A Salt Primer
The essentials of the most common seasoning
Using the right salt can have a huge impact on flavor and even the textures of our food. Salt has recently entered the rarified world of gourmet products and a new crop of very expensive designer salts have started to appear in specialty markets.
The choices are getting complicated and pricey. What does a city cook need to know? Here's a little background on salt and some recommendations on what you should have in your kitchen.
There are three types of edible salt:
- Unrefined salt: Sea salt with no chemical additives.
- Refined salt: Processed usually from rock salt, mined from mineral deposits originating from ancient salt lakes; many have added edible chemicals to prevent caking, as well as folic acid and potassium fluoride.
- Iodised salt: A refined table salt with iodine added as a public health protection again thyroid and certain developmental diseases. Iodised salt is still commonly sold around the world but is most important in under-developed countries where salt may be the only dietary source for iodine, an essential nutrient.
Within these three basic categories there are many different choices. These are the most common:
- Table salt -- the fine grained stuff, made in factories with chemicals, and packaged in a squat blue cylinder box that you should throw away and not buy again.
- Kosher salt -- large grained salt with no additives, although Morton's kosher salt does include an anti-caking agent. Kosher salt gets its name by being the type of salt used in making meats kosher by helping extract the blood from the meat. It's the choice of most professional chefs for its flavor as well as its large grain, making it easier to pinch and control how much is being added to food.
- Sea salt -- made by evaporating sea water; some is done by hand, including the precious Fleur de Sel. Other sea salt is machine processed and it comes in large and fine crystals.
- Flavored salts -- a recent innovation, these are sea salts to which flavors are added, e.g., pieces of truffle, smoke flavor, other novelty flavors.
- Gray salt -- gray sea salt, hand harvested in Brittany. The pans used to harvest the salt cause its pale silver color; naturally higher in some trace minerals like magnesium, iron and calcium.
- Hawaiian salt -- red or black sea salt harvested in the waters off Hawaii's red and black lava coastlines.
- Maldon salt -- an English sea salt that has been processed into delicate flakes; a great choice for roasts and other foods that benefit from larger pieces of salt
What's Best for Home Cooks
- Kosher salt: an inexpensive basic with a clean, bright taste. Leading brands are Diamond Crystal (a 3 pound box costs about $2.50) in a red and black box, and Morton's, in a dark blue box with that little girl with the umbrella still making an appearance. Use kosher salt to season water for vegetables or pasta, on the surface of meats and poultry, to add to something with lots of liquid so that it will dissolve, and most other cooking. It's not best for baking because the large crystals may not equally dissolve.
- Sea salt: Le Baleine, in both fine and coarse crystals (about $3.00 for a 26 oz. cylinder), is a widely available brand and a quality choice for home cooks; its fine version is an excellent choice for baking because it will easily dissolve in a little amount of liquid.
- A finishing salt: it can be a flavorful finish to add a high quality sea salt to a dish at the end. For this you could choose Fleur de Sel, gray salt or a luxurious Ile de Re fleur de sel, a hand-harvested salt from the salt water marshes around Brittany's Ile de Re. These can be costly but you'll use them far less frequently than the others.
Tip: when moving back and forth between different types of salt, be attentive to the size of the crystals and the amount of salt that a recipe may call for. One teaspoon of kosher salt may have the same salt impact as one-half teaspoon of a fine crystal salt.
Regardless which you choose, just get rid any boxes of iodine-added industrial table salt you may still have.
- Either toss your salt shaker completely or else limit it to your dining table. Instead use a small dish, sometimes called a salt cellar. See our article dedicated to tell you why using a dish of salt instead of a shaker can make your food better.
- Salt draws out moisture. This is a good thing when you add salt to a bowl of cut, in-season Jersey tomatoes; a big pinch of salt to a bowl of 2 or 3 cut-up tomatoes will pull out the bright, acid juice and then all you need is a drizzle of olive oil and some turns of a pepper mill to have an amazing tomato salad (add pieces of celery, English cucumber and red onion for crunch).
- Salt draws out moisture. This is a bad thing when you don't want it. For example, if you're sautéing mushrooms, don't add salt until the end or else the mushrooms will excrete lots of water, making it hard to get a brown, crispy surface. Likewise, only salt meat just before cooking or else the salt will draw out juices, making the surface wet and hard to brown.
- When cooking pasta, add lots of salt to the water so that it tastes like the sea. This will flavor the pasta without making it salty.
- If you're cooking a whole fish or a game bird in a salt crust, use kosher salt; some recipes will call for adding egg whites to the salt to help hold the crust in shape.
- If you are making a sauce or gravy by reducing a liquid in which you've cooked meat, such as a pot roast, be very light handed with the salt until you taste at the end. This is because the process of reduction will intensify everything, including the saltiness.
- Some grains and legumes can get tough if they're salted too soon. Salt them when they're nearly finished, not at the start of cooking.
You can always add salt but you can't take it away (I've heard about that trick of putting a potato in something that's over-salted; I'd rather avoid the problem to begin with). Add salt gradually and keep tasting before you add more.