Whether browsing the latest Southern Living cookbook or recipe surfing on Pinterest, you are bound to notice that many types of salts are popping up in lists of ingredients. Gourmet cooks and novices alike appreciate the distinct qualities of various varieties of salts because of the ways they enhance the flavor of food.
While most kitchens still have that iconic blue box of Morton Salt in their pantry, natural sea salt and kosher salt are the two most likely to occupy the grinder sitting atop the kitchen table. Table salt is perhaps easier to mix and use in recipes – because of its fine texture. But many prefer kosher salt for everyday use because of its clean and even taste. Kosher salt comes from land salt mines and is less processed than table salt and contains fewer additives. It has a course and flat grain size which allows it to be easily crumbled over vegetables or pinched into pasta water. Its size also makes it ideal for curing meat, a step in the koshering process.
Himalayan salt is another popular salt used both in cooking and on the table. A rock salt from Pakistan, it is mined in the Khewra Salt Mine, the second-largest salt mine in the world, located about 190 miles from the Himalayas. The salt was so prized in ancient times that it was effectively used as a currency system. Today, it’s on par with kosher and sea salt, both in terms of price and taste. Himalayan salt usually has a reddish or pink color, with some crystals off-white, even transparent.
All culinary salts are derived by evaporation. With table salt, water is driven into a salt deposit mine which forms a brine. The brine evaporates leaving dried crystals that resemble granulated sugar. Then, the salt is refined, or processed mechanically and treated with chemicals to remove “impurities” (or minerals). Kosher salt evolves in a similar way except that during the evaporation process, the salt crystals are raked from the brine. This allows for a light and flaky texture.
Natural sea salt – which can be fine or coarse – is widely available in grocery and specialty stores. Many people who use it say that it distinctly enhances the flavor of food. Sea salt, of course, is produced from the evaporation of sea water. It is harvested by channeling ocean water into large trays, usually made of clay, and allowing the sun to evaporate it. It is usually not processed (or only minimally processed) so it does retain trace levels of minerals such as potassium, calcium, zinc and magnesium.
The geography of salt
Sea salt is generally harvested from the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It has become very popular because of its coarse, crunchy texture and slightly stronger flavor. Sea salt is “all natural” and not processed (or refined) like table salt and is showing up more everywhere – from caramels to potato chips.
French sea salts, of course, come from the Atlantic Ocean. Delicious sea salts that have been harvested by hand, French sea salts retain more of the trace minerals – including natural iodine – than naturally occurring in sea water. Taking it one step farther, French grey sea salt (or Sel Gris) is harvested entirely by hand, using traditional Celtic methods that can be traced back some 2,000 years. The result is a special crystalline texture and incredibly pure taste.
Italian sea salt – also known as Sicilian Sea Salt, Sale Marino, Sel de Mer – is produced from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea along the coast of Sicily. Italian sea salt is rich in iodine, fluorine, magnesium and potassium and has a slightly lower percentage of sodium chloride than regular table salt. These salts have plenty of flavor, but are not too strong or salty. They work nicely in a salt shaker and are wonderful on salads or for finishing roasts and sauce.
Kala Namak, or Indian black salt, is an unrefined mineral salt. And it’s not really black. Used in authentic Indian cooking, Kala Namak is pearly and pink to grey in color. Because of its strong, sulfuric flavor and aroma, it is popular with vegan chefs because it adds an egg flavor to dishes like tofu scrambles.
There are several kinds of Hawaiian sea salts. Alaea sea salt is a traditional Hawaiian table salt used both to season and preserve. Available in fine and coarse grain, Alaea sea salt makes a great table salt. It is reddish in color because volcanic baked red clay (or “alae”) is added to enrich the salt with iron oxide. The clay imparts a subtle flavor that is said to be more mellow and earthy than regular
sea salt. It is delicious on prime rib and pork loin. Alaea sea salt is also the traditional and authentic seasoning for native Hawaiian jerky.
Black Hawaiian sea salt, or Hiwa Kai, contains activated charcoal giving it a unique black color and silky texture. The activated charcoal in Hiwa Kai adds a pop of color and robust flavor to many dishes but especially seafood.
Flake sea salt is a light crystal not unlike a snowflake in shape. When seawater is evaporated using the natural processes of sun and wind, salt brine is produced and fed into an open evaporating pan. Then, as with kosher salt, the brine is slowly heated until salt crystals appear. The finished product is light, flakey sea salt. Flake salts can range in size, from large pyramid-shaped flakes to paper-thin, delicate flakes.
Smoked sea salts are fairly new on the salt scene. A smoked sea salt should be naturally smoked without liquid smoke flavoring added. Lending their own unique flavor to dishes, smoked sea salts add a great smokehouse flavor to soups, pasta, sandwiches and salads. These salts are slow-cooked in cold smokers over wood fires to infuse the salt crystals with natural smoke, and they are great for grilling or oven roasting.
Flavored salts bind natural ingredients to sea salt crystals resulting in more of a flavor punch than a mere seasoning blend. These salts provide an opportunity to get more creative with your cooking and even think beyond traditional pairings. Sure, a Thai ginger flavored salt is great on Asian noodles and fish, but would you think to pair it with vanilla ice cream? Then again, ten years ago who would have paired caramel and sea salt?
Finishing salts are perhaps best known for their unique textures and are also harvested by hand in various regions of the world. They can be either crystals or flakes – both produce a burst of pure, mild flavor with each bite. Finishing salts enhance the natural flavors of most any dish and make for a gorgeous garnish – adding shimmer to your table.
Fleur de Sel, comes from the Guérende region of France and is considered the crème de la crème of finishing salts. Fleur de Sel literally translates to “flower of salt” and is often called the caviar of salts by chefs worldwide. To produce a good Fleur de Sel harvest, weather conditions must be just right – and the process can only be completed once a year, in the summer. Fleur de Sel consists of young crystals that form naturally on the surface of salt evaporation ponds. Paludiers (the salt harvesters of the Guérende region) carefully rake the salt crystals using only wooden tools – again – true to traditional Celtic methods. Also, similar to fine wine regions, different areas within Guérende produce salts with their own unique flavors and aroma profiles. This salt is ideal for salads, cooked fresh vegetables and grilled meats.
A word about the salt on your table
Sometimes, despite the wide variety of gourmet salt options, you might want to offer salt at your table. When selecting salts for your grinder or salt mill, choose salts with large, dry crystals because they are easy to grind and their lower moisture content allows the salt to flow through easily. Do use a salt mill with a ceramic or plastic grinding mechanism. Don’t use a metal (including stainless steel) salt mill. Those are fine for pepper mills but will corrode and/or rust after prolonged contact with salt.
Are all salts all created equal? Is one healthier than another?
Sea salt has trace amounts of minerals not found in mined salt but all salts are essentially the same nutrition-wise. Whether it comes in crystals or grains, from the sea or from the Himalayas, they all contain about the same sodium chloride content. The main differences between the top three (table salt, sea salt and kosher salt) are processing, texture, flavor and iodine content. So, unless your diet lacks iodine (not likely in this day and age), one type of salt is generally no more nutritious than another.
So, the next time you find yourself faced with a choice of one of the many salts out there, choose more than one. In the end, it really just comes down to taste, texture and personal preference. So buy them, try them and shake it up a little. Let your taste buds decide.