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Since recently i have to cook for myself and a lot of products mention i should boil some water with salt and when it boils add the product.

Why on earth do you have to add salt to the water?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

This is generally to season the thing being boiled whilst it is cooking. The salt will infiltrate the innards of the thing being cooked infusing it with some seasoning.

Try with something basic like pasta or rice to see the difference between cooking in plain water and cooking in salted water.

This quesion and this one might also provide some insight.

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Thanks, all i needed to know :) –  Aerus Mar 4 '11 at 15:42
    
@Aerus: Definitely worth trying the difference to convince you of the necessity of salt. Starch foods like potato, pasta, rice without salt in the cooking liquid are barely palatable, though of course it is personal preference. –  Orbling Mar 5 '11 at 1:02
    
@orbling "barely palatable" is subjective of course. Many of us have trained our palates to demand salt, but it's possible to untrain your palate, and if you have kids, to avoid training them that way in the first place. My grandparents demanded huge amounts of salt. I'm down to a scant half-teaspoon in two portions of rice. –  slim Mar 9 '11 at 14:58
    
@slim: Well I guess it's subjective, not everything requires salt, but some of the foods we eat, particularly in that category are exceptionally bland without enhancers like salt. Not sure what your portion size is, but I would guess I add about 4 tsps to 250ml of dried rice. –  Orbling Mar 9 '11 at 15:26
    
@orbling Yes, for me that's loads. I put half a teaspoon for about 170ml of dried rice. That's with the absorption cooking method, so all the salt ends up in the rice. I suggest that salt masks the actual flavour of the food -- but you get used to the salt, so you taste through it. –  slim Mar 9 '11 at 15:42
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There are also several reasons beyond seasoning that apply when boiling vegetables:

  1. Salted water will cause vegetables to become tender faster than plain water because it speeds the breakdown of vegetables' cell walls.

  2. Salted water will preserve the natural flavor of vegetables. Using plain water actually draws the natural salt out of the vegetables, into the water.

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Thanks for elaborating a bit more on vegetables :) –  Aerus Mar 5 '11 at 10:19
    
I think both of these are old wives' tales. Heston Blumenthal's cookbook details some experiments he did on the matter. –  slim Mar 9 '11 at 14:56
    
Harold McGee provides scientific justifications for both in On Food and Cooking. And certainly for #2, vegetables have some salt content higher than water, and it follows that boiling them will pull the salt out of them. It's pickling in reverse. –  yacomink Mar 11 '11 at 16:21
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Something I've learned recently is that if you are cooking dried beans (not from a can) then you do NOT use any salt until the beans are fully cooked! If you salt the boiling water for the beans, it actually toughens their skins to a level that won't go away and isn't pleasant. It doesn't affect the flavor, but the texture is too chewy.

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This goes for all legumes. Beans, lentils. etc. –  daniel Mar 9 '11 at 4:38
    
This is true, though not "fully" cooked, near the end of cooking, so the salt has some penetration, just not early when they will toughen. –  Orbling Mar 9 '11 at 15:47
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