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Chef Tim Says....

The Measure of Taste

salt in a measuring spoon

I measure everything. As many of you may have seen, when I am on television or in interviews I stress the importance of careful measurement as one key to cooking and eating healthy.

For instance, olive oil is a healthy choice and using more of such ingredients in place of unhealthy ones is important. That said, olive oil has calories - rather a lot really. A teaspoon has about 45 calories and 5 grams of fat. It is fat that is better for you, but it’s still fat. Chefs on television slosh the stuff into pans with abandon, adding calories without adding much to the flavor of the dish.

Use a measuring spoon for your fats - olive oil, butter, spreads, canola oil, etc.. This is key to helping control the amount of fat and calories in particular dish.

Salt is another ingredient that I am careful with. I find that many recipes taste too salty and it’s easy to cut back by measuring carefully. A teaspoon of salt has about 2300 milligrams of sodium. A quarter of a teaspoon works pretty well as a rule of thumb for a recipe that serves two. When I am designing recipes I use this as my starting point and reduce it if there’s an ingredient that contains a lot of salt, such as parmesan cheese or soy sauce.

I have always had a bit of trouble with the idea of how to deal with less salt than 1/8 teaspoon, however. I feel that I can pretty reliably gauge the eighth of a teaspoon by using half of my 1/4 teaspoon measure. This is all well and good, but it would be good to be able to sprinkle 1/16 of a teaspoon on top of a tuna filet or 1/8 teaspoon over a flank steak that I am getting ready to sear.

It’s funny because I have done this for years with fresh ground pepper. I know that my pepper grinder dispenses 1/8 teaspoon with ten cranks of the grinder. I have ALWAYS considered having a pepper grinder part of essential kitchen equipment. I quit using a salt mill when I started measuring salt carefully, thinking wrongly that this is not an accurate way to measure. Why I never thought to do with a salt grinder what I do with a pepper mill I can’t tell you (sometimes we just can’t see the forest for the trees).

All of this has changed with my fiancée’s parents giving me a salt mill for Christmas. Excellent! It grinds about 1/4 teaspoon for every 16 turns on the mill. Perfect! If I want to lightly salt a tuna steak I give that sucker four turns and there’s 1/16 of a teaspoon. Another four turns with the pepper grinder and time for the smoking hot sear pan.


Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet

First posted: February 2, 2006