More on salt — from the book of Wolke

As I retrieved salt shakers from tables yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of rice in one of them. Surprisingly, another shaker was missing all traces of rice.

You can’t tell we served teenagers this weekend, can you? And that I have salt on the brain?

But the rice-in-the-shaker thing has always been a curiosity of mine, namely because I’m not convinced it “absorbs humidity so the salt doesn’t,” or whatever variation of that phrase you use. I do, however, believe rice is helpful in agitating the salt, breaking up the little clumps — something that comes in handy every summer during that weeklong stretch of 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity.

Looking for the definitive scientific word on the rice-in-the-shaker thing, I headed for the book of Wolke. Actually, both books of Wolke. That’s Robert L. Wolke, the chemistry professor and former Washington Post food columnist who penned “What Einstein Told His Cook” in 2002 and a Part 2 a few years later.

I was a bit surprised to find today that neither book actually touches the saltshaker issue (but you can get some opinions here, here and anywhere else Google takes you). But I spent a half-hour reading about salt, which got its own chapter in the original book, because it’s our “most precious food.”

Did you know:

  • Salted boiling water will help blanched green vegetables retain their color?
  • The FDA doesn’t require sea salt to live up to its name, so long as it adheres to certain purity standards.
  • When dissolved in water, a 2001 study found no difference in taste between expensive sea salts and household table salt.
  • The potato-in-soup trick doesn’t remove excess salt so much as it absorbs the cooking liquid, which may or may not be salty. (The real trick is to add more of an opposite flavor to counteract it — sweet to salty; sour to bitter. But as Alton Brown says, that’s another show.)

I’d suggest investing in either or both book, not only for the reference but for the refreshingly fun way each is written. When the second book came out, I took it on vacation to the Outer Banks  and knocked it out in parts of two afternoons.

You also can get a free dose of Wolfe in his archived Washington Post columns.

You’ll never look at everyday food the same way again.

(To those of you wondering why I haven’t mentioned the other notable food scientist Harold McGee … that, too, is another show.)

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