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Why Salt Was So Important Throughout History (bookworm.club)
157 points by kaycebasques on July 30, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

Salt does other things to food besides alter taste and preserve.

"Salt is special. See, rather than simply flavoring meat by working itself in between muscle fibers, it actually alters the structure of meat, primarily by causing certain parts of the protein myosin to become dissolvable in water.

What does this accomplish? Well, by dissolving myosin, muscle structure is greatly loosened, allowing it to retain more moisture (this is the principle behind brining), and more importantly in this case, it allows proteins between muscle groups to cross-link, causing them to stick to each other.

This is why, for instance, sausages get a nice bouncy, snappy texture, and why if you remove the salt from one, it becomes crumbly and dry (see here for more info on salting and making sausages, and here for some deeper scientific info on the process of salting meat. http://qpc.adm.slu.se/Low_salt_pig-meat_products/page_23.htm...

https://www.seriouseats.com/2013/05/food-lab-tacos-al-pastor... (and a variant I like even more https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/02/how-to-make-mexican-pueb...)

The same idea works with steak, but you need to be careful if you are anywhere between immediately salting the steak, and less than an hour. (scroll to the Salt section) https://www.seriouseats.com/2011/03/the-food-lab-more-tips-f...

I highly recommend Samin Nosrat's "Salt Fat Acid Heat" if you are interested in the fundamental basics of cooking like salt.

> This beautiful, approachable book not only teaches you how to cook, but captures how it should feel to cook

> "Just reading Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will make you a better cook, adept at seasoning, balancing..."



> if you remove the salt from one, it becomes crumbly and dry

If you remove the salt it is not a sausage. The word sausage comes from Latin salsus meaning "salted". Salad and sauce also come from this root (more obviously in the Spanish salsa).

If you showed a tube of ground meat to some people and asked if it looked like a sausage, most would agree it does without insisting that you check to see if it has salt. While you're right about the word's etymological history[1], there is nothing that prevents words from obtaining new meanings that might seem like they're at odds with their etymological histories. A good example of this: nice[2].

[1]: https://www.etymonline.com/word/sausage

[2]: https://www.etymonline.com/word/nice

I don't know anybody who would call this a sausage: https://www.costcobusinessdelivery.com/Kirkland-Signature-Le...

Would anybody call it a sausage if there were salt in it? I'm inclined to say no. Obviously there's a lot more that goes into sausage-ness than being a tube of meat.

Yeah, because it doesn't look like a sausage. The shape of it being a tube of meat is what people call a sausage.

The poster youre replying to doesn't say "ground beef" = " sausage" so I don't see your point.

But this ground beef literally comes in tubes. Look at the second picture.

Conversely, that tube of meat wouldn't become a sausage simply because you put salt on it. There's obviously a lot of nuance involved.

So are you actually claiming that ground meat is sausage or that anyone would think it's a sausage upon cooking and tasting it, regardless of how it looks?

Regardless of how people actually do turn out to use the word sausage, my point is (1) that you could imagine alternate histories in which any combination of those meanings could be attached to the word "sausage" (2) there is no principled way to insist that one of these combinations is the "correct" one.

No, I can't imagine any other version of history because salt is the entire point of sausage. Prior to refrigeration it was the only way to preserve meat. Grinding meat might have been done if it was to be eaten immediately but otherwise it would be a waste.

Smoking was a way to preserve meat other than salting it that existed long before refrigeration.

They specifically say tube. That the shape makes it a sausage, not the salt content.

No it doesn't. You might think it does but you've never made a sausage. The tube shape comes from the natural casing used. But you can make sausage into any shape you want and it's still sausage.

Etymology doesn't dictate use, it only influences it.

People will still call unsalted sausages (e.g. for people that must follow a salt-free diet ) sausages, even if 2000+ years ago salsus meant "salted" for a totally different nation of people.

Heck, even vegan products are called sausages, without having any meat even.

Yeah, great point (though also interested to learn about the etymology).

I was thinking about these veg*n meatless variants (not limited to sausages). Often they're called "vegetarian X" or "vegan X" or a nameplay/wordplay on the word such as in Dutch "visvrije tonijn" (fish-free tuna) or gehacktballen (minced meat balls, but then with a 'c' added making the word 'hack').

Salary is another word that has its roots in salt. It harkens back to Ancient Rome, when soldiers got paid in salt.

The roman soldiers did not actually get paid in salt, or if they did, it was more like a ration, not their actual pay.

People say this all the time, and its patently wrong - salt was not a rare resource in italy, the sea is everywhere.

> salt was not a rare resource in italy, the sea is everywhere

If I recall correctly, the book from the article mentions that the sea is an inefficient way to gather salt. The salinity is just much lower than what you can find in underground brine springs. It also goes into how Italian city-states went to war over control of saltworks, and how it hugely increased the wealth of whoever controlled it. So although it may not have been rare, I don't think it's accurate to paint it as an abundant resource, either.

Interesting about the misinformation around the etymology of "salary." Thanks for pointing out. Found an article [1] that goes into more depth about how there's no evidence for the explanation.

[1]: http://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2017/01/salt-and-salary.ht...

I should have remembered the bit about the saltworks though, good point.

I agree it would be surprising if they were paid in salt, but the OED says

Latin salārium, originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay

It takes a lot of effort to turn sea water into salt.

You get 4.5 ounces of salt from a gallon of water and it takes a fairly long time or a lot of fuel for 1 gallon of water to evaporate.

Which is why the best regions for making sea salt are areas where the sea water is naturally concentrated due to geography that traps it and lets the sun do a lot of the work.

GP was saying _if_ you removed the salt from what was previously a sausage, it would crumble.

I think most people would consider any ground meat in a smallish cylinder shape to be "sausage", especially if wrapped in a natural or synthetic sheath.

Salt might be what makes a "good" sausage?

> ... Latin salsus meaning "salted". Salad and sauce also come from this root

... so if you remove the salt, it's not a salad or a sauce? Hmm.

I don't think so. If you remove salt or sauce from salad then it's just cut up vegetables. And a sauce without salt won't be very popular too say the least.

So the bowl of vegetables is not the salad, but the runny stuff in the bottle is?

And so much for applesauce. sigh

I guess that's no true sauce, man.

In French it's called compote de pommes which I would say is correct. It's a compote, not a sauce.

The runny stuff is a sauce. Salad really just means adding salt to it. In Italy they don't use a sauce as such, but rather just add oil, vinegar and salt separately.

But I get what you're doing. You're taking the extreme approach of "etymology never matters". I get it. I'm able to enjoy the etymology of words and the difference between a sauce and a compote and still say "apple sauce" when I'm talking to English speakers.

Other uses of salt are in coffee, with tequila and salad. Salt reduces any of the bitterness in those things. It's why a salad is called a salad since the Romans salted the bitter greens they ate to reduce the bitterness.

I'm usually a fan of our "of general intellectual interest" type articles, but this one doesn't quite justify its existence.

It's not very satisfying to read a list of the things you'd roughly guess from reading the headline.

The article is just a host for affiliate links.

I wrote the article. Yes, I'm trying to use affiliate links to make this passion project more sustainable in the long term, but I'm definitely not just cranking out content for the sake of sales. I'm actually quite discouraged at the moment because I can't get any traffic to the affiliate. I'm 90 days in and my account will be canceled if I don't get 3 sales by 180 days.

My general strategy is to write about books that I happen to be reading anyway. I'm finding that it's a great way to deepen my knowledge retention of the books that I read. It took me about 5 to 7 hours to synthesize the contents of the book into these main themes. If you read the book you'll find that it's organized very differently from the themes that I've identified.

So, sorry if it's coming off as garbage affiliate content just created for the sake of sales. Definitely not my intention.

I'd encourage you to expand the book-promoting paragraph to include a bit more info / some interest-generating hooks about what the book offers that the article itself hasn't already provided.

If you really want to make this model sustainable long-term I might even make the recommendation paragraph dynamically customized based on referring source (here's a WordPress plugin that would let you do this: https://wordpress.org/plugins/if-so/). History enthusiasts are likely to be intrigued by a different set of things from the book than HN's business & systems-thinkers or an RPG community interested in world-building inspiration.

Lots of people will read a general-interest article (quick & no cost), but to get conversions to an actual sale, you need to target specific interests.

Great, thank you for the tips.

Just bought through the link instead of just wishlisting and buying tomorrow (I had seen the book before and had some interest, if not previously enough to buy it).

Hopefully that gets you a step closer to 3 sales.

Very interesting, and I also appreciate the discussion that it has launched here as well (for example, I didn't know that salt dissolves part of muscle protein)

Wonderful, thank you. I do think I'll eventually get it to drive its own sales without my involvement. I obviously need to create a lot more high-quality content. I'm just feeling daunted and intimidated here at the start. So your support helps a lot.

You read the article. Hopefully you’ll send over a micropayment to support the author. Otherwise, how are content creators supposed to keep creating content? I found the article interesting despite not having an interest in buying a book. It wasn’t trying to “sell” me anything or get me to sign up for anything. It was an unobtrusive experience. Do we criticize news articles because they are tracking our every move or dismiss news articles as just a host for tracking and advertising? That’s what journalism and broadcasting is— the writers and producers trade content in exchange for you seeing an advertisement.

I appreciate the author’s work and, if I were in the market for a book about the history of salt, I would have been glad to click his link. I am sure the more financially blessed among us would love to live in a world that wasn’t so gauche as to require people actually making money from their work, but that isn’t reality. Not everyone has the privilege of just giving away work for free. The funny thing is that if the author had a paywall, people would complain about that. I don’t understand the resistance to people trying to make money with content, especially when done in an unobtrusive way.

Thanks, this is encouraging to hear. I can also sympathize with GP's skepticism. I get suspicious whenever people try to sell me stuff on the web. I think I'm going to try being very explicit and upfront about the purpose of the site and the role of affiliate marketing within it.

What would make it worth your time?

Oh, I don't think it's a bad article, I think it's a bad article/audience fit for HN. In my mind, the reader here maintains a pretty high bar for interesting, since I think of it as a curious, exploratory bunch who have already scratched the surface on a wide array of topics.

Ah, got it. I think you're a little ahead of the curve in terms of your knowledge of salt. I agree that we're an exploratory bunch, hence why I posted it here. But I never really stopped to appreciate the importance of salt, and figured that there were others here in the same boat who would appreciate a high-level synthesis of the main historical themes that I grokked from the book.

Thanks for the post. I was just in Seoul and at the Gyeongbokgung museum they had an entire section dedicated to salt, it's history, different forms, and importance. Until recently, in that expo and reading this article, I didn't realize just HOW important salt truly is.

If you have the chance, don't forget to taste the Korean "flower salt", which is basically salt in crystal flakes, as it naturally forms during evaporation. I haven't yet found a better salt for beef.

Doesn't have to be Korean, most countries with any coast line make good flaky sea salt.

Here in Denmark, we make it on the island of Læsø, where the geography helps concentrate the sea water before it is used to make sea salt.

That's the fancy expensive stuff. I use flaky sea salt from 2kg buckets I buy at a restaurant supply store. Much less expensive, works just as well.

A favourite of mine are "Maldon Sea Salt Flakes". Not sure if it is actually "fleur de sel" but it is truly delicious and available almost everywhere (for instance through amazon...)

My favorite salt, and relatively affordable, is Celtic Sea Salt. There are so many varieties of salt out there!

Sure, as long as you don't claim its magically more healthy than other forms of NaCl. Not saying you do; just seen that regularly claimed by people who prefer/swear by certain salts.

I don't make any health claims; however, un-processed salts, such as Celtic Sea Salt contain much more than just sodium. They contain many other minerals.

In other words, Celtic Sea Salt is more than just NaCl.

Fleur de sel ("Salt flower") is also popular in Brittany.

We also use salted butter in almost all of our traditional dishes.

Day to day importance of salt in history is preserved in language.

"Worth his salt."


Wish we had used Kurlansky's book for European history: I now have some understanding of the Hanseatic League's origin! Who could have believed a book titled "Salt" could be so enlightening and fascinating:

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky https://amzn.to/2L2DO4N

While this this sounds pedantic (who besides me would get excited about a good explanation the origins of "the Hanseatic League"?) but Kurlansky really makes it fascinatingly rich reading.

Pretty fascinating to see all the applications of Salt. You would think that the food industry is the largest application but not quite https://eusalt.com/sites/default/files/page-documents/Salt%2...

Thank you. Kurlansky goes into some of the applications of salt in the book. I was thinking about adding a section to this article on how salt drove technological innovation, but couldn't quite capture all the different events coherently.

The book 'Cod' by same author is also a really good, if not better book. I'm always impressed when someone can make a good story out of a seemingly boring topic.


With the advent of refrigeration, we need salt less than ever. The problem is that brands have used it to gain a comercial advantage, to the point where if we eat some processed food and dont add any extra salt, we are already exceeding the daily recommended limit.

The link between salt and hypertension is well known by the general public, but less well know is that salt is a major cause of stomach cancer.

There is just so much salt hidden in everyday food, that we are not even aware of.

Yet, its possible to do a very salty tasting soup just by using carrot juice or celery as the base instead of water, as those vegetables are relatively high in sodium.

You taste it and could swear that the soup was salted, when there is no added salt.

Salt to hypertension thesis has been hit with a number of problems recently. As have many other "known" results in dietary and epidemiological studies.

Current research suggests that while salt is bad for people WITH hypertension the causal link between elevated consumption and hypertension isn't what was earlier believed. One study here https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317099.php

I reached a point where I don't know what to believe, everything cures and causes cancer at the same time, every week I'll ran into an article about a new study contradicting some random common knowledge.

I guess the key is to live a balanced life, don't consume anything in excess and don't worry too much. "In medium virtus est"

We praise "peer review" without understanding/acknowledging that there are few peers and little review.

The aphorism "science advances one funeral at a time" is saddeningly true.

The more rigorous areas are those with little time lag between input and output, and results that are easily verifiable. Do you die within 2 weeks of taking this drug or are you cured - strong results. Take this pill every day for 40 years to reduce your all factor mortality by 15% - not so much. An imploded sphere of plutonium either gives you a lump of metal or an earth shattering kaboom - no need for a second lab to reproduce.

Areas with high time lag and difficult verification/reproduction are more vulnerable to research and policy entrepreneurialism. Whether it's salt hypertension, red meat and heart disease, the Cornell Brand Lab, or much of sociology errors last for decades because of the high costs of verification and the low rewards.

You'll notice that nearly EVERYTHING that you consume comes with the State of California Cancer warning.

My favorite guidance is Pollan's, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."[0]

Another piece of guidance I like is this (paraphrased): Eat absolutely anything you want. But make it all yourself. If you want cookies and cake and ice cream, great! Buy flour and sugar and butter and chocolate and milk and cream, and make them yourself.[1]

Now, these don't directly address your point about conflicting research. They give reasonable heuristics that work well, though. Now, clearly you can come up with pathological examples that follow the advice above - any of us could come up with dozens that are reasonable. But being precise and 100% correct is not the point of a heuristic.

[0] https://michaelpollan.com/reviews/how-to-eat/

[1] Paraphrased from an interview in Cooked. The 4-part series was produced for Netflix.

With regard to salt, I like the advice “salt to taste”: add salt to your food until it taste good. Salt has many roles in the body; it was simplistic and wrong to blame a oerson’s high blood pressure on salt consumption.

I always thought that refrigeration was the nail in the coffin for demand for salt as a preservative, but the book mentioned in the article points out that it started with canned food. I never appreciated how innovative that approach must have been at the time. Stick the food in a sealed can and then heat it up. Although, apparently Ancient Romans and Chinese had used that technique, but for some reason it lost popularity until its rediscovery in the 19th century.

> The link between salt and hypertension

This idea is not supported by the evidence.

I'm reading that book right now. It's very well written and light considering the many complex subjects that it covers.

it's also important for encoding passwords.

And in online conversations, spread all over the discussion threads

i should have guessed it, HN has no humor

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