The Secrets of Salt: History, Science, and Cooking with Naomi Duguid | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 708
March 30, 2023

The Secrets of Salt: History, Science, and Cooking with Naomi Duguid

The Secrets of Salt: History, Science, and Cooking with Naomi Duguid

This week, we explore our most essential pantry staple: salt. Naomi Duguid takes us around the world to learn its history, from Cambodia to Basque Country to an underground salt cathedral in Poland, while Alex Aïnouz gets obsessed with making gourmet salt in his lab. Plus, writer Doug Mack tells the odiferous details of the Great Midwest Cheese Duel of 1935, and we make Hungarian Paprika-Braised Potatoes.

Questions in this episode:

"What are the different uses for a cloche?"

"How do I season my flat-bottomed wok without a gas stove?"

"How would you go about making a peach-cobbler oatmeal?"

"What kind of salt should I use in baking?"

"I’m following up on my alfajores recipe now that I’ve baked them with various kinds of flour."

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Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball.

It inspired the French Revolution and Gandhi's march across India, cathedrals are carved out of it. Cities got rich from it, and we can't live without it. Today we're talking about ...

Alex Ainouz: Salt. I didn't know if I was going to wow you were just salt, but trust me, I think I can.

CK: Alex Ainouz takes a close look at the different kinds,

AA: I put them under the lens of a microscope and what I found was shocking.

CK: Plus, Naomi Duguid shares stories from a world tour of salt. She even found it deep in the heart of Basque country in Spain.

Naomi Duguid: There was a salt spring, and it cascades down the hill. And now the evaporation happens in terraces. It looks like rice terraces.

CK Our adventures with salt are coming up later in the show. But first, we're bringing to light a tense dispute between two postal workers over the pungent aroma of Limburger cheese all the way back in 1935. Writer Doug Mack joins us to recount what he has dubbed the great Midwest cheese duel. Doug, welcome to Milk Street.

Doug Mack: Hello, thanks for having me. It's nice to be here.

CK: So, this is a story about Limburger cheese, and whether you can mail it or not. And we'll get to that story. But tell me about Limburger cheese in the United States.

DM: In the United States. Limberger is really a story of Swiss immigrants. And specifically in the town of Monroe, Wisconsin. There was an immigrant named Rudolph Benkert, who first started making Limburger in 1867. And of course, Wisconsin, famously dairy country, right. And Monroe is specifically all about Limburger. There's a co-op there in Monroe, that is still to this day, the largest manufacturer of Limberger in the USA, so it's a big deal there.

CK: So, Limburger though stands out as being a particularly odiferous milk product, right? Is a stronger smell than just about any other cheese.

DM: Yeah, exactly. Limburger has a reputation right of having a very pungent, a strong aroma. And, you know, for the people who like it, that's part of the appeal. And even today, there is a Limburger and raw onion sandwich that is a staple at a cheese store and tavern on 16th Avenue in Monroe. And it's because it's such a strong taste that also has these strong emotional connections that tie people back to this Swiss culture.

CK: Yeah, I was reading that. The sandwich rye bread sliced red onion, mustard, Limburger a big thick hunk of it. And then a lot of folks love it was strawberry jam.

DM: Yeah, I mean, I think that it's not about subtlety.

CK: Okay, so there was a duel, as you put it between two local postmasters around mailing this cheese. (Yeah) So, what happened and how did this whole thing get started?

DM: So, in 1935, there was someone in Independence, Iowa, who was prescribed Limburger by the local doctor, it's unclear exactly what it was for. Some people say that it was to help open up this person's sinuses because of this strong smell. But we do know that they ordered a block of Limburger from Monroe, Wisconsin. And when it got there, the postal employees smelled it through the paper. And they sent it right back and they said this is this is too stinky. We can't deliver this. And local newspapers caught wind of this in both places and then nationally. The two postmasters tried to take it all the way to Washington, DC, they contacted the Postmaster General and said, you know, can you resolve this dispute? Because this was sort of an open question. This has not come up before apparently. Can you mail Limburger cheese? What steps do you have to take? Postmaster General says, you know what, work it out yourselves. And so, the two postmasters decided that the only way to resolve this was to have a smell off.

CK: So, who exactly are these people participating in this grand smell off?

DM: So, our two combatants here are postmaster John Burkhart of Monroe, Wisconsin, and Warren Miller of independence, Iowa. They meet in Dubuque, Iowa, which is sort of between the two towns. They go to this big grand hotel, the hotel julienne still open. So, Postmaster Burkhart rolls up. He's got a couple other people with him from Monroe. They brought 25 pounds of Limburger and some rye bread. And there are a bunch of reporters there. There was a guy from the Milwaukee Journal, a reporter named Richard S. Davis, who describes the whole thing with this sort of militaristic flourish, and he says, neither contestant wear armor of any sort, except an opulent napkin placed immediately below the second chin. Both were standing stoically as they advanced to shake hands. A hush fell upon the gathering.

CK: The two postmasters are there, they're both eating cheese, and hoping that the other guy changed his mind.

DM: Yeah, it seems to be more that postmaster Burkhart from Monroe was trying to get postmaster Miller from independence to concede that Limburger isn't this noxious thing

CK: I see.

DM: I think that the ultimate goal was that they wanted to be able to ship Limberger without getting sent sent back. You know, there's pride at stake here.

CK: So, take us inside the duel, you know what actually happened.

DM: So, they have this cheese duel, they go through multiple rounds. At some point in here, Miller mentions that actually, he has lost his sense of smell. He hasn't been able to smell things for a few years. He was really actually acting mostly on behalf of his employees who had taken offense to the odor of the cheese. And by all accounts at the end, Miller says, yep, I enjoy it. He eats a sandwich. And he says, break out the beers. So, they all toast. And Miller and his entourage promised that the next time Limburger came into their post office, quote, “she will be royally received”.

CK: So, this was remarkably a front-page event. You wrote that the Brownsville Herald had this story printed next to an adjacent headline about machine guns, which seems to me to be quite a mix of news stories, don't you think?

DM: This kind of gripped the nation very briefly. It was during the middle of the Depression. There's also a lot of other stuff going on in the world. It's a tumultuous time. And I think that people were really looking for a little bit of lightness, a little entertainment that could distract them from all this other stuff, which was very relatable. People were celebrating cheese or denigrating cheese having a big debate about cheese. And this was something that was a bit of a distraction from everything that was going on in the world.

CK: So, at the end of the day, Limberger can be mailed. Do you know what's happened to Limberger in the intervening 85 years?

DM: Yeah. So, in October 1935, so just a few months after this cheese duel in Dubuque 50,000 people showed up for the Glorious Return of the cheese day festival, they had had to cancel the last couple of festivals just because the local cheese industry was suffering. And so, there was a parade and John Burkhart, the postmaster from Monroe was guests of honor. And he also brought along Warren Miller, the postmaster from Independence, Iowa. So, they kept hamming it up. And sounds like they sort of became friends after this.

CK: You know, it's nice to have a story with a sweet ending. Now, I got to go out and get a loaf of rye bread. Get a big slice of Limburger. Get some raw onions and some strawberry jam and mustard. I just, you know, I've just got to find out firsthand what that tastes like.

DM: Yeah, exactly. Or, you know, book a trip to Monroe, Wisconsin. I'm sure they'd love to have you.

CK: Doug, thank you so much the story of the Limburger cheese duel of 1935. Thanks.

DM: Thanks for having me.

CK: That was Doug Mack. He's a food and travel writer and author of the online newsletter Snack Stack. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also author of Home Cooking 101.

Sara Moulton: So, Chris, before we get started here, I have a question. Do you have any sort of goals for 2023?

CK: I guess my answer would be when you get to a certain age, do you still need to have goals for the year? Or can you just like, yeah, here's my goal. I'm going to get up every morning happy. I'm still alive. Okay, I'm going to make my bed, which I think is important. Okay, and I'm going to have the best cup of coffee I can find. Yep. And then go sit at my desk, and just enjoy the day for six minutes.

SM: That’s all your allotted with a family like yours.

CK: Than it’s a quarter to seven and I go to work. But, you know, you just have to take whatever you get and enjoy it. Right.

SM: Okay,

CK: How about you?

SM: Well, geez,

CK: You want to run for president?

SM: No, no, no, I want to from a culinary point of view I want to cook more fish. My daughter had to come home for a while to save money because she was going to graduate school and she doesn't like fish. So, we didn't eat much fish. And she's moved out and it's great. She's thriving, it's better. You know, I'd loved having her but so the husband was like, we haven't had any fish in a while. So, more fish. And other than that, I've taken up watercolors (really), and I'm going to start instead of just relegating them to every so often every other weekend, it's going to be far more often.

CK: Well, maybe this is the year I get to be a rock and roll star then.

SM: You’ve been trying forever. Well, in the style of the Grateful Dead?

CK: Yeah. So, I'll be a rock and roll star. You'll eat more fish and we’ll both enjoy the first cup of coffee.

SM: There you go.

CK: Let's take some calls.

SM: Yeah. Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Mike from Traverse City, Michigan.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: You know about a year ago, my daughter. She's an arts teacher specializing in ceramic activities. And she made herself a cloche to bake bread. I dropped more than a few heads. And eventually, she made me a cloche. And I've used it a few times to make bread and it's just a lovely way to bake bread in. It has a hard glaze inside and out. Is this only going to be my bread maker or are there other things I can do with it?

SM: Oh, no, there's lots you can do with it. But before we go there, let's just say for those people who don't know what it is, it's sort of a domed stoneware baker. And the point of it is why it's so great for bread is it's a very closed environment. So, it traps steam. And there's two parts, there's the bottom and then there's the domed top. So yeah, you could use it for pizza, for casseroles, for roasts, for fish, you could use it for just about anything you'd use the Dutch oven for, I think you would want to brown the things separately, if you were going to put color on them, and then add them to the container because you're not going to put it directly on a burner and brown anything in it.

Caller: She has suggested that it could go on a stovetop, I'd be afraid to do that though.

SM: I would be inclined not to do that. But let's hear what Chris has to say.

CK: This is about enjoying the cookware you have in your oven. Your daughter made this, and you'd love it and that's great. But I would not put it on top of the stove, but you could use it in the oven for anything you want to. I would also think about slow cooking in it, right like a roast at 250 degrees like a long slow braise would be my ideal. The older I get the more I like to cook with things that have some meaning for me the not just something I bought in the store. So yeah, you love this thing. It has a personal connection, use it for as much as you can. Sure.

Caller: The pan itself, the bottom part is about an inch and a half deep, (right) and about 10” across,

SM: You couldn't really do saucy thing, but you could do something that didn't you know, wasn't a lot of liquid didn't require a lot of height.

CK: Here's what I suggest I would make bread with it. Keep it as a single purpose thing. It's a very special piece of cookware for you. And leave it at that. And I think that's just lovely.

Caller: Thanks.

CK: Thanks for calling.

Caller: I really appreciate that.

SM: Thanks Mike

CK: Thanks so much. Thanks. Take care.

SM: Bye bye

CK: Welcome to Mill Street, who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Mark and I'm from Phoenix.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, I have a question about seasoning a flat bottom wok. I purchased one a couple of months ago. It's a fairly inexpensive wok I got from a discount store but it's brand new. All the stuff I've seen online and on YouTube and whatnot our hottest season with a gas top so all I have is an electric stove and an oven is there any way I can seasons wok and do it properly without a gas stove?

CK: Yes, you're going to want to heat it up over sort of medium low heat to get it fully heated evenly. And the first step would be to clean it. I would just put some cheap oil in there maybe a quarter cup or so. Third cup and then put a few tablespoons of coarse salt in with some paper towels. Make sure you have oven mitt or in your hand or something and just scrub out the now hot wok and you could use the scrubber too and then just clean that out with paper towels. Don't wash it, let it cool down, heat it up again with a couple tablespoons of neutral oil on the bottom. When it starts to smoke and gets good and hot, take another bunch of paper towels, and rub the oil into the pan all around the inside. Do that a few times because if you don't, you'll get these sticky patches. So, keep rubbing it in, let it cool. Put the oil in the pan, start to heat it, rub it in two or three times, and then wipe out the excess. Let it cool. Then you have a pretty well season wok just like a cast iron pan. Every time you use it. Don't wash it until you so okay, just wipe it out. reheat it with the oil and repeat once. If you ever get sticky bits in there, add the salt and the salt with the oil will clean almost anything but never ever put it in the sink or use soap or wash it regularly.

Caller: Even when I'm doing the first cleaning. I should not use water at all on it.

CK: No, you never need to use water. What you're doing is creating a layer of oil, fat essentially between the food and the pan.

Caller: And when I choose my oil to use what kind of oil shouldn't I use or should use?

CK: Nothing expensive. You could use

SM: a high smoke point

CK: Highly refined olive oil is actually very high smoke point. You could use that grapeseed oil, sunflower oil all those are fine. I don't like canola oil, particularly because it’s fishy.

SM: I don’t either. Peanut oil too

Caller: Peanut oil. Okay. Well, thank you very much for that. I do appreciate it.

SM: All right.

CK: Take care.

SM: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need a hand in the kitchen, call us anytime 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Alicia from Chicago.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, I'm calling because I have a dilemma. Years ago, I was a paraprofessional at an elementary school, and they serve home cooked meals to the students. One of the things that they cooked occasionally on Fridays was peach cobbler oatmeal. It was fantastic. They'd start with a breakfast. And after the students were served, if there was leftovers, they would serve it to faculty and staff. I mean, it was so delicious, that I needed the recipe. So, I asked for the recipe and was met with a no, (that's silly) I even tried to sneak down to the kitchen, you know to see what was going on. I went to see the process and no

CK: And you know you never got the recipe, and you want to figure out how to make it right?

Caller: I want to figure out how to make it all of my attempts have gone flat. Literally my peaches have gone flat and flavorless every time I've tried to cook

CK: I would start with his steel cut oats. The best way to cook them is the night before and use one cup of oats three cups of water. You can either start by sauteing the oats in a little bit of butter first, but you don't have to do that. Add the water and then bring it to a simmer. Cover it and let it sit without heat on the stovetop overnight. Then morning comes you can add water or milk or almond milk, whatever you want another cup and then bring it to a simmer and cook it about 10 minutes. So that really cuts down on the cooking time because they've sat overnight. That's how to cook those still cut oats. I think and Sara probably great with peaches, if you want to use fresh peaches is I would cook them in butter and a little sugar in a skillet for just a few minutes and concentrate the flavor. Get rid of some of the water and then add those to the oatmeal just before serving. So, the one you tasted from the school were the peaches, they felt like tasted like canned peaches or fresh peaches or what?

Caller: You know they may have been canned peaches. I'm not certain when I tried to make it with fresh peaches. They're generally not as sweet.

CK: Yeah, I think they were canned.

SM: Do just add them straight up like peel them and cut them up and add them.

Caller: Yeah, well, yeah,

SM: That's yeah, that was the problem because you needed to sort of flavor them you know. Like you would never throw just plain raw peaches into a pie without some sugar and acid. You know because

you got to

Caller: I’ve never made a peach pie. Okay, this is a great information. Thank you.

SM: Yeah, you need to point them up. You need to point up that flavor, even if they're ripe and even if they're not ripe. If you do what Chris suggested by cooking them with some sugar, they will become more peachy and the texture will soften, and they'll be really yummy.

CK: and just a tiny bit of salt too.

SM: Yeah, and I always add a little bit of lemon juice

CK: but what you could use canned or bottled peaches.

SM: Yeah, we won't tell

CK: And what else was in the oatmeal. Besides the peaches they said peach cobbler oatmeal. Was there something else in there too like some spices or?

Caller: Yes, definitely could taste cinnamon, nutmeg

CK: Just be easy on the cinnamon nutmeg. That will take over pretty quickly. Yeah

SM: Okay, it sounds good. I'm getting hungry.

CK: It does sound nice. The name sounds good.

SM: Alicia, you should let us know how it goes.

Caller: You know what I will. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your help.

SM: Okay Alicia

CK: Take care.

Caller: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street radio coming up with journey through the world of salt. That's up right after the break.

Wes Martin: Hi, this is Wes Martin. I'm the director of culinary production at Milk Street between cooking for photoshoots recipe development and tastings, I get to make wonderful food from all over the world, which I make it home for myself all the time to learn more about membership options at Milk Street

CK: This is Milk Street Radio, I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, I'm joined by food writer Naomi Duguid. For her latest book, The Miracle of Salt, she traveled the world, from the mountains of Morocco to the salt fields of Cambodia to see firsthand how salt is made and used. Naomi, welcome to Milk Street.

Naomi Duguid: Thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CK: You and I spoke years ago it was my favorite radio moment of all time. And you were talking about being in an orchard in Azerbaijan. There was an older woman, you guys did not speak the same language. she gestured to you to come to her home, which was modest. And she fed you an apple and some tea. And I remember that moment because you were very emotional about that. I could hear it in your voice. It does that for you. And capsulate sort of why you do what you do?

ND: Oh, you know, it's it's a piece of it. I mean, basically connecting to humans and trying to understand where they are, what they have, what they do with what they have, and how they connect to themselves is my big goal. And then when there's a human connection, when somehow, I actually get to, to be present with someone and they're at ease with me, then yeah, that's that's the kind of oh, that's the real bonus. It's, it's fantastic.

CK: So, you traveled all over the world to learn about salt So, let me start with an obvious question, which is, what is salt?

ND: Well, salt, so sodium chloride, and the sodium is the thing that gives saltiness to the salt, we use the salt taste. So, what's it doing when you add it, it actually helps with aroma. Without salt things tastes flat. And as I understand it, because I'm not a chemist, when we add salt, it liberates water molecules, which then get the aromas going.

CK: Let's talk about where salt comes from. There’s lots of different ways to get at salt. So, was all salt created equal at the beginning, we just have different ways of extracting it from different things.

ND: Yeah, all salt basically originates in the ocean. But some of it is now because of the history of the Earth. Some of its found in a hardened state as like rock. So, you know, that old phrase of you know, oh, I’ve got to get back to the salt mine that was, you know, like a coal face, you know, chipping away salt. There's a cathedral in Poland, underground, and in Colombia, being carved out in salt mines. And then there's salt in the form of its diluted as a brine, but it's inland so it's not in the sea. It's a well a salt spring, inland. But in each case, when you find salt, if it's in the form of a brine coming out of the ground or in the ocean, you have to do something to get it. It's a low concentration. And so, the water is salty, you don't want to drink it, but if you need salt, salt, you know, for your food or for preservation, you have to boil that water, or have the sun evaporate the water, so that the salt is left. And that's, that's a problem in a place where say you don't have a lot of wood, or you don't have a lot of sunshine. So, evaporation doesn't work. And so, there's some really amazing solutions that humans have come up with, over the millennia really, to get this thing that they absolutely have to have.

CK: So, here's a question I've never been able to answer. So salt is over 99% Sodium chloride. So, people go, oh, Hawaiian salt, or Himalayan salt, or this salt, or gray salt, or black salt. And boy, we should have different colors of salt, because they all taste different. If salt is almost entirely sodium chloride, are there enough minerals in the salt to actually taste the difference between different kinds of salt?

ND: When you actually taste it, you know, on the end of your finger, you can taste differences between salts, and then the texture. In other words, the shape of the crystal affects sort of how it is if you sprinkle it on food right then but once you've dissolved it, in a soup, you're just getting saltiness. So, I think it's lovely to have finishing salts, you know, sort of crystal shapes, to appreciate for sprinkling on. And the different salts are also a treat for the cook just thinking oh, a choice, I have a choice, you know, but actually, for general cooking, there is no point in spending the money on a fancy salt when in fact, you just want a salt that's going to work and be comfortable in your hand.

CK: Let's talk about the history a little bit. Salt has been used as money. It was taxed you write the British tax on salt in India led to God these very effective Salt March in the spring of 1930. So, salt has political consequences too.

ND: Well, sure if there's something that everyone needs, and some people have it, and some people don't, then of course, there's an imbalance of power. And the people that have it could just be generous minded and say, oh, let's we'll share. But since when has that been true with nation states? Or you know, ever? No, they deal they exact a price for the thing they have that you want. And what is that price? Well, it can be various it can be power, the British basically wanting to tax out there, they're squeezing money out of people, the Japanese taxed salt from the early 1900s to pay for the war against Russia, they force all the salt to be sold centrally. The Italians tax salt. So, it's a government tool of French, the Gabel that that's one of the causes of the French Revolution. And also, places got rich, like Venice, with the salt trade. You know, a lot of people would write a book on a topic like salt. And they would Google things and I guess maybe in the old days, go to the library, you actually get on planes and go places because that that's what you do. So, you went to a lot of really interesting places to see salt harvesting. So, what were a few of them and was there anything that really struck you in some of these places?

ND: Well, yeah, it's interesting. I had been to some of those places in the course of working on other books so, it was I was lucky, given the way the world turned in the last few years. I had some previous experience to draw on. And then for the book explicitly, I went to Basque country, and the Salinas de Anjana, so you think of Basque Country, Spain, okay. So, it must salt must be on the coast. Well, no, that was the place where there was a salt spring at the top of a hill basically. And it's it cascades down the hill. And now the evaporation happens in terraces, it looks like rice terraces, but the pools are like pools, you know, in the along the ocean, except they're terraced down the hill. And as the brine concentrates, it goes down. And eventually you have salt at the bottom of the hill. I didn't know about that. And I was reading casually. And I thought, oh, wow, this can be my first stop for the book.

CK: So you're in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and you go to Kampot and then you find a bicycle to rent to pedal out to the salt fields. Do you frequently travel in very local ways, you're walking around, you're on a bicycle, etc.

ND: Well, how else am I going to be there? I mean, otherwise, I'm sort of floating above or something. I mean, I'm interested in encounter and in feeling connected to where I am. And the best way to do that is to kind of put in that sort of time of just being present to hoping that something will happen. But I can't do that if I'm in a rented car.

CK: So, I I imagine you as sort of a wandering pilgrim. Because I would assume there are times where you don't know where you'll be spending the night.

ND: Oh, yeah, for sure.

CK: Just tell us a little bit about how that works.

ND: Well, if I get everything set ahead of time, if I somehow magically made bookings for everything ahead of time, then I'd be imprisoned by the limitations of the knowledge I had before I went there. And what I want to do is, tune in as soon as possible to where I am, and I don't care if it's not the best place, I'm not looking for the best or the cheapest, or the I'm just trying to go with it. And I guess that's partly because I'm also the thing I spend is time, instead of spending money I'm spending time.

CK: Naomi, it's been, once again, a great pleasure having you on the show. Thank you.

ND: Thanks so much. It's always a treat to talk to you.

CK: That was Naomi Duguid. Her book is The Miracle of Salt. So salt may in fact be responsible for the growth of civilization. Yet today, it's regarded as a health risk. So, I went searching for convincing data. In one 2014 review, seven studies were listed. Six of them were cohort studies. And cohort studies make it very difficult to isolate just one factor. In fact, high blood pressure might result from high sodium intake, but also could be due to lack of exercise, economic status, overall diet, environmental pressures or genetic predisposition. So even the authors of that 2014 paper concluded that the evidence of high sodium intake causing adverse outcomes was limited. Plus, the vast majority of salt intake actually comes from processed takeout and restaurant foods. Only 10% comes from home consumption. So, my advice as always, is cook from scratch. Avoid processed foods and salt your food properly so you can actually enjoy it. And that is a simple recipe for both health and happiness.

I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now let's chat with JM Hirsh about this week's recipe. Hungarian paprika potatoes. Jam, how are you? I'm doing great. Hungary, Budapest, another watering hole for you your long Euro travels. I was there a very long time ago. And I think we both found that paprika is a thing in of itself. It's not just yet another little spice to add to a bunch of others. It has personality. There are lots of versions of it. And it can be you know, a major home run and lots of recipes, right?

JM Hirsch: Oh my God, it is like, insane. I mean, there's just no other way to put it. I've decided it's not a seasoning. It is a reason. That's it. I mean, many recipes exist in Hungary, solely to showcase paprika. There are stewed peppers where it's all about the paprika. You know, of course, the classic paprikash, where it's all about chicken, but it's really about the paprika. And there are just so many dishes that are built around this. They put it in the cocktails, they put it on their desserts. I mean, it really is just a wonderful and in Hungarian cuisine, dominant seasoning. When I was there recently, I had a dish that kind of just epitomized this approach to pepper that it is going to be the star of the meal. And it is the reason for preparing the dish and it was paprika potatoes. It's very simple.

CK: So odd that all of a sudden paprika becomes the star with potatoes because I think here in the States, potatoes are the star of potatoes.

JMH: I think that's just Africa.

CK: So just give me a quick summary. How do you make these and how does paprika become so essential?

JMH: Basically, you start with onion, paprika, and some sort of fat which is considered the trinity of Hungarian cooking. You cook that down and we're not just talking like a little bit of paprika. We're talking about at least a quarter cup of paprika per dish. And to this mix of onions, paprika and fat, you add potatoes and as the potatoes tenderized and cooked down release their starches the liquid cooks down from the onions and the paprika and the fat and it creates this incredibly onxious, really thick paprika sauce that coats these potatoes so thickly so richly with just a wonderful sweet smoky pepper and that's it. I mean this is such a simple dish. You combine these ingredients in a pot you let them cook until it reduces down creates its own sauce that is just wildly flavorful, and you're done. It was so good, and it made me a true believer that the potatoes exist for the paprika.

CK: So, I know there's sweet paprika, which I assume is what you're using here. There's hot or there are a whole variety of types in Hungary.

JMH: There are gradients of heat basically you start with sweet of course, which is what is used in this dish and then you can have a little less sweet, you can have a moderately warm, you can have kind of spicy it you can have searingly spicy and increasingly now you also have smoked paprika.

CK: So as an all things culinary it's not simple.

JMH: It never is even when it is.

CK: JM, Thank you Hungarian paprika, braised potatoes, and it's all about the paprika thanks.

JMH: Thank you. You can get the recipe for Hungarian paprika braised potatoes at Milk Street

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio coming up we're diving deeper into salt. Alex Ainouz went on a quest to make his own and he shares his results after the break. I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Right now, my co-host, Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your kitchen questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: Hi, it's Jennifer.

SM: Hi, Jennifer, where are you calling from?

Caller: I am calling from Los Angeles.

SM: What can we do for you today?

Caller: Well, you know today I want to talk about salt. I've done my due diligence. And I understand the concept between the two kosher salts and the density of their flake size. And when I'm cooking savory items, it's not that hard, you taste you adjust, you taste, you adjust. When you're baking, I found it's a very different story. And so, when I see a recipe and it just says two tablespoons of salt, what am I supposed to use? It can make a big difference in baking. Am I using table salt? Am I using kosher salt? If it doesn't say what do I do?

SM: That is the problem. I generally use table salt it's finer it dissolves faster. I know it has added as it has iodine added but that is what I would generally do. But here's what I want to say. I will stick my finger into the raw batter to check out the salt. So, it's really up to you have if you feel brave and you're healthy, I didn't tell you to do it, but I do it. And that way I can gage you know, I would always start with less than what they say but salt is a very important part of sweet desserts to balance them and Chris, what do you think?

CK: Well, they're different questions here. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt, what kind of salt are they calling for? And I think the answer is table salt unless otherwise specified. (I agree) you want to check in the intro of a book because they might say you know all the salt of this book is kosher salt. You said you know the substitutions, so you know diamond crystal, you have to use twice as much as table salt and Morton's Kosher salt about 1.1 or 1.2 times as much as table salt. As far as checking I have no problem risking my life for salt levels. That's why I like to live on the wild side but in some recipes like bread dough and other things you add the salt for example towards the end and to then incorporate more salt and you're tasting you know dough you're kneading. It's a little tricky, but I do agree with Sarah though and this is really critical. I spent some time with Cheryl Day down in Savannah resilient. Back in the day bakery we were talking about this. Lots of old recipes never call for salt let's say the chocolate cake which is a huge mistake because desserts especially sweet desserts. Salts great because it balances that sweetness and also punches up the flavors so if you're working with a recipe for dessert that's not calling for salt, I would definitely add salt.

Caller: I have recently become a convert to that if it doesn't say I will throw a pinch or two in anyway. Especially chocolate things.

CK: Exactly. Chocolate really benefits from salt. I would assume table salt but you just might want to check the intro to the book to make sure.

Caller: Okay, great.

CK: Thanks for calling.

Caller: Thank you so much.

CK: Yeah, our pleasure. Take care.

Caller: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Sara and I are here to help you with all of your cooking problems. Just call us at 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or simply email us at questions at Milk Street

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Anthony.

SM: Hi, Anthony. Where are you calling from?

Caller: I'm calling from Atlanta, Georgia.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: Well, I'm actually calling in today because I have a follow up from a previous call about an Argentine pastry called Alfajores?

SM: Oh, yes. So, tell us the follow up what happened?

Caller: I had a question about the flour being used. My girlfriend who's been making these pastries, uses a flour from Argentina. And it's labeled as Four Zero. And every country has their own type of milling process and wheat processing. So, we were looking for a domestic equivalent of that flour that we could use to save some money. And I took your suggestion, Sara and tried the White Lily flour that's available here in the southeast,

SM: low protein, I think it's like 9%. And how did it go?

Caller: They worked well in terms of how the cookie baked out. For the end, they were very similar. I will say the White Lily flour probably has less protein than this. Four Zero flour from Argentina. The dough is very soft and very loose, a little bit harder to work with. But I think if we use a blend of half and half, we might find a good middle ground. So, you don't use so much of the imported flour. But it worked out well.

SM: Oh, good.

CK: I remember the call. And I think what I said was the number of zeros was a function of the fineness of the grind. That wasn't necessarily a function of protein content. At least that's true in Italy. But Argentina, as you said might be a different system. Have you tried just all-purpose like Gold Medal flour, sort of lower protein all-purpose flour.

Caller: We tried some all-purpose flour, but it actually became more sticky and more goopy. I don't think it absorbed as much water as the other flours. We did use all-purpose successfully, but it was a much harder dough to work with.

SM: So when you said you mixed half White Lily and half all-purpose. Is that what you did in the end?

Caller: No, we ended up mixing half and half with the Four Zero and the White Lily because the White Lily is still a lot less expensive than the Four Zero.

SM: Okay, so that actually worked for you. So that's what you're going to do moving forward.

Caller: That seemed to be a good solution.

CK: There's only one other thing you might try because as you pointed out different protein contents require different amount of liquid because the absorption rates different. You might try all-purpose again but change the amount of liquid. If you're saying the dough is too hard, for example, you might add more liquid to get the right texture of dough. And just give that a shot because I think your objective is not to have to buy the expensive Argentinian flour, right?

Caller: That's correct.

CK: The only other thing you can do replace some of the flour with cornstarch. And that will reduce your protein level. Because cornstarch is pure starch it has no protein.

Caller: Yeah, we actually do use a portion of cornstarch in the dough recipe so maybe we can just increase a little bit.

CK: Yeah, try all-purpose and increase the cornstarch and then just adjust the liquid to get the right texture. Anyway, it sounds like Sara, I think you had a success here.

SM: Okay, well, give me one point. huh, okay.

CK: All right. Thanks for calling back.

Caller: Thanks, guys.

SM: Bye bye.

CK: I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for some culinary wisdom from one of our listeners.

Caller: Hi, I'm Debra in Maryland with a little tip. If you ever cut open an avocado and find that it's too hard to use. Don't despair. What I do is slice it up. Sauté it in some olive oil for a few minutes and it's quite delicious and ready to use.

CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip right here on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk Tips. You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Earlier we got a crash course on salt from Naomi Duguid. But it turns out that salt has also become an obsession with our very own Alex Ainouz.

Hey Alex, what's going on?

Alex Ainouz: Hey, Chris, how are you?

CK: I'm good. I hope you're more cheerful than I am.

AA: I am super cheerful. I've been working with something simple yet fascinating recently and that is salt. I didn't know if I was going to wow you just salt but personally, I think I can.

CK: Okay

AA: I've been working with something called gourmet salt, which I'm sure you must be very familiar to. So, gourmet salt is that finishing, very expensive salt that you can use to create texture on dishes. When I go to the supermarket and I see that table salt it is usually sold for, like maybe $1 a kilo. And gourmet sold can go for up to $40 a kilo. I'm thinking why. So, what I did, I took these two salts, and I put them under the lens of a microscope. And what I found was shocking, table salt, whatever the coarseness is always like rocks basically, there is nothing special about what you see under the microscope. It's like either cubes or rocks, but it's solid, it's packed. However, gourmet salt is incredible.

CK: like a Malden salt, for example, it’s kind of hollow.

AA: Exactly like Malden salt, of course the most famous one is called flor de sal but it's exactly like Malden salt. When you look at it through the lens of a microscope, these crystals, they are like inverted hollow pyramids, which is crazy, it really looks like an Egyptian pyramid. And that's why when you have these enormous flakes on something you eat, it explodes, it dissolves very easily. That's why it's so pleasant. If you want to pick up a big piece of table salt, and you bite into it, it's not pleasant. It's like too hot for the teeth. But with gourmet salt, it's amazing. So, following that thinking that yes, that's salt is amazing. But still, it's very expensive. How can I avoid buying it?

CK: So, so you're going to spend $1,000 on technology to figure out how to make your own gourmet salt, instead of spending eight or $9 for a box.

AA: More or less, if I could find technology that would solve this, I would have bought it but however, there is no technology for it. I just had to spend tons of time, but not not so much money, in fact, so what I did, I went to the best place I know in France for salt, and that is called de-Giraud. There, I've learned a few things about technology about how to make it and I made sure that I got the right knowledge. But I also brought back with me, big bags of table salt.

CC: Table salt tends to be mined, and is gourmet salt, mostly sea salt or not?

AA: So, the salt they make over there is a bit different. So, they've got pools of salt in the salt marshes. And in these pools, at the very bottom lies most of the salt, it's really like a big crust that you want stick from the bottom. And that creates table salt if you grind it thin, or like coarse table salt if you grind it coarse. At the very surface of these pools on very specific days and are very specific weather certain wind conditions, forms a super delicate layer of gourmet salt. So that's why that stuff is super expensive. It's super scarce, (I see) And my idea was more like to buy cheap salt and try to recreate in some ways, the gourmet salt, but in my studio and for a fraction of the cost. So, my visit there was mostly to supply myself with like tons of raw material, the cheap stuff, but still good quality and also to educate myself, which I did. Initially, just by the way, I wanted to bring back just seawater, but I made the math, it's impossible, I would have had to come back with like, a truck full of seawater, more or less.

CK: I thought you were going to flood your studio and turn it into a salt pool.

AA: That's, that was exactly my point, you’re starting to know me better than I do.

CK: Of course.

AA: So, with the salt that I brought back, I diluted it in water, I created a very saturated solution. It's almost like 10 times more than seawater in order to speed up the salt making process that was going to happen afterwards. Once I got enough salty solution, then I started a very slow, very steady evaporation process using my stove and plates of metal in order to distribute the heat properly. What happened afterwards was genuinely fascinating. (Okay) with just that supersaturated water and a gentle heat and loads of time, I was able to create the exact crystals that these companies are selling for a big buck in my studio. I could say that it was super complicated, but it wasn't. It's just taking time. I think any kid could do it, you know, under the supervision of their parents, obviously.

CK: How much time are we talking about?

AA: It's almost like an afternoon up to two days. (Okay). The problem is, I wasn't able to make that much salt. Still, what I did was profitable. The salt that I bought was super cheap the soul that I made even though I made a tiny amount it was still way more, I had created some money basically doing this. And I thought, could I turn this into a business?

CK: Don't quit your day job.

AA: Exactly, exactly.

CK: I mean you're spending all this time and effort and buying bags of salt and waiting two days

AA: It’s curiosity. It is curiosity.

CK: and you save $9.75. Right?

AA: Exactly. I said okay let's bid it out. I felt like God in my studio. I felt like God creating matter.

CK: It's alive. There you go.

AA: No. I mean, seriously, I was creating salt and I thought, salt is not something you create. (That's cool). Salt is something you buy because it's cheap. And then I created it. I don't know. It was just eye opening for me and the salt flakes that I made put the commercial ones to shame. Oh, I made enormous flakes. It is not something I think they can create. Because when they transport them when they convey them, or they pack them, they destroy them. Also, I was picking mine with a you know, a pair of tweezers. But anyways, it was fascinating to make my own gourmet salt. And I think generally that I will never do this again in the future because it takes too much time.

CK: Alex, you are in fact the French God. You probably saved 15 bucks.

AA: Thank you so much.

CK: That was YouTube host Alex Ainouz. He's also the author of Just a French Guy Cooking.

That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk There you can become a member get full access to every recipe to all of our live stream cooking classes, free standard shipping from the Milk Street store and more. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always, for listening.

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Associate Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.