I hate eating raw fruit. I know that eating fruit in its natural state, packed with fiber and nutrients, is good for you, but I don’t like the feeling of raw fruit scraping down my throat. Biting into an apple makes me cringe. Sometimes I’ll munch on a handful of grapes, or slice up some strawberries for a yogurt bowl, but generally I avoid it. Give it to me roasted, give it to me in a compote; just don’t feed me raw fruit—unless you’ve put salt on it.
At this year’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, I took class taught by three pastry chefs who demonstrated how to apply savory flavors to sweet ingredients. Two of them made desserts, but Jen Yee, executive pastry chef of Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch Public House and C. Ellet’s, served us sliced raw peaches with a healthy sprinkling of sea salt. “I just wanted to really bring it right down to the bare bones. Just take something with and without salt, just to sort of illustrate what salt can do,” Yee says.
We tasted a raw peach and then tasted the peaches that had been sprinkled with sea salt. The difference was remarkable: the peach with the sea salt was sweeter but not cloying, more floral, and even juicier. I was hooked.
Get the recipe: Champagne Mangoes with Lime and Sea Salt
“When you first bite into a peach the first thing you’re hit with is how sweet is is, right?” Yee says. “But when you eat a peach that has a little bit of salt on it, that sweet hit is slightly delayed because first you’re getting this saline reaction happening in your mouth, and then it’s like the salivary glands are activated and getting juicy, and then you get hit with that sweetness at the end.”
Guy Crosby is the former science editor for America’s Test Kitchen and goes by the moniker of the Cooking Science Guy. He says that the reason why salt makes fruit taste sweeter is a bit of a mystery. “The exact reason for it, the nature for what is happening on a molecular level, is not clearly understood. Salt in some way is affecting the sweet taste receptor for sugar and presumably is enhancing the sweet taste of the sugar,” he says. One study, conducted by Monell Chemical Senses Center, found that our taste cells have additional sugar detectors than previously thought, and that one of them directs sugar to a sweet-taste cell when sodium is detected.
Seasoning fruit with salt is nothing new. In Mexico, you’ll often find mango and citrus sprinkled with a blend of salt and chile powder. In the Philippines, mango is served with shrimp paste, a fermented, salty condiment. And some Southerners like to put salt on their watermelon.
You can put salt on any fruit, but your mileage may vary with the results. As Crosby explains, “I would say that the fruits that tend to contain more of these sugars, either sucrose or glucose or fructose, the greater the enhancement you’re going to perceive of the sweetness due to the salt.” Salt will make the sweetest fruits (i.e. cherries and strawberries) even sweeter, but if you’re more interested in balancing the flavors, stick to fruits with more nuance like cantaloupe, grapefruit, pineapple, and watermelon.
It’s easy to make a salty sweet fruit snack. Start with ripe fruit, and simply slice your fruit the way you normally would—I found peaches do better when sliced thin, watermelon does great in wedges—and give the slices a hearty sprinkle of salt. You can use any salt, but I prefer to use large flaked sea salt for the bit of crunch it provides (and it’s aesthetically pleasing). Let it sit for about 10 minutes to let the salt work its magic.