It seems as if I have some sort of salt problem. I was thinking of writing about salt, and just raiding my cabinets I found the eleven varieties pictured above. This doesn’t actually put me in to the outer realm of salt craziness. I don’t carry my own in a little box to restaurants (though I have to admit it doesn’t sound like a terrible idea).
Properly seasoning food with salt is absolutely one of the keys to making it delicious, and as Jeffrey Steingarten points out so clearly in The Man Who Ate Everything, the health media and government are conspiring to deny us that simple pleasure. Well, really what they are trying to do is protect people’s hearts, but it turns out that only a small percentage of folks actually have salt-sensitive hypertension and the rest of us could enjoy it pretty liberally. And actually even if you are salt-sensitive, the wonderful finishing salts available now can be a real boon. You can use less sodium mixed in to a dish, and sprinkle a few grains of something great on top and get much of the enjoyment. I’ve actually taken lately to going a bit easier on the salt in the food so that I can use more at the last moment to get maximum flavor.
Here’s a little experiment that you might find interesting. Measure one cup of pure tasting water into a cup. Add one pinch of salt, stir, and taste. Add another pinch, and repeat until it tastes like soup. How many pinches did it take before your water went from refreshing to tasty to oversalted? Remember those flavors and it will make it easier to properly salt while you cook.
Most of the salts above (with exceptions noted below) are finishing salts, which means that they aren’t generally meant to be cooked into the food. They are for sprinkling on, either just before serving or at the table. And to be honest, to me most of them taste about the same. There may be subtle variations in degree of saltiness, but what makes them really different is the texture and color. And it isn’t just the size of each grain. Many of them have unique and fascinating shapes which are interesting on the palate.
Here are my notes on each of the salts I have in my own kitchen, starting at the top left of the picture:
- Pacific Salt Sea Salt (coarse) – from New Zealand. Very large crystals, much too big to sprinkle directly on food, but perfect in a salt grinder. It would also be beautiful as a bed for presenting food.
- Esprit Du Sel – from the Ile De Re in France, also large but much more irregular, and with a beautiful gray color.
- Big Tree Farms Handcrafted Balinese Sea Salt – this is one of the most interesting salts I’ve run across. Each grain is a little hollow pyramid! A really fascinating texture. The same company also sells Balinese Long Pepper, which was prized by the Romans before the black pepper we use today was well known. It has a terrific floral aroma along with the mild heat.
- Hawaiian Black Sea Salt – super shiny hard black crystals, with the color coming from carbon. This would be great on a flatbread.
- Hawaiian Red Alaea Salt – actually more of an orangey-pink translucent color. This would look awesome on a margarita glass.
- Maldon (aka the world’s greatest salt) Sea Salt – regular readers will probably be sick of hearing me carry on about this. If I were stuck on a dessert island, this is the salt I would bring. The texture is thin and flaky, so you get these perfect hits of salty crunch.
- Alder Smoked Sea Salt – I picked this up at a slightly odd shop in a small town, and frankly I’m not a big fan. Sounded good, but the smoke flavor just isn’t clear, just kind of tastes funky. Maybe I just didn’t get a great brand.
- Fleur De Sel de Ile De Re – unlike the Esprit Du Sel, this particular fleur de sel from M. Banaletti is much finer grained. My friend Steve brought it back for me from a trip to France. I particularly like it on salad and grilled vegetables. I don’t see that exact salt available on the web, but I’ve linked a similar one.
- Truffle Salt – I got this at Dean and Deluca in NYC. I normally wouldn’t buy such a thing, but it actually delivers a heck of a lot of truffle aroma. For those of us that rarely get the real thing, it is worth having just to occasionally open the jar and take a deep whiff. Good on scrambled eggs. It claims to be 5% black summer truffles but also lists "truffle flavor".
- Kosher Salt – Diamond Crystal or Morton’s brands are good. This is the go-to salt for seasoning food as you cook. It tastes better than iodized salt, and the coarse grains make it much easier to grab and distribute a pinch at a time. You should have a bowl of this by your stove at all times.
- Hain’s Iodized Sea Salt – just like the normal iodized salt you grew up with, but without the trace minerals removed. I’ve had the same box for probably 5 years. I sometimes use it for baking because I figure that is how most recipes are tested, and you know it will dissolve well. I don’t know if it is just because of the fine texture, but it has a noticeably unpleasant sharpness to it when tasted by itself.
So that’s my salty story. And there are hundreds more that look great and I hope to try someday. What other ones do you love (or hate)?