Over the last couple of years, I’ve been asked by numerous acquaintences about the issue of salt/pepper relative to seasoning proteins before cooking. In considering this issue, I realized that many recipes I’ve encountered mention salt/peppering a protein before cooking without giving any indication of how much and how to distribute the seasoning.
I remember this question becoming an issue when I started cooking out of “Nobu: The Cookbook” for the first time back in 2004. I was attempting to prepare the “chilean seabass and truffles with yuzu soy butter sauce”. Step 3 of the recipe called for “…Sprinkle the filets with a little sea salt and black pepper…”. The question was: how much and in what proportion? The short answer to this, after preparing this recipe over the last 6 years was 4:1 ratio of salt/pepper and no more than 1 level tsp of this mix per pound of protein. I’ll elaborate how I arrived at these values a little later.
The next question – how to distribute the salt/pepper mix. Generally speaking, I have a little ramekin with the 1 tsp of salt/pepper mix to which I use (right hand) my thumb, index and middle fingers to pick up the salt/pepper mix. I bring my hand up to shoulder level over the protein in question and rub those fingers (and slightly move my arm) to evenly “rain”/”dust” the mix over the surface on all sides. The legendary Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry/Per Se) gives a great demonstration of this at:
(pay special attention to time index 3:05 through 3:45).
Going back to what I consider the core issue, re: salt/pepper ratio, one of the things that I thought about was how to consistently reproduce the salt/pepper profile in a dish. Coming from an Asian American heritage, I grew up relying on soy sauce as my source of salt in dishes. As an amateur cook, I pretty much relied on instinct about how much soy sauce to use – problem is, occasionally a dish might be oversalted or undersalted. This would become a bigger issue if I attempted to scale up or scale down a recipe. The salt/pepper issue was a more focused version of this issue.
On numerous occasions I would look over recipes from chefs like Julia Child/Jacques Pepin/etc, I would notice that where they DID mention salt/pepper ratios, I would see things like 1:1, 2:1, 4:1. After experimenting on a number of other dishes, I settled on the 4:1 mix.
So what I do now – if I have time, I measure out 1/2 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp of pepper in two separate ramekins and then go ahead and season the protein, salt first then followed by the pepper. I also keep a container of a mix of 4 tsps of salt and 1 tsp pepper for when I don’t have time and then measure out 1 tsp when I’m seasoning 1 lb of protein that I’m going to cook.
Just from experience, I just want to comment on salt in soups. If when makng a soup from scratch (assuming no other ingredients have significant intrinsic amount of salt), my experience suggests that 1/4 tsp salt/cup of liquid should provide adequate ‘saltiness’ to the soup. It should be interesting to note that the salt/water ratio in seawater is 3.5% salt/unit of water.