Ever since the first time I started baking I've been convinced salt didn't belong in the ingredient lists of cakes, cupcakes, pies and all the other sweet things. It just sounded so wrong I would omit it altogether. But with that I've committed a crime over and over again. Surely there were times I'd reluctantly throw in the required salt and surely it's never tasted bad. But why on earth do sweets need salt?
To answer that question I searched my cookbooks and the Internet. Although I just can't find the exact how's and why, I've discovered salt enhances the texture and flavor of baked goods.
Salt is texture
Salt is essential in bread making. It controls the rising process in breads by slowing down the yeast's action. This slows down the rising process of the bread so it won't rise too much and collapse again. Instead, the bread will rise in a controlled and even way. Basically, we owe the fluffy feel of breads to salt. Also, by controlling the yeast and interacting with the flour, salt strengthens the gluten. Salt lines up gluten fibers and helps them hold more water so the dough becomes more elastic and the baked bread won't fall apart.
In sweet bakes there is a similar effect: by interacting with the flour and leavening agents, salt controls the rising process of cakes and helps creates a stronger and tighter crumb.
Salt is taste
Salt is essential in baked goods for the effect it has on flavor. Salt accentuates and enhances flavors. In sweet baked goods especially, salt provides balance. It contrasts with the sugar, giving your sweets an edge, which makes them taste so good.
Another reason to use salt in baking is it's absorbing properties. Salt absorbs water, oils and fats. Thus ridding our cakes, breads and other bakes from the oily taste and feel. This absorbent property of salt also enhances the texture of baked goods by binding the ingredients together.
Well, yes. I just explained that salt enhances both the texture and the taste of your baked good. Salt is considered essential to the recipes and chemistry of baking. Yet, still it is possible to make bread without salt altogether. My mom swears she's never used any salt in her breads and there's even a famous Tuscan saltless bread. The same goes for any other baked goods really. You might find a cake that doesn't require salt, or salted butter, and I've tried it enough times to be sure it can work. So if there is any reason you want to omit the salt, for instance for a diet, go right ahead. Just remember the taste and texture will be different from the original recipe. You will also be getting rid of the natural preservative, so your breads or cakes will go stale more quickly.
Can you go wrong with salt?
The same way salt enhances the texture and taste of your cakes it can destroy them completely. Adding too much will inhibit the rising process and result in a very tough and dry texture. The crust of the bread of cake will harden quickly and become a very dark colour. So yes, at a certain point you can go wrong by adding salt. Just follow the recipe's instructions and you shouldn't have any problems.
Which salt to use?
There are at least as many types of salt as there are oceans. There are table salts, sea salts, salts with additives and all come in various sizes. For baking you want a finer salt. A finer salt can incorporate better into the batter, rather than stick around in big chunks. This way it can do it's chemical effect on taste and texture effectively and will also prevent any 'salty bites'. Only when using salt as a topping a coarse grain will do better. The coarser grains will give a more sophisticated and prettier feeling than a fine salt as a topping. Salt as a topping gives breads a glossy and crunchy top.
Bread by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
Joy the Baker - What's the best salt for baking?
Culinate - Kitchen Chemistry
Piece of Cake - Why salt is important in baking
Food Reference - Functions of salt in food