Virtually everything that tastes good, both sweet and savoury, shares one common element: salt.
A fundamental ingredient in kitchens worldwide, salt unifies and enhances existing flavours, making food taste more like it’s supposed to: croissants more buttery, grains more nutty, tomatoes more tomato-y. Used early in the cooking process, it transforms dishes from the inside out, tamping down bitterness, rounding out sweetness, adding a savoury depth and releasing additional odour compounds that add to the taste experience. Without salt, food tastes flat; with just enough, it tastes like itself, only better.
A mineral that’s primarily sodium chloride, salt comes in many forms, but the term “sea salt” on packaging can be misleading: All salt is sea salt. It all comes from the sea, or places that were once seas – rock salt is mined from the dry deposits of sedimentary minerals found in ancient seabeds.
Any enthusiastic cook can easily source a veritable salt wardrobe: fine, coarse and flaky, in earthy shades of pink, grey, brown and black. Although some can detect purity and trace elements on their tongues, which salt you choose depends more on texture than flavour – whether salt is fine or flaky is determined by the evaporation method used to produce it, and in turn contributes to the level of salinity. (Yes, some salt is saltier than others, simply because the grains are denser and more compact.)
All will coax out the best in your food, but knowing how and when to use them will make the process easier. Here is a user’s guide to deciphering which is which.
The most common type of salt is the stuff that comes in tiny packets in your drive-thru bag, and that you see in shakers on dining room tables. It’s most often rock salt, mined from underground caverns (extracted dry, or wet by way of water pumped down into a mine and returned to the surface as a salty brine.) It is processed under pressure into tiny, uniform grains that are compact in a measuring spoon, making it saltier by volume than kosher or flakier, more jagged salt, like the coarse salt ground in your salt grinder. Fine table salt is consistent, and will dissolve easily into a pot of pasta water or cookie dough. (Pickling salt comes in varying textures, but lacks the added iodine and anti-caking agents that can make pickles cloudy or aesthetically unappealing.)
Like the much-revered Diamond Crystal, this is a favourite of chefs and food writers, and has larger, rougher, airier granules that are by way of manufacture (their own proprietary methods) less solid – consider the density of a block of ice versus a snowball. So named because of its use in the koshering process (which involves drawing blood from the meat of an animal), kosher salt is prized for its satisfying pinchability, lack of iodine and anti-caking agents, light colour and rough texture that makes it easy to see and helps it adhere to the surface of a chicken or steak. It also dissolves easily, making it suitable for just about everything from doughs to vinaigrettes to stews. But less density also means less saltiness – you need 1½ to two times the quantity of kosher salt, depending on the brand, to equal the salinity of regular, free-flowing table salt.
Pink Himalayan, red Hawaiian and sel gris
Fancy salts from around the world come in grains of varying shape and size, from fine to ultracoarse. They’re often billed as sources of essential minerals, such as the potassium and magnesium that give Himalayan its rosy hue, but the quantities are minute. “One brand of pink Himalayan salt lists potassium at 3.5 mg per ¼ teaspoon. You’d have to eat over a half-cup, or 10 tablespoons of that salt to get as much potassium as a medium-sized banana,” says Cheryl Strachan, a registered dietitian at Sweet Spot Nutrition. “You’d also get about 45,840 mg of sodium, just a bit higher than Hypertension Canada’s recommended level of 2,000 mg per day.”
Similarly, she notes that Celtic salt contains 0.16-per-cent calcium, which means you’d need to eat about a cup of it to get as much calcium as you’d get from a cup of milk. “I tell people to choose their salt for taste and functionality, not health benefits,” Strachan says. “If they’re concerned about blood pressure, diabetes or heart health, use it sparingly, as you would use regular salt. And remember that about 80 per cent of our sodium comes from restaurant and processed foods.”
The slower the evaporation, the more delicate the salt crystals – and the higher the price tag. Fleur de sel and other fancy, pricey salts such as Maldon develop as a delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it slowly evaporates undisturbed, and is gently skimmed off to dry. The result: large, elegant, pyramidal crystals you wouldn’t waste by tossing in your muffin batter or pasta water – it’s best sprinkled over your food just before you serve it, in order to retain its texture. Use it on sliced ripe tomatoes or avocado toast, anywhere you want sparkling bursts of crunchy salt.
The first sea-salt harvester in Canada, Vancouver Island Salt Co., hand harvests salt from the waters in Oyster Bay, B.C. It’s the salt of choice at RauDZ Regional Table in Kelowna, where they use their larger flakes to finish everything from grilled lamb chops to venison carpaccio. “We did a taste test and six out of seven chefs chose it over Maldon,” chef Bernard Casavant says. “It has a cleaner flavor; it doesn’t have the same aftertaste in the back of your throat.”
So, which to reach for? In a nutshell (or saltbox): fine for baking, coarse for grinding, flaky for finishing, colourful just because you like it or for impressing your dinner guests. It’s these inconsistencies, and the reluctance of most food writers to require a specific brand or type of salt in a recipe, that brought about the phrase “salt to taste.” After all, our palates are as diverse as the salts in our shakers, grinders and pinching bowls. The key is becoming familiar with your salts of choice and understanding how to best use them. When it comes to salt, the best kitchen tool is your own palate.
A salt of your own
If you have access to ocean water, you can make salt yourself: scoop a bucketful of seawater from the waves, pour it through a coffee filter-lined sieve to get rid of any grit, and simmer the filtered salt water in a wide skillet, stirring occasionally (and more often as it concentrates), until all the moisture evaporates and you’re left with a handful of pure salt. If you want to get creative with flavoured salts, add a splash of beer or wine, or aromatics like fresh rosemary or lemon zest to the saline water as it reduces.
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