The Ballad of Salty and Sweet Transcript


GUESTS: Man & Woman

    In the history of the kitchen, there are many love stories, but none quite as poignant or powerful as that of salty and sweet. Consider the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or prosciutto-wrapped melon, or chocolate-covered pretzels, or perhaps feta cheese and fruit, or honey-roasted peanuts. Mmmm. As is true of human relationships, however, this particular culinary compatibility reflects a deeper, more complex chemistry, a genuine gustatory gestalt, if you will.
    Now consider these rather bland chocolate-coated marshmallow cookies.

AB: Oh, excuse me, Sir, Madam, would you care to try out a cookie? Hmm?
MAN: No, thanks.
AB: Aww.
WOMAN: Are they free?
AB: On the house.
M: Sweet. [tries one]
AB: So, what do you think?
M: I don't know. They're okay, I guess. [puts a half-chewed cookie back]

    "I don't know. They're okay, I guess." Hmm, follow me.
    [AB goes under a serving table, where there are more marshmallow cookies] As we'll soon see, salt has the ability to alter the way our sensory apparatus perceives flavor, heightening and intensifying the sweetness in more subtle flavors that might be surrounding it, like the roasty nuttiness of the cookie base, or the fruity coffee overtones of the chocolate, or the marshmallow-y-ness of the marshmallows. A once plain and common cookie is about to become good eats. [lights a propane torch] A little heat to just barely melt the top of the chocolate. Nothing too extreme. There we go. And a dusting of kosher salt. Hah hah hah hah hah. Let's see how this hits them.

AB: Now give these a try.
M: Are they still free?
AB: Not only are they still free, they're fat-free.
W: Ooh!
AB: Yeah?
M: Wow, amazing flavor!
W: I love that crunch.
M: They're awesome, how much?
AB: How much? Don't worry, friends, awesomeness is free. Not to mention ...

[Good Eats Theme]

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Mary Puffins

    As we just witnessed, salt and sugar complete each other in that oh-so-special way that most of us never find. But the truth of the matter is, the magic is not equally distributed. Sure, sugar is sweet, but the salt, well, it's the salt that provides the molecular mojo. Don't believe me? Well, let's consider what happens when an interloping flavor bursts onto the scene, say, bitterness. Now, bitterness is typically a marker for alkaloids, including, paradoxically, many poisons and medications.

MARY PUFFINS: [descends from above]
AB: Um, excuse me, um, who exactly might you be?
MP: Mary Puffins, Sir, at your service. I understand you have some nasty tasting medicine to take.
AB: Indeed, I do. And I was just about to explain that just a spoonful ...
MP: ... a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?
AB: No, that salt is chemically better suited to the job.
MP: That's a pie crust promise. Easily made, easily broken.
AB: Well, we'll see, won't we?

Care for some dessert? [camera pans down to half grapefruit] Yeah, yeah. I'm, I'm right there with you. You can call it fruit all day long. But it doesn't change the fact that any fruit flavors therein are typically overpowered by naringin, a powerful antioxidant which can be good medicine if you can get past its intense bitterness.

AB: Go ahead, Madam, apply your cure.
MP: Don't worry, my dears, a spoon full [sic] of sugar will help that medicine go down.
AB: Yeah, sure it will.

Okay, dig in. ["we" taste]

MP: Isn't that better?
AB: No. No, it isn't any better. Now it just tastes like sugar poured on top of a bunch of medicine. Look, here's the deal. Tongue.
MP: I beg your pardon, Sir?
AB: Oh, come on, do it for the kids. Tongue.
MP: Very well. [sticks out her tongue, as AB reaches for a magnifying glass]

    Sweetness and bitterness are both sensed by the same type of apparatus. That is, membrane-embedded protein receptors located on taste cells. Sweetness goes through one of these chemical doors, while bitterness goes through another. If they both pass through their respective doors at the same time, your brain senses them both. You could, perhaps, overwhelm the bitterness of that grapefruit with sugar, but it would take a lot more than a spoonful, that's for sure.

MP: Well, I never said how big the spoon was, now did I?
AB: Indeed not. Now let's try a little experiment, shall we?
MP: Why do you always complicate things that are really quite simple?
AB: That's what I do.

    Now let's say for a moment that you had yourself two nice juicy ruby red or pink grapefruits, kind of like this. And let's say that you cut them in half and put each half in a bowl like this. 2 Ruby Red or Pink

    Now to facilitate easy eating, we need to separate the juicy segments from their fibrous confinement.

THING: [offers specialized tools for the job]

    Yes, you could employ a grapefruit knife or a spoon if you've got money to burn and unitasker storage space to spare. Me, I'll go with a sharp-tipped serrated knife. Simply move down each side of every segment from the center out towards the pith. Take your time. There, now here we have two tablespoons of coarse sugar ...

MP: [floating overhead] A spoonful of sugar will help that grapefruit go down!
AB: Would you stop that? I mean, not only is it wrong, it's probably copyrighted. Go over there!

    As I was saying, this is coarse sugar, which can be obtained via the Internet, or any decent baking goods emporium. Now you can get by with regular sugar, but this is better. I like the melting characteristic of this. 2 Tbs. Coarse Sugar

    Now the reason that she's wrong in this case, is that we are actually going to burn, or brûlée this stuff, creating even more bitterness. But in a good way.

    Now when you're melting sugar like this, evenness is key. So keep the flame constantly moving. Or you'll end up with nasty burns. Right, so much for the brûlée part of the program. Now before the sugar has a chance to cool and set, sprinkle on three quarters of a teaspoon of coarse sea salt. Okay, now even though we burned the sugar, creating even more bitterness ... Well, let's taste.

Use caution when
using torch.

¾ tsp. Coarse Sea Salt

All regions of the tongue can recognize basic
tastes, thus the "tongue map" is a big fat lie.

The Kitchen

MP: [tasting the grapefruit] Mmm, crunchy. Tastes sweet and sour, and not the least bit bitter.
AB: Not the least bit bitter. Okay, tell me, little Missy Puffinstuff, how do you explain that?
MP: I would like to make one thing quite clear: I never explain anything.
AB: Well, if I copped that attitude I wouldn't have my own show on TV, now would I? I tell you, this is what it's all about. Tongue!
MP: Well, I ... now see ...
AB: Tongue!

    When salt hits your saliva—which, of course, is technically a salt solution—the sodium and the chloride break apart. Sodium is an ion, meaning that it either has one extra electron or is lacking one electron. Anyway, ions can cross into taste receptor cells directly through amazing protein structures called ion channels, which are present on all the taste receptors regardless of whether they are designed to bond with sweet, bitter, or umami, if you believe that even exists. It's pretty complicated neurobiological stuff. Let it suffice to say that when it comes to getting into your taste buds, sodium does not have to wait in line.
    But wait, kids, there's more! For some reason that still has the lab coat set scratching their oh-so-smart noggins, sodium actively blocks bitterness, preventing it from fully accessing the taste system. While sodium can block bitterness, on the other hand, it seems also capable not only of bringing its own flavor to the party, but of boosting other flavors that might be ordinarily buried under bitterness. Now some sensory scientists say that sodium may actually turn up the volume on flavors by electrically increasing the input of the flavors at the tongue, or by altering the way the brain perceives them.
    Chefs, on the other hand, will simply insist that salt doesn't make things taste salty, it makes them taste good. And that includes sweets. In fact, I never make dessert without adding a little bit of salt.

AB: What do you have to say to that? Oh, do close your mouth, Mary, we are not a codfish. Hah hah hah. Best line from the movie, don't you think?
MP: [quickly turns to imitating The Wicked Witch of the West] I'll get you, my pretty! And your little dog too! [flies away, laughing in a sinister way]

    I never made that connection before. Um, let's move on to another application where salt greatly enhances the flavor and texture of a classic confection. And one that has certainly garnered its share of populous P.R. these last few years. [looking up at MP] Eww.
    Invented by the French sometime after fire but before the airplane, the caramel, whose name derives from an ancient Greek word for "straw" or "hay,"—it's a color thing—has been married to salt for at least 400 years. Though you'd think it was a brand-new concept from the buzz the combo's been getting around the U.S., where it is not unusual to pay a couple of bucks for just one of these tasty little buggers. And that is reason enough to make them at home.
    Now caramels are amorphous candies, like brittles or toffees or taffies. But there's an extra challenge here because, just as with our grapefruit, the sugar is going to be cooked to a very bitter state. Burned, in fact. And in our case, salt will be added at a couple points along the way to balance the bitterness by bringing more complex compounds into the flavor foreground.
    It all starts like most good magic tricks, with a piece of paper: parchment paper. This is a standard 16 x 11 ½ [inch] sheet. And you're going to need a ruler for this. Now fold over the long ends, thusly, so that there is a two and a half inch overlap, alright? And then fold. Turn the paper 90 degrees, and fold the new ends inward so that there is a inch and a half gap in between them, okay? And then just fold everything down nice and neat. There, it's easy. Now unfold the paper and turn it so that the long sides are this way, and make four cuts outward on the corners. There, there, and there. Okay, just keep going with me here. Fold all of the flaps upward, there, so that the whole kit and caboodle will fit nice and pretty into an 8" x 8" baking pan. Look at this, just look at that. It's perfect! Is it any wonder that once a year I get up at 4:00 AM to wait for a call from the Nobel Prize committee? Oh, well, let's cook.

    [at the stovetop] Place a heavy four-quart saucepan on the stovetop, and combine 14 and a half ounces of sugar with half a cup each of water and light corn syrup, finishing it off with a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar. Turn the heat to medium-high, and stir off and on to dissolve that sugar. Now by the time it reaches a simmer, most of the sugar will be dissolved. Clamp on the lid, thusly, and set your timer for five minutes. 14½ Ounces Sugar
½ Cup Each Water & Light
    Corn Syrup
¼ tsp. Cream of Tartar
    As the sugar dissolves and the water starts to boil away, the sucrose molecules, composed of a single glucose molecule bound to a single fructose molecule, begin to tightly mingle. A habit which tends to lead to the formation of big crusty crystals, which is bad. Cream of tartar, or tartaric acid, can hinder crystallization by snipping the bond holding the disaccharide together. Adding corn syrup further floods the party with other sugars capable of hindering any inconvenient hook-ups.

Sucrose Molecule

Glucose Molecule

Fructose Molecule

    Now that there is no more danger of crystallization, remove the lid and add your trusty candy thermometer. And I can tell by the way the bubbles are stacking up, we are over 220 degrees already.
    Now drop the heat to medium and maintain a boil, without stirring or touching in any way, for six to seven minutes, or until the syrup is golden in color and just approaching 300 degrees. Then you can give the pan a couple of swirls to make sure there are no hot pockets in there that could maybe burn our solution. Turn the heat off and set your timer for two minutes.
    Now at this point, the temperature is going to be coasting up past 350 degrees, and the high heat is actually breaking down, melting the glucose and fructose, forming dozens, if not hundreds, of new flavor compounds.

The corn syrup and cream of tartar make
the caramels smooth not sandy-textured.

The Kitchen

    By the time we hit 360, the syrup will be dark brown and almost smoking. Time to put out the fire, so to speak.

    All right, standing by we have one cup of heavy cream. A good bit of fat in there. That is going to help our caramels be nice and soft and chewy. We're going to lace that with two teaspoons of soy sauce. Now, of course, that is mostly water, but the second major ingredient is salt, which we will use to mitigate some bitterness. And, of course, there are meaty flavors there that will bring some complexity to the party. So pour it in all at once and stand back. There will be a bit of thermal drama. 1 Cup Heavy Cream
2 tsp. Soy Sauce
    Go ahead, and as soon as the steam is clear, add your one stick, eight tablespoons, four ounces of butter. 8 Tbs. Unsalted Butter,
    Room Temperature

    Traditionally, confectioners have always stirred with wood implements. Wood is, of course, a natural insulator. And the thought was that that'll prevent pulling heat away from the syrup, thus causing crystallization. The truth is, it just protects your fingers.

    Now when the butter's melted, return the heat to medium-low to medium, reapply the thermometer, and cook until the syrup returns to 255 degrees. Then carefully pour into the prepared pan. And notice it's up on a cooling rack for better ventilation. Just give the pan a few taps so that the air bubbles will float to the surface and pop. Now let this cool for 30 minutes. Then we apply the finishing salt. Warning: use caution when working with hot caramel.

AB: [sits down next to a video microscope] Lights! [the lights go down]

    Now finishing salt is any salt designed to go onto food at the last possible moment so that it may be experienced in its crystalline form. The difference between a finishing salt and say, the salt they sprinkle on your biggie fries before chucking them out the drive-thru window at you, is that finishing salts are meant to be enjoyed for their flavor, for their texture, and also for how they look. Finishing salts are kind of like edible bling, if you will.
    Now kosher salt, which comes in large, irregular flakes, can certainly be used to finish, as we saw with our little cookie act at the beginning of the show. A lot of chefs like to use coarse sea salt, because they are irregular, crunchy, and indeed flavorful. They can also bring other non-salty flavors to the party, as well as, well, out of the ordinary colors. Let us take a tour, shall we?

    Beginning with India. Kala namak, or Indian black salt, contains a lot of sulfur. Tastes like eggs, in fact. Kala Namak:
    Cyprus flake salt, very dramatic looking, but surprisingly mild in flavor. Cyprus Flake:
Mediterranean Sea
    Sel de gris, or gray salt, is a non-refined salt, harvested by hand raking. Sel de Gris:
Guerande, France
    Hawaiian red contains alaea clay, which adds a nice mineral bite. Red:
    Danish smoked sea salt is made from sea water boiled over fires fed with elm, beech, and juniper branches. Smoked Sea Salt:
    And then there's good, old-fashioned San Francisco bay coarse sea salt. Coarse Sea Salt:
San Francisco, CA
    I should also note that there are a few mined finishing salts, like these pink salts. This one from high in the Himalayas. Pink Salt:
Himalayan Mtns.
    This one is from Peru, and this one comes from Utah. Pink Salt:

Sea Salt:

    The choice is, of course, yours. Me, I think I'm going to stick with the San Francisco bay coarse salt.

AB: Lights!

Coarse Sea Salt:
San Francisco, CA
    Time to salt the caramels. One teaspoon of our coarse sea salt should do the trick. And it'll look like it's just going to bounce off, but believe me, give it a few minutes and it will stick. As a matter of fact, go ahead and let it cool for another three and a half hours. 1 tsp. Coarse Sea Salt

By waiting 30 minutes to sprinkle with the salt you achieve
a more distinct layer of flavor.

    All right, time to de-pan the goodness. I like to do this with a ruler and a pizza roller, because I want to get this down into one-inch pieces. It's going to be sticky and it's going to be messy. So you want to work quickly. I just kind of roll the ruler across, to get uniform grid lines in both directions. There.
    Now you could use a knife, you could use scissors, I definitely am a fan of the pizza roller. But first, give it a little spray with non-stick and go to town, working as quickly as you can in strokes as long as you can to keep it from binding. One direction, then the other direction. Then you're going to have to break it apart with your fingers, which is going to take some time. And if your fingers get messy and then warm, everything will melt. So just dip them in ice water to chill them down.
    Now take a 4" x 4" piece of parchment paper or wax paper, and roll thusly. Try to keep things nice and square. But don't worry, when you twist, odds are the caramel is going to misshape a bit and that's all right. Just kind of grab the handle on one end and repeat on the other. That's it. Mmm.

    [mumbling as he struggles to eat the caramel and speak at the same time]

    Follow me, won't you?

Soft chewy sweetness, crunchy saltiness...
and then a mingling, during which other flavors emerge flavors that would be buried under bitterness if not for chemical help of ions running through those ion channels. So, a plain jane candy has been elevated to Good Eats!
Of course, if salt added to sweetness also works, we can add sugar to saltiness to create the most unlikely of confections.

Sea salts can be crunchy, flaky, moist, dry or colored by minerals or clay.

The Kitchen

    Set your hot box to 400 degrees. Make sure you've got a rack in the middle, and grab yourself a sheet pan and a cooling rack. Which is also a baking rack, now that I think about it. 400 Degrees

    [lines a sheet pan with aluminum foil, and mounts a cooling rack on top of it] Now fetch forth from the chill chest one pound of thick-cut bacon. You heard what I said.

    [suggestively, in the style of Barry White] Just line it down the pan. Take your time, now, don't hurry. Mmm, nice.
    Bake your bacon for 30 to 35 minutes, or until it is almost perfectly done. Key word: almost.
1 Pound Thick Cut Bacon
    Meanwhile, bring your food processor, or mini-prep if you have one, up on deck, and spin one and a half ounces of pecan halves with two and a half ounces of light brown sugar. That's about six tablespoons. Just pulse until it looks kind of like graham cracker crumbs. Like that, perfect. 1½ Ounces Pecan Halves +
2½ Ounces Light Brown Sugar

    Now extract the bacon. Almost done, which is just right. Now place on a nice, stable surface. Remember, this is still hot. Now spread on the sugar-nut mixture. Just get as much even coverage as you can. Take your time. There. When you're done, pat it down lightly. Don't pack, just give it a pat. Now back into the oven. Bake for another 10 minutes, or until nice and crispy.

Cool bacon on the rack for 10 minutes before devouring.

    Allow me to present, praline bacon. Which I must say, goes just as well on top of your evening ice cream as your morning eggs. Heck, it's perfect any time of day.
    I certainly hope that we've inspired you to attempt a bit of culinary alchemy of your own by bringing salty and sweet together on a dessert plate near you. I mean, who knows, once you've given a grapefruit brûlée or salty caramels a try, you might start rimming your chocolate milk glass with salt, or sprinkling a little Hawaiian red on the frosting of your next birthday cake. And as for these little marshmallow critters for Easter, well let me tell you, that ain't sugar crust on those guys. No, Siree.
    Salty sweets, the possibilities are as endless as they are delicious. See you next time, on Good Eats.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010