Salt is anything but a bland subject. As any dinner guest knows, it’s best to avoid politics, religion and adding extra salt to your host’s meal. 

Debate rages about what is too much and what is too little. Neither extreme is good for our health, studies have shown. Although the human body needs a tiny amount of sodium to function properly, today most people consume far too much salt, leading to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. 

According to the NHS, adults should eat no more than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium), around one teaspoon. But on average, working-age adults in England consume 8.4g a day – 40 per cent above the national guidelines. 

Fears that we’re consuming too much means the average home cook has lost their taste for seasoning. And consequently much of the flavour of food, too. 

It’s a conundrum that James Strawbridge wants to solve. As a chef, he regards salt as a magical ingredient, but one that we have forgotten how to use properly. He describes his new publication, Salt and the Art of Seasoning (Chelsea Green Publishing, £27), as the recipe book that will make all your other recipe books taste better. 

The problem, Strawbridge says, is that where historically salt was used primarily to preserve food, and, for those few people who could afford it, to enhance the flavour of food, the huge growth in how it’s used today has made salt a victim of its own success. 

“In our desire to produce more salt we’ve started using the same product in our food that we use to grit our roads. It’s incredible how useful salt is across many industries, but for cooking we need to take a step back in time and return to using more naturally produced salts full of tasty minerals,” he tells me. “We need to stop eating refined table salt just because it’s cheaper and look after our health by consuming salt that’s naturally lower in sodium.”

Living in Cornwall, Strawbridge (the eldest son of TV’s Dick Strawbridge and a regular face on television himself) is surrounded by the saline tang of samphire, fresh sardines and sea salt drying into a white crust on rocks at low tide. The salt he uses is a world away from the heavily processed stuff employed in most food manufacturing. 

“Table salt is a refined salt that can either come from sea salt or rock salt and has had most of the moisture taken out of it,” explains Strawbridge. “This makes table salt very thirsty, or hygroscopic, so the salt wants to attract water. If left alone it would clump together, so anti-caking agents are added. These aluminium-based compounds have been shown to be bad for your health, but are also more difficult for your body to process.”

A pinch of sea salt, meanwhile, is laminated with calcium, potassium and magnesium: “All those minerals will add layers of flavour to even a simple ingredient,” says Strawbridge. 

He recommends doing a taste test with two slices of tomato: one with table salt the other with sea salt. “There’s no contest in terms of what you get on your palate.” 

The chef and food writer understands that people worry about consuming too much salt. “Salt is essential to life. Without salt in your diet you die. Your brain will stop functioning. But too much salt, especially if it’s bad salt, is bad for you. It’s all part of a balanced lifestyle.”

Strawbridge draws a distinction between salt intake from eating ready meals and processed foods, and that which is added to ingredients when cooking from scratch. 

The latter, he says, allows you to know what your salt intake looks like – the former lurks in sometimes shockingly high amounts. Indeed, in April, Action on Salt called on the Government to act after it was found that three out of four loaves of sliced bread sold in UK supermarkets contain as much salt in one slice as a bag of ready salted crisps.

It sums up the problem neatly for Strawbridge, who often compares the salt debate to that around “real” bread. A loaf of sourdough will provide a mix of beneficial bacteria and wild yeasts that taste great and simultaneously aid digestion and boost our gut flora. “Compared with a heavily refined white loaf made with standardised brewer’s yeast, there is no contest which bread is going to be better for you. The same goes for salts – if they have a balance of sea minerals laminated on the flakes instead of being solely composed of sodium chloride, then they will be better for your health and tastier.”

Strawbridge is no Salt Bae, flamboyantly seasoning his dishes. As a father with young children, health is on his mind. As such, he looks to Mediterranean food culture for inspiration. “I’m not a doctor but I’m a healthy chap with a growing family that I want to feed responsibly. The way I’m doing that is by looking at the Italians, Greeks, the south of Spain, where there are vast amounts of salt used in cooking – but it’s good salt. When you look at other places where salt intake is also high, it’s because of masses of processed salt and food.” 

In its natural state, he continues, “sodium will occur with potassium, which will lower blood pressure”. A study in care homes found that preparing meals with potassium-enriched salt, instead of regular salt, lowered the blood pressure of people aged over 55 and reduced their risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the salt that has been made mainstream in food retail and production is the same stuff that’s used to grit roads or in pharmaceutical processes. That’s not meant to be on our tables. The benefit from stripping all these valuable minerals from sea salts is obviously that they can be sold back to us as supplements,” he suspects. If you are trying to use less salt in your diet, “at least make sure that it’s a good salt that delivers more flavour”, Strawbridge says.

It’s highly likely that your own salt experiments extend to sprinkling Maldon flakes on a finished dish, and Strawbridge isn’t sniffy about the popular and distinctive finishing salt that has been harvested from the Blackwater Estuary since Roman times. “Maldon makes a very elegant-looking salt. I love the taste of it. It’s not my personal favourite, but it works well because of its distinctive pyramid shape that packs a crunch and burst of flavour. The high surface area means it dissolves quickly on your tongue. So it’s an effective way of delivering taste. With a rock salt you crunch through it and it will be in your stomach rather than on your palate.”

The number of artisan salt producers is growing and Strawbridge wants us to explore the local salts we have at our fingertips. He half-jokingly refers to these as merroirs: “It’s a bit pretentious, but just like people talk about the terroir of a wine, salt is massively affected by the geology of a coast line, which will have a distinctive and unique mineral profile.”

Salt isn’t just about what it does in your mouth but the power of what it does to food. While most people use salts to finish off a piece of steak, Strawbridge says that salting the day before is a better way to add flavour and develop how it tastes. “It has the magical power to pull out moisture or allow heat to transfer more effectively through something. It’s why we brine fried chicken and salt fish. It firms up the texture. A dry-cured rasher of bacon is a completely different thing and that’s through the power of salt.”

Not all foods need the same seasoning. “Samphire, capers or an olive are going to be rammed full of embodied salt. You can’t season one dish with the same amount you would on another. It’s learning when to rein it in.”

He wants more people to taste their food during the cooking process. And to change up their salts. “Get yourself a catering-sized tub of sea salt crystals. Or something that’s affordable that you can have near your hob, so that’s your cooking salt for your brines and pans of water. You might also have something to deliver texture – a rock salt that will keep its bite as you cook. And finally a flake to finish.”

When Strawbridge serves a meal to his family he prefers to make the addition of any salt a conscious decision. “I say, ‘This tastes pretty good, but if you would prefer a little salt, I recommend you add a little of this’ – a flavoured salt that I think will complement the meal. And then they engage with their own seasoning.” It might be one of his home-made flavoured salts; wild garlic, mint or chilli salt. And he recommends you try making your own, too.

“This ingredient has been labelled a baddie and turned into a demon in the kitchen. It’s with the ritual around salt that I want to reinject the fun.”

Three recipes from 'Salt and the Art of Seasoning' 

‘Salt and the Art of Seasoning’ by James Strawbridge (Chelsea Green Publishing, £27) is out on 18 May

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