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Salts You Need, Salts You Don’t Need

by Jane Wangersky | July 18th, 2014 | Cooking Basics
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salt-91539_640This week, as I was planning to make my first-ever batch of homemade pickles and thinking about supplies I’d need, I vaguely remembered seeing something called pickling salt in the store. Well, that was obviously the best choice for pickles, right? Even if most pickle recipes I’d seen called for just coarse salt, or even plain table salt.

Not finding any pickling salt at the store, I used the coarse salt I had at home. We had two boxes, though I usually use it only for brining meats and, much less often, for sprinkling on homemade soft pretzels. (I prefer to think I bought the second box by accident, not to de-ice the front steps in an emergency last winter.)

That got me thinking about salt. For such a simple substance, it’s a complicated subject, maybe because it’s powerful as well as simple. Here on ThinkTasty alone, we’ve run at least six articles on the different kinds and uses of salt, and we still haven’t covered everything — pickling salt for example.

Pickling salt turns out to be sort of a luxury item — Wikipedia says it’s “very fine-grained, to speed up dissolving in water to create a brine, so it is useful for solutions needing salt”, but that’s about it. You can dissolve any salt in water with a little time and effort. The other feature is that it’s not iodized. The Wikipedia article also says — though without citation — that a rumor was circulated that iodine discolored pickles, so home canners thought they either had to use iodine-free salt or eat dull-colored vegetables all winter. In other words, it was a questionable marketing tactic. So it’s just as well I couldn’t find pickling salt; I didn’t need it.

A specialty salt I did need, though not for pickles, was curing salt, and when I saw a couple of bags at a clearance sale I grabbed them. Curing salt, such as Morton’s Tender Quick, is a must for making many kinds of homemade sausage. It contains sodium nitrate to kill bacteria and preserve color. Unlike most salts we’ve talked about here, it can’t be swapped out with regular table salt. Not only should you not eat it as is, you shouldn’t even really touch it, since the nitrate can be irritating to the skin. So you’ll need gloves if you’re forming the sausages with your hands. You’ll also need to let the sausages cure overnight, then cook them, of course, before eating.

Curing salt is sometimes called Prague Powder and sometimes pink salt, and often it’s colored pink to blend in better with the meat’s color and to keep it from being mistaken for regular salt. Speaking of that, do not confuse it with Himalayan pink salt! That would be dangerous.

Yes, salt can be confusing in all its variety, but after this week I’m a little clearer on it, and I hope you are, too.

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