So, what’s with the salted everything craze? Salted caramel, salted chocolate and salted butterscotch are all over the internet and have invaded dessert menus all over the world. There is even a bakery called The Salted Cupcake (folks of Grand Rapids, Michigan, you are a lucky lot).
My youngest child is in 10th grade and recently did a biology lab experiment with the five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. The lab consisted of being blindfolded and having to guess what it was you were tasting, touching, smelling and hearing without the benefit of seeing it.
While everyone in the class was grossed out by feeling “eyeballs” (actually black olives in a Ziploc bag), there was much excitement in correctly guessing various things like toothpaste, cinnamon, vinegar and rice in an empty Pringles canister, after having to smell, taste, or hear them.
My son’s lab experiments and accompanying lessons shed some light on why people like the sweet and salty combination in foods. Our taste buds can sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a relatively new taste category that is defined as “savory”).
Salt is a flavor enhancer. So, if you add a little salt to something sweet, the sweetness is enhanced. This explains why you see a pinch of salt added to a recipe for cookie dough, why crushed pretzels taste great over ice cream, and why French fries dipped in a milkshake are so appealing.
In the culinary world, chefs call this sweet and salty playdate, “flavor layering.” Too much sugar is sickening, too much salt is repulsing, but just enough of each is a magic combination. Salt enhances the sweetness, and sugar adds depth to the saltiness.
Along the same lines, the sweet and salty combo avoids something called “sensory specific satiety.” Our taste buds tire of the same taste over and over. When we eat sugary item after sugary item, we lose our taste for them by burning out our taste buds.
With foods that have a sweet and salty flavor profile, or flavor layering, our taste buds avoid being satiated with one specific taste. Instead, they are entertained with the complexity of two or more tastes together.
We’ve mainly been talking about desserts here, but this sweet and salty duo is a classic combo. Slices of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, apples and cheddar cheese, watermelon and feta – these are all old school kitchen pairings.
This week’s recipe comes from the Cooks Illustrated website and yields two dozen chewy, crunchy, salty and sweet cookies that are really hard to stop eating. Entertain your taste buds this holiday season with these addicting cookies.
Salted Peanut Butter–Pretzel–Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 24 cookies
- 1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (3 ounces) quick oats
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/4 cups packed (8 3/4 ounces) light brown sugar
- 2/3 cup crunchy peanut butter
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
- 1 1/2oz. pretzel sticks, coarsely crushed (2/3 cup)
- Flake sea salt for garnish
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, baking soda and salt. Fit a stand mixer with paddle attachment, then beat butter and sugar on medium speed until smooth, about one minute. Add peanut butter, egg, and vanilla. Mix completely, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low and slowly add flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Remove from stand mixer and fold in chocolate chips and pretzels. Mix with large spoon until just incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about one hour.
Meanwhile, move oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll two tablespoons chilled dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and place them evenly spaced on prepared sheets, 12 per sheet. Press each ball to 3/4-inch thickness using flat greased bottom of a glass or cup. Bake 11 to 13 minutes, until puffed and cracks just form on top. If baking two pans at a time, switch and rotate sheets halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheets for five minutes. Sprinkle cookies with sea salt, then transfer to wire rack. Let cool completely.