Worth Your Salt
The age-old flavoring we can’t live without has stirred a passion among cooks since ancient times.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
A scattering of flaky sea salt can add an exquisite crunch and delicate flavor to a juicy steak or ripe tomato that gratifies all of the senses. Simple table salt is transformative, too: Fresh buttered popcorn, homemade biscuits and chocolate chip cookies are nothing without it.
There’s an innate human characteristic to like salt, not only because it’s an essential nutrient but also because it’s a taste-enhancer and brings out the aromas in foods. It’s no wonder that, even in ancient times, our ancestors combed either sea coasts or inland salt deposits to bring it into their diets.
To ancient people, our habit of sprinkling salt would be unfamiliar; rather, they incorporated it as a preservative and, in the process, created foods and condiments that are still staples today. Early forms of soy sauce, created by fermenting fish and soybeans in salt, emerged in Asia many thousands of years ago. Ancient Romans did a brisk trade with their enemies, the Celts, because the latter mastered the art of making salt-cured ham.
As it was known to most humans throughout the centuries, salt was rarely pure white but tinted instead with some clay, dirt or ash, and it came in chunks, cakes, blocks or sticky crystals. Tiny, uniform grains of salt only came about with the Industrial Revolution and the first vacuum pan-salt process.
Plan ahead for next month's turkey
In 1911, a businessman with the now-familiar name of Morton added chemical nonsticking agents to prevent salt from caking. With this, salt reached the pinnacle of visual purity, both entirely white and always free-flowing. Ironically, today we have come full-circle to a time when coarser salts or even gray or black salts are costly and coveted; gray and black salts retain color because of tiny amounts of dirt, clay or other minerals. Many chefs feel these less-processed salts taste better than table salt.
Salt isn’t just salty anymore, either—it’s smoky: A rapidly growing new gourmet category is smoked salts, the result of cold-smoking sea salt over Northwest Red Alderwood, for example, to produce a clean, natural smoke flavor that tastes especially delicious with grilled steak.
One thing is certain: For adventurous cooks, there’s definitely room in the kitchen for more than a plain, old salt shaker.
The primary differences among the three basic types of salt—table salt, kosher salt and sea salt—relate to the size of the salt crystals and to how the salts are processed.
Refined to a uniformly fine grain, table salt is what’s in our shakers and used for our favorite baking recipes. It is usually made by pumping water into an underground salt deposit to dissolve the salt, then pumping the resulting brine to the surface and vacuum-evaporating it to produce small-crystal salt.
Iodized salt, created in the 1920s on the recommendation of the Michigan State Medical Society, contains potassium iodide, which protects against thyroid disease. To some cooks, iodine creates a slightly noticeable chemical taste; that’s one reason to select table salt that’s not iodized (our diets generally include enough iodine that we do not need to worry about deficiency, according to MedlinePlus).
Sea salt is primarily made by the age-old process of evaporating seawater naturally by sun and wind as it is held in large, shallow ponds or in large pans. The flavor is clean and mild with texture that delivers a strong crunch.
Some types of sea salts are also called finishing salts because they are costly and meant to be sprinkled onto food just before serving. Among the most prized is fleur de sel, or “flower of salt,” which refers to salt that is skimmed off the surface of the evaporation pans by hand while using wooden tools in the technique of artisans from long ago.
A common source for sea salt is the Mediterranean Sea. There are many varieties under the general heading “sea salt,” as it includes everything from French gray salt (sel gris) to Alaea Hawaiian sea salt, which is colored by volcanic red baked clay.
Specialty retailers such as the Artisan Salt Co. (artisansalt.com) offer sea salts in both coarse and fine grain.
Like sea salt, kosher salt is made without additives, and this is what sets it apart from table salt. Kosher salt can either be mined or harvested from the sea. Processed to better cling to meat for the purpose of koshering, a process in which the salt is applied to draw blood and juices out of just-butchered meats, it’s manufactured under rabbinical supervision.
Because of the large granules, there’s less salt in a pinch of kosher salt than in a pinch of table salt—a good thing to remember when you are seasoning food.