Salts Galore

The number one seasoning we use in the kitchen, whether in savory or sweet dishes, has to be salt. Although salt has received a bad rap in recent years for its role in high blood pressure, for most of us, it is not a major health concern. It is, though, an essential ingredient in almost all of our cooking and baking. There has also been an increased interest in specialty salts over the last few years. I wrote a short piece on salt a few years ago but thought it was time to update that and so, that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Salt is either harvested from sea water or mined from salt mines but it is all basically just sodium chloride. Different salts, though, do differ in texture, shape and mineral content.

Granulated table salt
This is the densest form of salt and is in the form of small, cubic crystals. It is mined from underground salt deposits by pumping water through these deposits followed by evaporation of the water. It usually has additives that act as anti-caking agents, but these chemicals may also give an off-taste to the salt. It may be found either with the addition of iodine or without. Iodine began to be added in the 1920s to prevent iodine deficiency, but it can give a slight chemical flavor.

Because of its fine texture, table salt dissolves easily, especially in baked goods. It may also be used for dishes such as soups or stews where it is going to dissolve and distribute evenly. Just be sure to start with a lower amount and add as you need so you do not over-salt.

Kosher salt
The name of this salt comes from the fact that it is used in the koshering process for meats. It comes from salt mines. It is coarse but not as large and flaky as flake salt (discussed below) although the actual texture does vary by brand. It is generally recommended for everyday use as it is easy to pick up between your fingers and distribute evenly.

It is great for sprinkling on meat prior to cooking not only because it can be sprinkled evenly, but also because it melts on contact, sticking to the food item. It may also be used as a seasoning prior to serving. The finer version is suitable for baking.

In the US, there are two major brands.

  • Morton – this brand contains an anticaking agent and the crystals are flat due to a rolling process.
  • Diamond Crystal – there are no additives in this brand and it is made by a process known as “craft evaporation”. This results in hollow, multifaceted crystals that weigh less than those of the Morton brand.

Flake salt
This salt comes from evaporated sea water. The term is generally used for salt with crystals that have a large surface area and usually in the form of flat, irregularly-shaped particles that crumble and dissolve easily.

Since the crystals don’t pack together as with granulated salt, any given volume (such as a teaspoon) will weigh less than the equivalent volume of the granulated version. They are a great crunchy finishing salt.

Maldon sea salt from England is put into this category although its crystals are not flat but have a pyramidal shape. Because of its very flaky texture, it is a favorite among chefs.

Sea salt
This is a general term referring to salt that is made from evaporating sea water. It is usually coarse and irregularly shaped. It is minimally processed, which means it will contain trace minerals that result in a more complex flavor.

It can be either unrefined or refined. The unrefined will contain more minerals, contributing to its taste and appearance. It can range in color from white to grey, the latter containing more minerals that lead to the color and unique flavors. It can also be found in a fine texture or a larger, more flaky texture.

Finishing salts
These are salts that are generally added to food just before serving to add flavor and texture. Most sea salts are in this category. There are a few popular ones I will mention.

  • Himalayan pink salt – this is mined from the Khera salt mine in Pakistan and gains its pink color from trace elements and minerals. It has a mild but complex flavor. It can be in a fine texture or a very coarse texture.
  • Himalayan black salt – also known as kala namak. It is created by cooking the salt with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark in a furnace. Because it contains sulfide compounds, it is said to have the flavor of a soft-boiled egg.
  • Hawaiian salt – It is harvested near the shores of Kauai. The red variety gets its brick red color from the volcanic clay. The black variety is made by adding activated charcoal, which also gives it an earthy flavor.

Fleur de sel
This is French for flower of the salt. The original is a special product of the sea-salt beds of Brittany, France although other places are now producing a similar product. The crystals that form at the surface of the beds are gently raked off before they can fall below the surface. This results in very delicate flakes without any traces of sediment. It is expensive as this is a very labor-intensive process. You might see different fleur de sels depending on where it comes from.

If you are concerned about sodium intake, you should always consult your physician. One thing to note, though, is that most of our salt intake comes not from the salt we use in cooking but from processed food. If you just make that one switch from eating so much store-bought processed foods or fast food and instead cook at home, you will significantly decrease your sodium intake.

Sel Gris (grey sea salt, Celtic sea salt)
As opposed to fleur de sel, this salt comes from below the surface of the salt beds. Its gray color comes from the clay from which it is harvested. It is said to have a slight mineral or briny taste.

Flavored and colored salts
These are salts which are used as a carrier for other flavors and colors. Examples are herb salts, garlic salt, celery salt, smoked salts and blended salts. They each have their own characteristic flavor.

So, which salts should you have in your pantry? If you wish to have only one, kosher salt is probably the most useful. It is inexpensive and can be used in various applications. You might also want to consider a finishing salt for that extra crunch/flavor for your dishes.

One thing to be aware of is that although these different types of salt have similar sodium contents by weight, the do vary by volume due to their differing sizes and shapes. This great chart from Serious Eats demonstrates this.

Type of saltWeight per cupWeight per tablespoon
Table salt10 ozs/280 g⅔ oz/18 g
Morton’s kosher salt8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g
Diamond Crystal kosher salt5 ozs/140 g⅓ oz/9 g
Maldon sea salt4 ozs/115 g¼ oz/7 g
Fleur de sel8 ozs/225 g½ oz/14 g

In practical terms, one tsp table salt is equivalent to 1½ tsp Morton kosher salt and 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Be aware of this if you want to substitute one kind for another.

Salt not only has its own taste but it also enhances the flavor of other ingredients. It can minimize bitterness, enhance sweetness and complement umami. Be sure to season as you go. Consistently taste your dish as you go along so the seasoning is to your taste. You do not want your dish to taste salty; you want it to taste balanced and delicious. And, for that, you will need salt!