I think we all know that salt is an important component of hearth bread, but if you are like me, you have never really known exactly why.
On a personal level, I have eaten a great deal of Pane Toscano, the regional bread of Tuscany that is famous, for among other things, for not using salt. The bread is dense and dry, and it does not have a developed crumb—haha, but other than that it’s great. But more on Pane Toscano in a minute.
The British Royal Society of Chemists comes to the rescue again. Here is the explanation on why salt is such an important component of hearth bread. It comes down to ions.
Salt is always added to dough – and not just for the taste. Its ions shield gluten’s charges from one another and enable the protein molecules to approach more closely, giving a stronger and more stable dough.7 Governments are often anxious to reduce salt levels in the diet, but there is a limit as to how far this can be carried with bread. In the absence of salt, dough is sticky, and the resulting bread is unpalatable.
Ions? For that, I turn to the community at Wikipedia:
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number ofprotons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass (“go”) between electrodes in a solution, when an electric field is applied. It is the transliteration of the Greek participle ἰόν, ión, “going”.
Back to Pane Toscano. Unless you grew up eating it, I have found that most non-Tuscans don’t get Pane Toscano, and they don’t really like it. There are couple of schools of thought (well, urban legends really) as to why it doesn’t have salt. Culinary apologists remind us that it works great as bruschetta and that it is a good compliment to the salty Tuscan cured meats. Other stories explain that salt was very expensive in the medieval period, so that cutting salt out of bread was an effective cost-cutting measure, or the closely related story that salt was highly taxed, and as the locals didn’t want to pay taxes, they decided to make salt-free bread. Given the current Italian national obsession with not paying taxes (tax avoidance has been called the Italian national sport), that story might ring true.
And my final favorite story says that because Florence is landlocked, it had to rely on its medieval rival coastal Pisa for salt, and rather than trade with the enemy, they decided to live with bad bread.
As a foreigner (stranieri) who has spent a lot of time in Tuscany, I think the best approach is to learn to love it.