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 Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.
8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

When you compare what it cost to build the coaster in 1920 to what it would cost today, it's obvious Kennywood's owners got their money's worth.
Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

The upscale seafood eatery is expected to open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

These Penguins have been downright unrecognizable, individually and collectively, on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments