Take It with a Pinch of Salt. Or Not.

When John V.’s in-laws gave up both salt and marinades in their grilling, the Boston listener wondered if it matters. He asked whether the salt in a marinade actually has an effect on the finished flavor and texture of the meat.

The science of salt has us siding with the in-laws. Conventional wisdom is that marinades—typically loaded with high-­impact ingredients—should impart deep, bold flavors to the meats we soak in them. Except they don’t. That’s because the flavor molecules in the marinades aren’t able to penetrate much beyond the surface of the meat. And the flavors left clinging to the exterior generally are dulled by the heat when cooked. The exception is salt, which (thanks to osmosis) is able to penetrate proteins. Trouble is, most marinades don’t contain enough salt to noticeably affect flavor or texture. While salt does draw moisture into meat, we suspected again that the amount of salt in the typical marinade isn’t enough to make a difference. To test, we marinated chicken breasts in a 4 percent salt solution to approximate the salt in a marinade. After the meat was cooked, we found little textural difference between it and the chicken that wasn’t soaked. In fact, we found that any acid, such as citrus or vinegar, in a marinade had a far greater effect on the texture of the meat, as they break down surface proteins (indeed, acids are so effective at this, they can turn meat, particularly chicken, mushy). The place where salt does make a difference is brining, which often is at least a 6 percent salt solution. But better than both approaches is using the salt and flavorful ingredients to make a sauce that is applied to the meat after cooking. This not only avoids worry about the salt penetrating the proteins, it also keeps the flavors fresh and bright.

Nothing to Sneeze At

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine cooking without black pepper, but for Kimberly Radmacher, of Laconia, Indiana, it’s a constant struggle. She’s allergic to the ubiquitous spice and wondered what we’d suggest as substitutes.

Peppercorns add pops of floral, spicy heat that is sharp, yet—unlike chilies—doesn’t linger in the mouth. But as much as we love pepper, there are plenty of other ingredients with similar attributes. The closest comparable substitute might be grains of paradise, a seed harvested from a West African plant that’s a relative of ginger and cardamom. The seeds can be used whole or ground to add a citrusy heat similar to black pepper’s. Though peppercorns and chilies get their kick from different chemicals (piperine for the former, capsaicin for the latter), ground or flaked dried chilies can be used in a similar manner. Cayenne—which has a spicy, yet mostly neutral flavor—is a good place to start. You also can try Urfa pepper or Aleppo pepper, though their more pronounced fruity notes may change the flavor of the dish. For something less spicy and more floral, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves echo the earthy side of black pepper; coriander gives a citrusy punch; and allspice lends a mild peppery note.

Cheating at the Game of Bones

Homemade beef stock is vastly better than anything boxed or canned. But Richard VandenBerg, of Douglas, Massachusetts, wondered why he gets inconsistent results: Sometimes it’s silky and rich, other times disappointingly watery.

Despite the apparent simplicity of making beef stock—typically roasting, then simmering bones—there are many variables that can alter the outcome. Stock gets its richness from the collagen protein in the marrow and bones, which breaks down and forms the gelatin that gives the stock its viscosity. The longer the bones simmer, the more they break down. This is why many chefs simmer their stocks for up to 24 hours (eight hours, for example, extracts just 20 percent of beef bones’ gelatin). But just as important as timing is the bones themselves. Size matters, obviously. But so does the age and variety of the bones. The larger a bone is, the longer it takes to extract an equal amount of gelatin. Also, the bones of older animals contain less collagen. And different bones (backbones versus ribs, for example) also contain differing amounts. To get consistent results when making stock, you could interrogate your butcher about the bones you buy, but we prefer an easier method: cheating. Adding unflavored powdered gelatin to any variety of homemade stock as it cooks can provide the viscosity you are looking for. In our testing, we found that a gallon of stock needed up to 10 teaspoons (four ¼-ounce packets) powdered gelatin. To prevent clumping, whisk the gelatin into ½ cup water and let stand for 30 minutes. Whisk the mixture into the simmering stock a couple of tablespoons at a time until the desired viscosity is reached.