Salt Varieties

by Michele Pesula Kuegler | July 24th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

When I go to restaurants, I notice that the type of salt used in the dish is mentioned. It seems that offering different varieties of salt in dishes is a popular thing. I do keep both regular and kosher salt at home because of the difference in coarseness. However, should I add a shelf to my spice rack for a variety of salts also?

Isn’t it interesting how salt, unjustly considered a dietary villain for many years, is now the darling of the food world? Salt, with a history as old as mankind, is a fascinating subject. Animals and people have always valued salt, with good reason. We can’t live without it.

Does that mean we need a variety of different salts for home use? Maybe a few, but I don’t think you need to devote a shelf on your spice rack to it.

First of all, salt is a seasoning, the only one, really. Seasoning is not the same as flavoring. A seasoning brings out and enhances the intrinsic flavor of a food. Flavorings augment or modify that flavor. Flavorings can be herbs and spices; other foods (think bacon, tomatoes, citrus fruits, chiles, the onion and garlic family); preparations such as mustard, Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, and the like; and beer, wine, and spirits. My, what a lot of flavorings there are!

Let’s get back to salt. Salt can be gathered, mined, or harvested from all over the world. How and where it’s obtained, as well as how it’s processed, determine its physical structure and nutrient content. Regular table salt, the one we all grew up with, is highly refined. Sodium chloride with a small amount of additives to keep it free-flowing, it’s most often iodized. Iodine began to be added to salt in the 1920s to prevent goiter in areas where people weren’t getting sufficient amounts from their food.

Kosher salt adheres well to meats to draw out the blood. It’s suitable for brining and is great for salt rubs. Canning and pickling salt contains no additives that would make for cloudy brine and a layer of sediment in the bottom of your pickle jar. Pretzel salt will keep its shape and give a nice crunch. Popcorn salt is extremely fine and adheres to popcorn rather than falling to the bottom of the bowl. These are not going to be spelled out on a menu or offered at the table.

Light grey Celtic sea salt, which has become popular in recent years, is unrefined and contains its natural complement of trace elements and minerals. So named because it’s harvested in Brittany, France, there are other areas of the world where salt is similarly produced. It’s moist and doesn’t flow freely. Coarse sea salt needs to be ground in a non-corrodible salt mill for table use, but you can buy finely ground sea salt instead. It costs much more than coarse sea salt, however. Many feel sea salt has a cleaner, less chemical, flavor than table salt, and many prefer the nutritional profile.

Pink Himalayan salt, by contrast, is mined, and said to be purer than sea salt because it’s from deep in the earth and so is not as subject to pollution as the ocean. It also has its full complement of minerals and trace elements. Because it is mined in slabs or chunks, it can be carved and shaped. A good-sized brick of it can be chilled to keep food cold or heated to cook on. How cool to simultaneously cook and season your food right at the table!

Then there are coarse-grained salts from Australia, India, or Hawaii which are naturally colored red or black and so are unsuitable for many purposes (brick red dill pickles, anyone?) They’re often used for aesthetic purposes, and they’re costly. Flavors vary.

Finishing salts include fleur de sel (flor de sal in Spanish) and Maldon sea salt. Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is the finest of the sea salts and is used for the ultimate seasoning of food before it’s sent out to the table, as well as set out on the table. Maldon sea salt from England is flaky, so it adds a lovely crunch to food.

Salts can be roasted, smoked, or flavored. A shop in Portsmouth, NH, called the Salt Cellar carries a beautiful selection. Literally in the cellar, this little shop is a treasure trove of salts and salt products. The ghost chile, purported to be the world’s hottest, makes a salt that will knock your socks off. They have finishing salts flavored with espresso, truffle, vanilla, herbs, garlic, and tea, to name just a few. Imagine vanilla salt sprinkled on your butterscotch sundae… yum.

That said, these are very specific salts, and I’m not sure you’d want to load up on them. In general, I don’t care for spice blends, preferring to do the flavoring myself. I stock rosemary, basil, oregano, and marjoram rather than Italian seasoning. The same can be said of salts. Delicious food does not rely on a single ingredient but on proper cooking technique combined with judicious seasoning and flavoring. Have fun checking out various salts, but don’t go overboard collecting until you know which ones you’ll use more than once.

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