Ever wonder why you see chefs in restaurants salt meat generously? Or have you wondered why sugar seems to appear in, well, just about every dish? The reason behind it is not just for flavor. Both salt and sugar yield effects that produce desired properties on the food.
Let’s first examine salt. Salt is a common staple in just about every recipe. Salt enhances flavor in dishes. Salt also acts as a hygroscopic molecule. What in the world is that!? Hygroscopy means that a molecule readily absorbs water from it’s surroundings. Salt does so, so readily that it is able to dissolve in the water it absorbs, leading to another fun term called deliquescence.
Sugar is added to almost every recipe as well, or so it seems. It is present in ketchup, salad dressings, side dishes, baked goods, etc. Further, sugar when cooked produces two different reactions that yield more robust flavor. The first reaction is called caramelization. This reaction is simply the process of water evaporating from the sugar molecules while it is being cooked, and the actual sugar molecule breaking down. The flavors produced are robust, nutty and sweet. The second reaction is called a maillard reaction. This reaction is the interaction of an amino acid (protein) with a reducing sugar (sugar molecule). This is the reaction that gives bread its brown crust, crackers its aroma, and meat its brown crust.
So let’s get back to the original question. Why in the world do restaurants put salt on meat and where does sugar appear in restaurants? Remember salt acts as a hygroscopic molecule, so it pulls water from the surface of the meat. With a drier surface, the meat is able to form a crisper crust. This is ideal for steaks, where they desire that crackling-crisp crust. The salt also flavors the meat. Sugar is used in the obvious baked goods, but it is commonly seen in sauces at restaurants, and salads. Salads of all things! Since a salad does not contain fat, without the salad dressing, sugar adds a desirable flavor component that pleases us. Have you ever looked at a claimed “low-fat” food? It truly is lower in fat, but what you may not realize is that in order to make up for this, it has increased sugar. This is to yield the desired taste and texture of the product without the fat component.
So there you have it. Your mysteries uncovered. Next time you go out to eat, pay special attention to what you order. Most restaurants now require that nutritional information is provided at least on their website.