The Role of Salt in Baked Goods

The Role of Salt in Baked Goods

Whether you’re a chef, a home cook, or just someone who loves food, you probably already know that salt is an essential ingredient in cooking. However, what you might not realize is that salt is equally as critical in baked goods. And believe it or not, it’s not just for flavor–although that’s certainly an important part of it too. Here, we’ll take a closer look into why baked goods of all kinds require salt and how it affects everything from texture and flavor to rise and gluten formation, yeast, and the Maillard reaction.

The Effect of Salt on Flavor

As best said by Samin Nosrat, the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, “Remarkably, salt affects both taste and flavor. Our tastebuds can discern whether or not salt is present, and in what amount. But salt also unlocks many aromatic compounds in foods, making them more readily available as we eat.” Up until now, you may have only thought of salt as something you add to make a dish more “salty” (aka a taste). And although that’s true, salt enhances the flavor of food–in this case, baked goods–by bringing out the sweetness of sugar, and balancing the richness of fats like butter and oil. Without the addition of salt, baked goods would taste flat and one-dimensional, and wouldn’t be nearly as delicious as what you’re used to when you think of your favorite sweets.

To put this to the test and to see if we could really taste the difference, we made two quickbreads using the same recipe. The control loaf was made with all four staple bread ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast, while the experimental loaf was intentionally made without salt. As we could’ve predicted, the bread without salt was nearly tasteless and severely lacked any sort of flavor (not even spreads and sandwich fixings could’ve saved it). Since bread only has four ingredients, it makes sense why neglecting to add one of them (salt) would have such a negative impact.

The Effect of Salt on Structure

With that being said, salt also has a chemical effect on the ingredients in baked goods. One of the most important functions of salt in baking is its ability to strengthen gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour that gives baked goods their structure and texture, and when flour is mixed with water, the gluten strands start to develop. Salt helps to strengthen these strands, making them more elastic and able to hold more gas (Nosrat, 2017). This is what gives bread and pastries their chewy texture and helps them rise properly.

The Effect of Salt on Yeast

Salt also affects the way that yeast behaves in bread dough. Yeast is a living organism that feeds on sugar and produces carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct, which is what causes bread and other yeasted doughs to rise, via Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking. However, it should be noted that yeast is sensitive to salt. Too much salt can slow down or even kill the yeast, while too little salt can cause the yeast to over-ferment and produce an unpleasant flavor. Just the right amount of salt helps to balance the yeast and create a flavorful, well-risen loaf of bread, buns, or even yeasted waffles such as Belgian waffles.

The Maillard Reaction

In addition to its effects on the above, salt also plays a role in the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is the chemical process that occurs when sugars and proteins are heated together, resulting in the browning and caramelization of food (McGee, 2004). Salt helps to speed up this reaction, creating a more complex and flavorful crust on baked goods like bread and pastries. For example, think of the golden-brown exterior of a yellow cake and the glossy, darkened top layer of a brownie.

Quantity of Salt

If you’re wondering how much salt you should use in your baked goods, the answer depends on the recipe and your personal taste preferences. Most recipes call for one-half to two teaspoons of salt per batch of dough or batter, but it really depends on what you’re making. For example, if you’re baking chocolate chip cookies, you might need one teaspoon, but if you’re baking bread you might need closer to two. You can also adjust this amount up or down depending on your taste. Just be careful not to go overboard, as too much salt can ruin the flavor and texture of your baked goods.

One thing to also be aware of is the added salt in other ingredients such as butter. If a recipe calls for unsalted butter but you’re using salted butter instead, you might want to scale down a bit on the amount of salt you’re adding.

Types of Salt

The first thing to know is that not all types of salt are created equally. When it comes to choosing the right type of salt, there are a few things to keep in mind. Table salt is the most common type of salt used in baking, but it can be too fine and can sometimes contain additives that affect the flavor of your baked goods. Kosher salt is a good alternative, as it has a coarser texture and a cleaner flavor. Sea salt can also be used, but it can be more expensive and may have a stronger flavor. Flakey sea salt is great for sprinkling over your baked goods (think cookies and caramel) but is often too coarse to add to the batter (McGee, 2004). With that being said, the next time you’re baking, don’t be afraid to add an extra pinch or two of salt. Your taste buds (and your baked goods) will thank you.

Here you’ll find the link to our Caprese Stuffed Waffle. Because it’s a savory waffle recipe, it’s important that you add enough salt in order to bring out the flavors of the waffle itself (apart from its filling). Additionally, since it’s made with oil and not salted butter, there’s no source of sodium besides the added salt.

Nea Arentzen
Nea is a food writer, recipe developer/editor, and content creator based in New York City. Her writing, video content, and recipes can be found on Martha Stewart Living, Food52, The Spruce Eats, EatingWell, Allrecipes, and more.
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