THE BASICS OF SALT AND PEPPER

For most of us, salt and pepper are fundamental, and often the only seasoning necessary. They’re usually used together, and it’s impossible to imagine cooking without them.

All salts are created naturally— in rock and bodies of water— but they’re not all the same. Common table salt is mined, milled, refined, and “enhanced” with iodine and other ingredients into small, free-flowing grains. But consistency has a downside: the flavor of table salt is harsh and overly salty, with iodine the predominant mineral taste.

At the other end of the spectrum is an array of specialty salts, pulled from oceans or clay, with nuances of flavor and color I don’t think are worth the expense. I primarily use kosher salt, and occasionally sea salt.

Salting food is a matter of personal taste, so I rarely specify quantities. The directions suggest when to season with salt— usually more than once during the process, and almost always at the end— and I always encourage you to taste as you go. I specify exact measurements in dishes where a precise amount of salt is crucial. When baking, use kosher salt; sea salt is less uniform and might have overpowering mineral flavors.

Pepper is native to India and now cultivated throughout the hot and humid regions of the world. This vine-growing fruit has been fought over, and for, throughout history— with good reason. The flavor is deep, sharp, smoky, slightly acidic, and pleasantly hot, a balance that cannot be duplicated with anything else. It’s become ubiquitous, and its value can’t be overstated.

I use black peppercorns (referred to as just “pepper” throughout the book) almost exclusively and grind them in a pepper mill as necessary. The most common kind is simply labeled “black pepper,” though sometimes you can buy specialty varieties, known mostly by their region of origin. Whatever you choose, take a whiff if possible to make sure the aroma is complex and sharp without being acrid. Leave whatever black pepper— whole or ground— you’ll need for a week or so handy on the counter and keep the rest in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark place.

White peppercorns and pink peppercorns have less intense though similar flavors. Green peppercorns are best— but rare— fresh, where their mild fruity and grassy flavor is at its peak. They’re packed in brine (refrigerate after opening) or dried. You must reconstitute the dried ones in hot water, like dried chiles or mushrooms. I hardly ever cook with any of these colors, though you might want to give one a try sometime.

Sichuan peppercorns aren’t from the pepper vine, but are the flowers of a small tree. Sichuan pepper’s flavor is unique and essential to Sichuan cooking; a flowery, slightly smoky aroma combines with a somewhat lemony-medicinal flavor, and a tongue-numbing, not-hot “spiciness” that feels almost like local anesthesia. This is how Sichuan food can contain so many chiles without being overwhelmingly hot.

A Word About Grinding Pepper (and Salt)

What you grind fresh doesn’t taste at all like the same seasoning you shake from a container. But I’m not dogmatic about not using preground, especially salt, which can be a real pain to grind yourself, especially if it’s wet enough to corrode common metal mills. It’s more important that you taste and make adjustments as you cook, whatever form of salt and pepper is on your counter. If you prefer the convenience of preground, one way to go is to grind your pepper— and salt, if you feel the need— in batches every week or so and keep them in opaque airtight containers. There are many types of pepper mills for table and kitchen grinding. Ideally you want a sturdy metal or wooden mill with a screw at the top or bottom to adjust the grind. Of course you can also grind pepper in a spice grinder , or a mortar and pestle. Or simply crack peppercorns into large chunks with the flat side of a big knife or put them into a plastic

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