Why Southerners Love To Salt Their Watermelon
Sugar in tea, tomatoes in gravy, peanuts in Coke. The South has a number of unusual, or downright odd, food combinations, but perhaps none gets as much attention this time of year as salt on watermelon. Indeed, each year, when the oversized fruits come rolling into farmers' markets and gardens, the salt shakers—and really strong opinions—come out.
Whether you choose to salt your slices or abhor the very idea, there's a perfectly good reason why Southerners love to sprinkle a bit of sodium on the fruit before biting into the juicy wedges: it makes the watermelon taste better. Well, that is, at least to some.
Watermelon boasts a triad of flavors—bitter, sweet, and sour. The bitter flavors of the fruit are strong enough to keep the sweet from being overpouring, and the sour makes the bitter more manageable. All three together are what make watermelon so unique. Watermelon also has a lot more liquid than some other summer fruits, so the flavors are more subtle.
When a fine sprinkle of salt is added to watermelon, the balance of flavors shifts a bit, and watermelon becomes increasingly sweet. Salt is commonly used to dampen bitter flavors—Brussels sprouts or leafy greens are a good example—so when the bitterness of the watermelon is masked by the salt, the sugary sweetness shines.
Salt also activates your salivary glands, so a bit of salt is enough to make watermelon seem juicier. What's more, where the salt hits the fruit's flesh, the reaction leaves the sweetness concentrated right at the surface, or where your tongue first contacts the watermelon. This way, the first flavors to come across are the salt, which makes the next bite, the sweet fruit, taste even sweeter by comparison.
Are Southerners the only people who salt their watermelon?
No, but they may get the most credit—or perhaps it's infamy. In 1934, South Carolina newspaper archives include a traveler's story of encountering salted watermelon and pumpkin seeds at restaurants in Hiroshima, Japan. Just a few years before, the same newspaper instructed readers that salting watermelon was the best way to prepare the fruit. In South American and Latin cuisine, watermelon is commonly paired with chili powder and lime, as are apples, guava, and pineapples. The hit of spice and sour shifts the fruit's flavor, too, the same way salt does.
While salt straight from the shaker might draw raised eyebrows, several fruity-salty combinations aren't at all unfamiliar: Watermelon and feta are used in fresh summer salads. A quick and easy appetizer combines juicy cantaloupe or mango with prosciutto. Delicately sweet figs balance the tang and sour bite of balsamic vinegar. Even more simple, the use of lime juice with watermelon can bring out increased sweetness.
Salted watermelon is nature's Gatorade
Beyond improved taste, there may be another reason Southerners in particular find salted watermelon so appealing. During hot summers, chilled watermelon provides a reprieve from the intense heat. It also acts as a refreshment when water has grown tiresome.
Salting the melon answers another summertime dilemma: replenishing salts. When we sweat, our bodies lose a great deal of electrolytes, including sodium. Sprinkling sodium on watermelon provides refreshing hydration, nutrients, and electrolytes. It's like nature's sports drink.
Can other fruits be salted?
Absolutely, but keep in mind that the salt has a purpose: it's downplaying the bitter flavors of the fruit and increasing the sweetness. Grapefruit would be excellent with a bit of salt, as would cantaloupe and green apples. But overly sweet fruits, like cherries or bananas, might not be a great fit for the salt shake.
Pineapple, which is very sweet, actually tastes great with a bit of salt thanks to the hint of sourness. In Hawaii, sliced pineapple is commonly served with li hing powder, a bitter, salty powder made of plum skin. It's used in a lot of the island's foods, from candies to doughnuts, but it's a big hit sprinkled on pineapple. In the South, where you're unlikely to find this colorful powder, a sprinkle of salt will suffice.
Can any salt be used?
Yes, you could use regular table salt if you wished, but there are some advantages to looking for better options. The big flakes of kosher salt or Himalayan salt will cover more surface area with less salt, which is great if you have sodium concerns. Plus, the flavor is typically more intense, which gets you more delicious sweetness in each bite.