Ever get lost in the seasoning aisle of the grocery store? I get lost in my own spice cabinet. I have jars of seasonings I don’t even know how they got there. It can be a little intimidating for an untrained home chef to be inundated with plastic containers of cream of tartar, marjoram or turmeric, knowing fully well he or she has been through every recipe filling 10 different cookbooks and never once has been required to use any of these foreign substances.
If you really want to get into that we can, but I’m pretty sure you could Google a use for each and every baffling spice. Take your time. But I thought today it would be a clever idea to explore the different varieties of the original seasoning and preservative: salt.
I grew up pretty much thinking there was salt and that was it. The Morton’s logo is forever ingrained in my memory. Once or twice a year we would load up the ice cream maker and Khaki would grab a load of rock salt. It was the same brand but in a box instead of a cylinder.
Maybe you felt like I did. So you grew up. Suddenly there was sea salt. Then there was kosher salt. Your point of view began to change and then, wow, all of a sudden there was a world of salt to explore! Himalayan pink salt, blue, grey, black and I am certain more colors of the rainbow are to appear soon enough. It’s not something most of us are used to.
Our common table salt is heavily processed, which cleans and frees it of any “contaminants” such as other minerals. Unprocessed salts can take on many different colors defined by their surroundings. Of course, if those surrounding minerals could be potentially toxic you may appreciate the soulless processed salt.
So, is there a big difference in flavor? I can honestly throw out the word, “kinda.”
Yes, you can taste a difference side by side. Could I taste a difference in two exact recipes where the only change has been the type of salt used? More than likely I could not, but that’s not really the point. The point is finding the proper use for each of these different varieties based on their saltiness, crystal shape and flavor.
Most chefs will agree that plain table salt is garbage, opting to at least bump it up to kosher salt. You will immediately tell a difference. It is one of the most versatile NaCl things out there, with a much larger grain than most of us are used to. From salting meats to small amounts of pickling, this one can complete most jobs. Use it when needed at the start of a recipe or as a go-to finishing salt. This is your safe bet and every cupboard needs a box. Keep it dry. There’s usually no iodine in the mix.
I keep a shaker of Alessi sea salt handy. This is a crystal salt from the Mediterranean and is easily attainable at most grocers. Almost all salt comes from the sea (or what used to be a sea), but this is a crystalline salt harvested through evaporation. I’ve always purchased the coarse grind to get a different texture than what is in grandma’s shaker.
What are the celebs crazy about? Oh, it’s for sure Maldon. Not only is this the brand name of this flaky sea salt, it’s also the town in County Essex from whence it came. This may be the Brits’ most widely accepted contribution to the culinary world, at least in terms of ingredients.
I have a jar of these flakes (said to be pyramid shaped) and will concur there is a difference. It’s so flaky it makes the perfect pinch to grind between your fingers over a tomato slice or anything that requires a flamboyant finish. You can certainly find this one on Amazon or often at Target.
Fleur de sel is another finishing salt that gets its name from the flowerlike crystals that form on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. It’s scraped from the salt marsh like cream from milk and must be handled delicately. With a higher moisture content (10 to 20 times higher than that of common salt), fleur de sel doesn’t dissolve as quickly on your tongue which, along with trace minerals, gives it a saltier flavor.
Similar to this is sel gris, a French grey salt that comes from the bottom of the same salt pans. The grey color is due to its contact with the pans and the moisture content is typically a few percentages higher than fleur de sel. It can be used in cooking or in finishing, but use it sparingly in comparison to kosher or table salt. Your best bet to find these two is World Market or online, but again, use sparingly. They are pretty expensive.
Himalayan pink salt was a big fad a couple of years ago. Some say it’s the purest. Here’s the history lesson. Let’s say hundreds of millions of years ago Mt. Everest wasn’t there. There were sea salt beds. Those beds were covered by lava, which formed mountains that were covered with snow. Today the hand-mined salt gets its hue from varying mineral content.
Basically there are claims of health benefits one could experience from changing from table salt to Himalayan pink, but no scientific evidence has proven this true. It does look pretty cool and is a great conversation starter.
I wouldn’t go throwing away that normal iodized salt just yet. Some things in life are best kept at 81 cents per pound. But sooner or later we should have expected our consumer lives to be overtaken by high-dollar salt. You can taste a difference. It isn’t life changing, though. Use those fancy salts for your fancy dishes, but keep the other handy for when it doesn’t count as much.