taste better.
I was still curious about brining—dunking vegetables into salty water for a stretch before cooking—and for that I called Paul Adams, senior research editor at America's Test Kitchen. Adams, who is a former WIRED contributor and succinctly describes his current job as "I research," also took a practical approach on when to pre-salt.
"Do it for any vegetable that you want to be nice and salty when you eat it, or that you would grill," he said. "I don't think there's a very good reason for it not to be popular. If you have time to soak something for 45 minutes, it comes out better."
He was also willing to have people try a percentage brine.
"Presumably you don't want to spend very long doing this, so you want a nice concentrated brine, say 10 percent for an hour, depending on the vegetable," he said. "Below 5 percent, you're going to be waiting forever for your veg to get salty."
For that 10-percent brine, for example, you'd add the weight of the water and vegetables, multiply that number by 0.1, and add that amount of salt.
He suggested trying carrots or asparagus, the latter pricked with a fork, in an 8-percent solution for less than an hour. "Don't worry," he says, "you're not going to over-salt things in 45 minutes. Salt can only diffuse so fast."
Adams also reminded me about how you can sometimes just pre-salt in the cooking water and suggested checking the book On Food and Cooking, where esteemed food science author Harold McGee recommends boiling green vegetables in a 3-percent salt solution.
This, give or take, is what chefs are talking about with cooking water that "tastes like the sea," something that's going to feel like a metric ton to the pinch-of-salt crowd, although very little of that salt is transferred into the veggies.
Again, over the course of my experimentation with the technique, my results were slightly mixed, but they certainly skewed toward success. I started noticing things that were pre-salted well didn't taste salty, they just tasted better. In head-to-head testing, vegetables that were salted closer to their cooking time tasted completely waterlogged. The pre-salted food tasted more like itself—something high-end chefs strive for.
Everything really started falling into place when I realized my cookbook of the moment, Meera Sodha's vegetarian marvel East, had several recipes calling for pre-salting; she just was not making a big show of it. I learned to watch for the words "and set aside" as a telltale sign.
Her Thai salad with grapefruit and cashews, for example, starts with grapefruit, red cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and Thai basil in a bowl with salt, a mixture that gets stirred up and then set aside while you pound chiles, garlic, and sugar into a paste that becomes the dressing. Ditto for her magnificent Mouth-Numbing Noodles, where cabbage leaves, cukes, and mint get quick-pickled with vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and salt and are set aside while you prepare the rest of the meal.
I saw this again for Sodha’s chargrilled summer vegetables with dhana-jeera dressing, and I started doing it to good effect even with other recipes that didn't call for it, especially her surprisingly good celery-and-peanut-filled wontons. This wasn't more salt than the recipe called for, just an earlier application of it. I was not only discovering a new cookbook, I was also gently expanding my culinary abilities.
By pre-salting and occasionally pre-brining, and doing it only when I didn't have to twist up my schedule or do mental gymnastics to make it happen, I found my food became better. It wasn't a leaps-and-bounds gain but rather subtle experimentation that almost always made good food a little tastier.
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