How To Choose the Right Type of Cooking Salt
There's more to salt than you think.
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Proper seasoning is a cornerstone of successful cooking, and nothing makes or breaks a meal quicker than salt. Too little will render a dish joyless, but too much will exhaust your tastebuds. With so much in the balance, it's critical to understand the different varieties of salt, and more importantly, when to use them.
You may think it's all the same (one part sodium, one part chloride), but the shape, consistency, and origin of a salt can significantly affect the quality of your food. Don't neglect the salt!
Kosher, Sea, Table—What's the Difference?
Kosher salt, sea salt, and table salt—these are, far and away, the most common salt products. They're cheap, all-purpose, and found in almost every kitchen in the world—professional or otherwise. They also look alike, taste more or less the same, and—believe it or not—are chemically identical to one another.
So what is the difference between them, and why should you care? It all comes down to culinary preference.
The undisputed champion of sodium versatility, kosher salt is a staple ingredient in professional kitchens. Its name is derived from the koshering process for which it's commonly used. The salt's large, flakey texture makes it easy to grip and distribute, which is why most recipes call for kosher salt specifically; it's somewhat of an industry standard.
The visibility of kosher salt is beneficial, too. For instance, when it comes time to season a steak or pork chop prior to searing, kosher salt flakes are big enough to actually measure by eye.
If kosher salt is the industry standard for the kitchen, table salt is the industry standard for the dining room. Although most chefs prefer to cook with kosher salt, there are times when table salt is the preferable cooking agent.
Table salt's small, fine grains make it quick to dissolve. This comes in handy when making a brine (for meats like pork and corned beef) or salting water for boiling pasta. There's nothing wrong with table salt—it's just a bit more difficult to eyeball servings of it.
Perhaps the fanciest of the three, sea salt is the only one that claims to have any sort of benefit over the others—but the veracity of those claims are still up in the air. The gist of the claim is that sea salt's larger crystals may encourage users to consume less of it.
What is clear is that sea salt is produced through evaporated salt water (ocean or salt lakes). Depending on the source, this tends to leave behind trace minerals that may or may not contribute to sea salt's unique coarseness or flavor profiles. At the end of the day, though, it's just salt.
While sea salt may contain trace minerals, the only real difference between kosher and table salt is their respective size and shape. The tightly-packed grains in table salt make its application harder to control, and that lack of consistency is the last thing you need in a fast-paced kitchen. In terms of flavor, however, table and kosher salt—and for that matter, sea salt—are pretty much indistinguishable.
Because grain sizes can vary, not all measurements contain the same amount of salt. For that reason, there's this golden rule: One tablespoon of table salt is generally equivalent to 1 and 3/4 tablespoons of kosher salt. Morton Salt has a convenient conversion chart on its website if you're stuck with table salt on a recipe calling for kosher.
So you've plated your food and now you're looking for that last "oomph"—that visual and gustatory coup de grâce applied just before serving. Some of these artisanal salts possess distinct flavors; others are distinguished for their texture or color.
In any case, they are considerably more expensive than cooking salts, so unless you have the means to constantly replenish your supply, they should probably be used conservatively. Still, finishing salts can impart an interesting flair to your home cooking. Here are a few of the most common varieties.
Fleur de Sel
This lightweight, moisture-rich salt—whose name means flower of salt —is one of the most versatile and elegant finishing salts available. Its steep price is largely due to the complexities associated with its harvest.
Off the shores of France, Portugal, and Spain (among other countries), salt evaporation ponds are carefully raked for the layer of sea salt that forms on their surface.
Fleur de sel's effect on food is both a textural delight and a trip for the palate. The complexity of each crystal assures a pronounced crunch, but its high level of moisture allows the smaller bits to melt on your tongue.
It may sound oxymoronic to describe fleur de sel's flavor as both "subtle" and "hit-you-over-the-head-good," but let's go with that anyway. It has a distinct sea-like quality, but it's not nearly as briny as most of the sea salts found in your grocery store's spice aisle.
Its looks shouldn't be undersold, either. When properly doled out, fleur de sel is pretty enough to elevate even the most basic dish's visual appeal.
As the name implies, this variety of sea salt comes in flakes that vary in shape and thickness depending on the brand. The relatively large surface area of flake salt makes them a perfect visual companion to simple foods, like blanched vegetables or salads. Like kosher salt, chefs appreciate this variety for its coarseness, as well as its appearance.
Flake salt packs a hefty punch, but the sensation doesn't linger on the palate very long due to the lack of moisture in the flakes themselves.
Red & Black Hawaiian Sea Salt
Typically coarse, these Hawaiian sea salts are great for dishes that long for a colorful accent. But before diving into the exotic world of volcanic and carbonic ocean salts, there are a few differences you'll want to consider.
Red Hawaiian sea salt is infused with a volcanic clay called "alae," which not only gives the salt its brownish-red color, but also imparts a subtle, earth-like taste.
Black Hawaiian sea salt—also known as "black lava salt"—is enriched with activated charcoal, which is responsible for its stark color. Its flavor is more along the lines of a standard sea salt than its red counterpart.
Both salts are commonly used in traditional Hawaiian cuisine (think pork and tuna), but they're versatile enough to fit in with just about any dish—especially those in need of some extra color. They're a bit pricey, especially if you're used to the stuff you find in the corner store, but it's an interesting take on a familiar ingredient.
Known for its alluring pink hue, Himalayan salt is thought to be one of the purest cooking salts there is. Harvested from salt mines in Pakistan, Himalayan salt comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Its taste is about as intense as traditional sea salt (though it's not nearly as oceany) and its vibrant color adds a festive flair to fish, poultry, or the rim of a margarita glass.
In most cases, Himalayan salt is sprinkled onto a dish, but sometimes it's the dish itself. Blocks of Himalayan salt are frequently used as a plating apparatus. These slabs impart a subtle, salty flavor to grilled meats, seafood, and veggies.
The slabs are reusable and can withstand extreme cold and extreme heat, which means you can cook with them on the grill or in the oven. Have you ever heard of Himalayan salt shot glasses? Because they also exist and should make you incredibly happy to be alive.
Smoked sea salt
Not to be confused with smoke-flavored salt, smoked sea salt is actually smoked rather than dressed with artificial smoke flavoring. As you might imagine, this salt is perfect for barbecue fanatics—using it as part of a dry rub is the stuff dreams are made of.
Its smoky characteristics play well with rich desserts, especially chocolate-based dishes. Popcorn takes on an entirely new form with the addition of smoked salt, and vegetarians often use it to substitute the flavor of bacon on salads and sandwiches.
Like most things smoked, there are different varieties depending on what kind of wood you're looking to experience: mesquite, applewood, and hickory, just to name a few.