The magic behind salty sweet


What is it about salt that makes it so versatile? It works with chocolate, caramel, fruit and biscuits just as well as it does with meat, fish and veg. But while it seems we have entered a new food trend, the combination of sweet and salty is nothing new. Think chocolate-covered pretzels, honey roast peanuts, shortbread, peanut butter with jam, bacon with maple syrup, dough, pastry. They all combine salt with sugar.

So why is salt so good with sweet things? Scientific research has shown that salt actually increases the ability of your tongue receptors to detect sweetness and on top of that, it blocks the taste of bitterness. Put simply, it is a natural flavour enhancer.

Put it to the test: eat a strawberry without salt. Now eat a strawberry with a couple of sea salt flakes and ask yourself which was sweeter. Salt has the added advantage of being able to make citrus flavours fresher, spices more fragrant and chocolate, well, more chocolate-y.

Mixing sweet with salty is also known as ‘flavour-layering’ in professional kitchens. Humans naturally tire of over-consumption of one single flavour, so if you just ate Haribos for a week, you’d get sick of them and stop. By mixing two flavours, your taste buds simply crave more and don’t get bored. Add to that, the body’s natural instinct to eat sugar for energy and salt for nutrients and it becomes clear why salted caramel is literal food gold.

So on a practical level, here are a few sweet and salty tips.

Use a flaked sea salt to finish desserts from cookies to mousse, crumble to sponge. A few flakes on top will prepare the mouth with a crackle of flavour even before the sweetness has hit.

Be brave and use a smoked sea salt for extra mellow sweetness. Smoked salt is great with the likes of honey ice cream, drinking chocolate and caramel.

When baking with salt, make sure it isn’t added directly to egg as this can affect the texture.

Try doubling the amount of salt in classic dessert recipes – the effect is transformative.

And finally, salt guru Mark Bitterman believes you haven’t lived ‘til you’ve tried the virtues of a roasted peach with Bourbon and smoked salt!