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
with this Kosher Salt Brine recipe.

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.
 

Crystal Clear

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.

Table Salt

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

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.

Kosher Salt

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.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Check out three versions of the goal that sends the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final for a sixth time. (Hint) We think we saved the best for last.
Dinosaurs Storm the Pittsburgh Zoo

Dinosaurs Storm the Pittsburgh Zoo

Eighteen life-like, animatronic dinosaurs will spend the summer in the Steel City.
He Loves the Nickname: They Call Him Dr. Yuk

He Loves the Nickname: They Call Him Dr. Yuk

In the 45 years since coming up with Mr. Yuk, Dr. Richard Moriarty, now 77, has met many grateful parents who told him he saved their kids’ lives.
Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Technological innovators present what could be “the next big thing” at the Carnegie Music Hall in Homewood.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Watch: How Will You Remember Kunitz's Overtime Winner?

Check out three versions of the goal that sends the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final for a sixth time. (Hint) We think we saved the best for last.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

Pittsburgh Bartenders Give Back By Keeping Time

The Pittsburgh chapter of the USBG partners with Campari USA to create a calendar that will benefit Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

A win will send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals for a second year in a row and re-write team history.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

If Only the Baywatch Team Could've Saved Us From Jack Sparrow

Reviews of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" and "Baywatch," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

Pennsylvania native Jaclyn Jordan brings her newest collection to the Blanc de Blanc Bridal Boutique in Carrick.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Explore lavish homes and gardens with the West Allegheny Historic District’s annual Tour and Tasting, or go on the hunt for hidden treasure during The Great Mexican War Streets Yard Sale.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments