Some people say that the hallmark of civilization is ready access to ice. And while a perfectly chilled cocktail is one of life’s great pleasures, we would argue that the real height of civilization is signified by the fact that on almost every table across the world, you can find a tiny container of salt.
The famous Roman road system was built and used for transporting salt. The word “salary” comes from the Latin root for salt, because Roman soldiers were sometimes paid with it, and that was cool with them – a good solider was “worth his salt.” During the sixth century, Moorish traders swapped gold for salt, ounce for ounce. And at least two wars have been fought over the stuff: the War of Ferrara in 1482 and the Salt War of 1540 both started over the access to and taxation of salt.
Put simply, it makes things taste better and last longer – two very important things when your food is bland and unrefrigerated. But even today, professional chefs consistently say that salt is the most underutilized seasoning in the modern kitchen.
The thing is that these days, we kind of have the opposite problems of our medieval forbearers. Sure, plague, war, and oppression are all still around, but we're doing pretty well on the salt front – we've actually got more than we know what to do with. So, from the ubiquitous silo of table salt to the fancy stuff that costs $3 an ounce, let’s take a look at what to do with it all.
This is the great equalizer. It’s in every shaker from the smallest diner in the Midwest to the President’s own dinner table (probably). Table salt, unlike sea salt, is mined from the earth and processed to remove impurities and prevent clumping. Iodine is also typically added, since it’s an essential nutrient that makes for a healthy thyroid. In the 1920s, a professor of pediatrics from the University of Michigan figured out that if you distribute iodine through table salt, everyone will get a healthy dose pretty much every day. Turns out he was right, and you can thank him if you’ve never had a goitre.
Pros: The ultra-fine consistency makes it very easy to evenly coat food and thoroughly mix into recipes, like when you're baking.
Cons: It doesn't have much flavor, and can sometimes have a metallic twang.
No, this is not table salt for those of us who keep kosher. While it does have the word in its name, kosher salt isn't any more kosher than other varieties. It actually gets its name from the way butchers use it: to soak up surface blood on some cuts of meat, which makes that meat kosher. As for the actual texture, it's a larger, flakier grain size than table salt.
Pros: You get the best of both worlds here: the grains are small enough to dissolve quickly and easily coat food, but large enough to offer a slight amount of textural contrast when you sprinkle it onto finished dishes.
Cons: Same as with table salt, since they're usually chemically identical. The only difference is the grain size.
These high quality finishing salts imbued with white or black truffles, lemon, garlic, smoke, or other culinary delights are some of the best kinds to cook with. As a finishing touch, it can be used on everything (depending on the specific seasoning) to add a little savory depth - from bread and butter to the main course, or even dessert.
As with any prominent flavor, use in moderation and be mindful of flavor pairings. Truffle salt on chocolate ice cream? Maybe not. But a light dusting of lemon salt on your roasted vegetables? You might have something there. This also works as an initial seasoning before cooking – sprinkle it over your meat before cooking and the additional flavors will soak in, so your finished steak will taste that much better.
Pros: Brings new flavors to the table, allowing you to experiment with all kinds of combinations.
Cons: It depends on the specific salt, but these can be overpowering when used too generously. You also run the risk of unpleasant flavor combinations – what sounds good on paper might not work well on a plate.
Ranging in color from transparent to various shades of pink and red, Himalayan salt is cut from the ancient Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan. The site was first discovered by Alexander the Great’s soldiers, and still has up to 600 million tons of salt in its reserves – so they'll be pumping out high-quality salt for many, many years to come.
This is one of the most diversely useful and delicious types, thanks to its mineral richness and the fact that it's hewn from huge slabs. Broken down into standard crystals, it can be used as an especially tasty cooking or finishing salt. When cut into small blocks it can be used as a serving and cooking surface, lending its delicious properties to a seared piece of meat or whatever fruit, cheese, or dessert you're setting out.
Pros: An especially cool history and appearance, and a subtly unique flavor due to the presence of other minerals.
Cons: Usually costs a bit more than your standard grocery store stuff.
Like the name implies, this comes from evaporated seawater. It's been in production stretching back to prehistoric times, and has a much coarser and larger grain compared to standard table salt. Kind of like small pebbles.
Some people swear that it tastes better than mined salt, but any differences are extremely subtle. The more apparent difference is the larger texture, though it's often so large that you wouldn't want to use it as a finishing salt. Instead, it's often put into a grinder for finishing dishes.
Pros: Debatably, a better flavor than mined salt.
Cons: The extra large texture usually requires a grinder for cooking and finishing uses.
A special form of sea salt, flake salt has a widely variable flat or pyramid-shaped crystalline structure and low levels of trace mineral content. That makes it especially great as a finishing salt, especially on delicate foods like salad. Opt for a less savory dressing, then add the flake salt on top. The flavor snaps, lending deliciously sharp notes to whatever’s under it.
You can also try it sprinkled on top of fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies, bread and butter, a perfectly cooked steak, and anything else that could use a salty kick and a slight crunch.
Pros: A terrific texture that's large enough to lend a little crunch, but thin enough to not be overpowering or overly coarse.
Cons: Can be pricey. But trust us: it's worth every penny. And since you'll only be using it for finishing dishes (use cheaper stuff for the actual cooking), a little goes a long way.
Fleur de Sel
Literally “flower of salt,” Fleur de Sel is essentially the best of the best of very select batches of sea salt, which is especially rare and labor-intensive to produce. It's differentiated by being hand-gathered from only the very top layer of salt during the harvesting process. Traditionally, it hails from France (off the coast of Brittany and in a few small towns), but has also been commercialized worldwide while keeping the traditional harvesting process.
Like flaked salt, this also tends to be a little pricier. But for the uniquely delicate, briny notes you get, it’s well worth the money. Its rich depth of flavor comes from a more complex mineral composition, which puts it a cut above any other option.
Whether you're using it on something light and sweet like melon wedges on a summer day or hot, crispy fried chicken in the fall, this crumbly, stick-to-the-spoon salt may just beat the Statue of Liberty in the list of great gifts from France.
Pros: Outstanding flavor and texture.
Cons: Quite pricey, due to rarity and labor-intensive production
Whether you’re a budding selmelier or a born-and-bred Morton’s purist, adding two or three of these different entries to your salt lineup is an easy (and kind of fun) trick to turn good cooking into something great.
No matter which you pick, a few dashes will amplify the spotlight on any given dish's other flavors with a bold intensity. So next time you wonder why you should shell out a few extra bucks on something most restaurants give away for free, remember that people used to die for this stuff. Then, eat those feelings of guilt and remorse with a generous sprinkling of delicious salt.