Specialty Salts

by Elizabeth Skipper | April 3rd, 2013 | Ask the Chef

saltDoes it make a difference in what kind of salt is used in a recipe? I received sea salt and pink salt for Christmas, but I don’t know how to use them.

Aside from my strong conviction that cheap table salt, iodized or not, is not an ingredient anyone should be cooking with, the sky’s the limit when choosing salts. However, there are many kinds of salt that come in varying sizes and shapes which can make a difference as to how they’re used. Confusing? I’m sure.

For example, your saying “sea salt” really doesn’t tell me much. It could be an inexpensive refined product, although if it was a Christmas present, I doubt it. I first became acquainted with sea salt when Celtic sea salt came to my attention as being superior to table salt. This salt from Brittany, in France, is unrefined, meaning it has its full complement of naturally occurring minerals and has nothing added such an anti-caking agents.

Grey in color, Celtic sea salt is offered in both a coarse and a fine grind, the fine being more costly. The coarse grind is suitable for seasoning liquid things like soup, stew, or pasta cooking water, but it doesn’t dissolve readily on other foods or on cooked food at the table. Also, because it’s moist, the coarse grind requires a special salt mill – a mill with a metal mechanism will rust – and the salt will tend to clump. Buying fine grind solves all these problems with the exception of a slight tendency toward clumping, but keeping it in a closed container keeps it reasonably free-flowing (without the anti-caking agent used in table salt.)

There are different kinds of sea salt, though. The demand for Celtic sea salt has exceeded the supply, so the company that popularized it now refers to their product as “Celtic Sea Salt brand,” and sources it from other locations as well as France. While they maintain that their product is scrupulously upheld to the same standards regardless of where it’s sourced and I have no reason to doubt it, this labeling seems a bit disingenuous.

There are salts from all over the world – Hawaii, Utah, Portugal, the Himalayas (which is where I suspect your pink salt is from), India, Australia, Peru … and more are being “discovered” and promoted as the latest and greatest “gourmet” salt to come along. What they all have in common is that they’re touted as being cleaner, healthier, and superior to table salt. Beyond that, some have subtly different flavors, depending on where they’re from. One of the more exotic is a salt from India which is supposed to be reminiscent of egg yolks. None of this is to mention those salts which are flavored, whether with charcoal, smoke, chiles, vanilla, citrus fruits, or even truffles!

Another consideration is shape. Finishing salts like flaked salt are used at the table on things like a grilled steak where the crunch of the salt is appreciated, and coarse salt on a caramel sauce can be divine.

So, how do you use what you have? Same as you’d use any other salt. Use it to season your food. Seasoning isn’t flavoring; it’s bringing out and optimizing the essential taste of a food or dish. Have you ever smelled something like chicken broth that made your mouth water, but when you took a sip, was lacking something? A common mistake with unsure cooks is under-salting the food. All the broth needed was a little salt. Going in the other direction, though, too much salt will immediately make you say, “Yuck!” and reach for a glass of water to dilute the saltiness. Food that’s insufficiently seasoned is dull; food which is over-salted is inedible.

Seasoning applies to cooking water, too. Pasta or vegetables cooked in plain water will not be adequately seasoned with a sauce that’s added later; they must be seasoned as they cook. Salt everything as you cook – at the end of many recipes, the directions are to check and adjust the seasoning… if needed.

Proceed carefully until you calibrate how much of each salt equates to what you’ve been using. A good way to test this is to weigh what you’re currently cooking with and use an equal weight of the new salts. You can’t go simply by measure, as the same volume of one may weigh more or less than the other.

In addition to seasoning, salt is used to brine, dehydrate, affect texture, and draw moisture, to cure and preserve. You may or may not wish to use your Christmas presents for all these purposes, but you could. Have fun experimenting.

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