If I were a betting woman, I’d be willing to bet the farm that you have a bottle of salt somewhere in your house. Even if your cooking skills top off at boiling spaghetti or defrosting peas, you still need salt. People know they need salt, but typically don’t really know why or what the differences are between various salts. Salt has come a long way from the nostalgic blue canister, now showing up in gourmet shops and specialty food stores in more varieties than sugary breakfast cereals. From smoked to flaked to Fleur de Sel, salt isn’t a humble, little mineral anymore, and I’ll give you the low down on it.
Salt is a crystalline solid, sodium chloride (to be extra Bill Nye the Science Guy.) It sounds kind of weird and inedible, but it’s definitely not the case. Salt is obtained from either rock deposits or sea water, which is obviously why swallowing a quart of seawater after plummeting off your surfboard tastes so incredibly salty and awful. The color of the salt can range anywhere from bright white, to pink, to gray, and to black. It all depends on the mineral content.
The most common salt, probably the one in your cupboard right now, is iodized salt. Pretty standard, this ho-hum salt is decent for seasoning boiling water for pasta, but that’s about it. I know it sounds strange to think about salt as having a “taste” because it’s something we see to bring out the taste in other foods. However, salt truly has a significant variance between different varieties. Sea salt, rock salt, Himalayan pink salt, black Hawaiian salt, gray salt, Fleur de Sel: the list is nearly endless. Some are smokier, some milder, and some more potent. My best advice is to seek out specialty salts, and buy two or three different ones to try in your own cooking.
A few recommendations:
The first is gray salt. It’s often a bit “stickier” due to its higher moisture content—you’ll notice it sticks to the inside of the canister and clumps more than regular salt. Its flavor is on the milder side and has a nice mineral-like flavor, more so than with regular white table salt.
Another immediate swap out should be for kosher salt. Throw out whatever bargain bulk quantity of table salt you have now, and replace it with kosher salt. I use it in my own kitchen on a regular basis for general seasoning. The flavor is neutral, and it dissolves quickly enough and isn’t crazy expensive.
Two other salts I recommend are Maldon smoked sea salt and Fleur de Sel, often referred to as “finishing salt.” The smoked sea salt is a large granule salt with a light and airy texture. It won’t dissolve as quickly as the kosher or gray salt because it should be used right before you serve the dish, sprinkled gingerly on top of the food. The intention is to have that little crunch of salt when the diner takes the first bite. Not only does it flavor the underling food, but it also enhances the dish with a smoky flavor. The salt is smoked, just like any other smoked product, such as brisket, pork, sausage, and so on.
The Fleur de Sel, literally translating to “flower of salt,” is also a large granule salt with a crunchy thin, light texture, perfect for finishing a dish. According to David Lebovitz (a chef and lovely dessert blog writer), the finest salt in the world is harvested off the coast of Brittany in the town of Guérande (Fleur de Sel de Guérande being the highest-prized.)
Traditional French Fleur de Sel is collected not only in Guérande, but also in Noirmoutier, Ile de Ré and Camargue. Fleur de Sel is rare and expensive for a couple reasons: first, it’s only harvested in France in specific waters that have ideal alkaline and mineral content which produces the perfect, lightly-flavored, exquisite salt. Second, the cost of labor is high. Just imagine: the labor needs to arduously harvest the salt by hand, slowly and carefully scraping the surface of the water, removing only the iridescent white crystals from the surface, and leaving the gray salt behind.
Mark Bittman sums it up pretty perfectly, “The risk is low, and the payoff is high. No matter how pricey the salt you choose, it will likely be the least expensive ingredient in your dish—and if it comes off right, it will catapult the foods flavor into the stratosphere.”
My thoughts exactly. Think of salt in a new way, and introduce it into your home in the same way you would a fine vinegar or a prized tomato chutney. Don’t simply pass it off as a kitchen staple, and leave it at that—look at salt in the same way you would any other new, special, gourmet ingredient. Salt is a major game changer, and it deserves a little more respect.