“Where would we be without salt?” James Beard (1903-1985)
When I was a child, we moved around a lot. One of the curious things that I noticed was my mom would always bring in a container of rice and a container of salt into the house before anything else. I don’t remember what superstition was attached to the practice. But I still remember that gallon-sized plastic container of sea salt that we had for as long as I could remember. It was used for our home cooking as well as when she had a restaurant. We lived above the restaurant so we still used that same plastic jar of salt. And I believe that when I left home as an adult, it was still there, right next to my mom’s granite mortar and pestle.
No one can contest that salt is the most important ingredient in cooking. When I’m watching TV or a movie and I see someone hunt and roast something, I often wondered, “Do they carry salt around? And if they don’t, how can that roasted rabbit possibly taste good?” Unfortunately, a lot of food nowadays have an inordinate amount of salt that salt has become a health hazard. The American Heart Association recommends less than 1500 milligrams (which is about 2/3 of a teaspoon of table salt) and much less for people like me who has hypertension and kidney failure.
It’s quite phenomenal that in spite of these, there has been a resurgence in the interest in salt and the market is now flooded with all kinds of salt that it’s mind-boggling. Last Christmas, I couldn’t make up my mind so I bought my bachelor son a gift pack of different salts because he liked pasta without sauce. I will attempt to sort these out into two categories: ordinary salts and specialty salts.
Regular Table Salt (or Refined Salt)
No need to look far for this kind because it’s probably what you have in your salt shaker. It is the most commonly used salt. It is highly refined and impurities and trace minerals are removed. It is also fortified with iodine, which is necessary for thyroid regulation. This practice began to enrich the diet of people in land-locked areas with no access to iodine-rich seafood. This salt is heavily ground and makes it prone to clumping so ant-caking agents. In Asia, we just usually add grains of rice in the shaker to break up the clumps. Regular salt dissolves quickly in food so it’s best for cooking and baking and recipes that require exact measurements.
Kosher salt got its name because it was used in the meat koshering process. Its large, craggy flakes draw out blood from meat which is essential in kosher butchering. Kosher salt can be used in all cooking. Many chefs prefer to use kosher salt because it can be easily pinched with the fingers and sprinkled over food. It dissolves fast and the flavor disperses quickly.
This salt is mined from deposits in the earth and not sold to be used directly on food. Minerals and other harmless impurities give it a grayish color. Often used with ice in old-fashioned ice cream makers to regulate temperature. This is also the type of salt used to deice sidewalks and driveways.
This is used for pickling pickles and sauerkraut. It is far more concentrated than kosher salt. It does not contain iodine and anti-caking chemicals because they would give the pickles an unappetizing color. It is virtually 100% sodium chloride, making it the purest of salts.
Crystalline Sea Salt
Comes in fine or coarse crystals and the size of the crystals affect how fast it dissolves. It also varies in color depending on the minerals it contains. The natural impurities can add subtle briny, sweet, or bitter flavors.
Flaked Sea Salt
The most popular brand, Maldon, is harvested from England’s Essex coast. It is produced by boiling and evaporating brine, resulting varying crystals and lower trace minerals. The crystals are soft, pyramid-shaped flakes and is the fastest dissolving of all salt grains. It can be used as a finishing salt for fresh food like salads and vegetables. Flaked salt is slightly more expensive than fine grind but makes up for it with more flavor and versatility.
Celtic Salt or Sel Gris (Gray Salt)
This is a salt that was popularized by France but this practice is done the world over. I have seen land sectioned off like rice fields and flooded with sea water in the Philippine countryside. So this is the salt that was in my mom’s jar. This kind of salt has grayish color because of trace amounts of minerals. It is produced in salt evaporation ponds which is raked once the salt crystals have sunk in the bottom. This salt is ideal for fatty meats and heavy vegetables like potatoes and other root crops. It’s a great all-around cooking salt but it can also be used as a garnish for soups, salads, and cookies.
Fleur de Sel (Flower of Salt)
This is hand-harvested from salt evaporation ponds although it is a more delicate process. The salt crystals are collected by scraping them off the water’s surface before they sink. It is considered the caviar of sea salts and conditions have to be just right for it to bloom like a flower on the water’s surface. It has an earthy flavor that lingers on the tongue. My daughter introduced me to this salt when we sprinkled it over beef barley soup.
Gros Sel (Large Salt)
This is the kind of salt that works best in a grinder. Use to create a salt crush on meat or fish or for seasoning pasta water.
Hawaiian Sea Salt
This salt can be fine- or coarse-grained, red or black in color, and full of trace minerals. The red kind gets its color from a mineral in volcanic baked red clay and the black salt gets its color from the addition of coal. Complements pork and seafood dishes.
Himalayan Pink Salt
This salt is harvested from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan, the second largest salt mine in the world. It contains small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium contains slightly lower amounts of sodium than regular salt. It is cut into blocks or ground into crystals that have a slight pinkish color, perfect for sprinkling over cooked food.
This is produced using the Japanese method of evaporating seawater over a fire or in a greenhouse then crystallized over fire to from really fine granular crystals which have a clean, complex flavor. It’s great sprinkled in sandwiches, broth, sashimi, popcorn and steamed veggies.
We humans can’t help but intervene with the flavor of foods we eat and salt is not exempt. To get smoked salt, it is exposed to slow-smoked wood which gives it a deep, smoky flavor than perfectly complements grilled meat and vegetables. The flavor depends on the type of wood used, length of smoking type and kind of salt.
Seasoned or Infused Salt
Another human intervention achieved though combination of spices, herbs or other flavors. The flavorings can range from the mundane onion or garlic to the exotic like truffles and saffron. Seasoned salt is typically used as a finishing salt.
Chemically, it is not exactly salt but it does taste salty. It’s made with potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride. However, potassium chloride tastes bitter when heated so it’s better used in the salt shaker. Because most people can use more potassium in their diet, this is a healthy choice but if you’re already on blood pressure medication, it’s not recommended. Potassium can cause heart rhythm problems.