“Nature puts the flavor into food, and salt is what brings it out,” says Sara Moulton, the author of Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better (Oxmoor House) and the host of the PBS show Sara’s Weeknight Meals. “It’s a quote from a friend,” she admits. “But I feel like it sums up salt in a nutshell.” She’s got a point.
For Moulton, and many cooks out there, salt is that desert island ingredient, as essential as it gets. Not only is it critical for seasoning, but it also cures and brines and is a brilliant tool for tamping down the bitterness of vegetables like eggplant and radicchio. It’s such a key ingredient, in fact, that Moulton devoted an entire chapter to it in her new cookbook. “The easiest way to see how salt can change a food is to cook a steak that’s been sprinkled with salt an hour ahead, then patted dry, and then seared in a pan, and another that’s just been seasoned and seared,” says Moulton. “It’s night and day. One tastes like a great meaty steak and the other tastes like meat with salt on top.”
While salt is vital to any cook’s pantry, these days it can be confusing to know what to buy. Your choices now not only include classics like table and kosher salt, but also fleur de sel, sel gris, Maldon sea salt, and large-crystal Himalayan salts in a variety of jewel tones. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to use when cooking, baking, brining, and finishing a dish.
Why Cookbooks Always Call for Kosher Salt
For many chefs, Moulton included, the standard choice has been Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which does not contain additives to keep it free-flowing, as Morton’s does. “Chefs love it because it falls evenly on top of food and it’s easier to gauge how much you are adding,” Moulton says. “For me, it’s extremely pragmatic and affordable. Since I use so much salt, I cannot use sea salt every day. It’s not consistent and contains different amounts of sodium.”
Table salt, meanwhile, is optimal for desserts. It’s a finer salt that is more dense than kosher and dissolves readily and evenly.
But there’s a bit of a nasty wrinkle in this story. While kosher and table salt may seem well and good, some home cooks buck against it because of the extraordinary reliance these industrial salts have on fossil fuels.
Let’s explain: Salt comes about in one of two ways. It can be mined out of the earth or harvested from evaporated seawater. This evaporation can be accomplished naturally, by sunlight (giving us fleur de sel), or by steam heat via industrial vacuums (giving us commercial kosher and table salts).
The Case Against Kosher and Table Salt
“The ocean is about 3 percent salt, so you have to get rid of 97 percent of the water,” says Mark Bitterman, the author of Salted (Ten Speed Press) and Craft Salt Cooking (Andrews McMeel) and the selmelier and CEO of the Meadow in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. “That’s a lot of water to boil off. It takes about 1 gallon of propane to make 1 pound of salt. On the scale that salt is being made, it is environmentally unconscionable,” he says.
Bitterman is keenly aware of what he sees as the giant irony of the modern locavore chef’s love affair with kosher salt. “So many chefs love kosher salt, and all the cookbooks say use Diamond, and that it’s the best, but it’s the single most processed food you can buy. If you look at the product, it’s completely artificial,” he says, pointing to the synthetic iodine, fluoride, anti-caking food additives, and bleaching residues often found in commercial products. “It’s a by-product of the chemical industry. There is no love in it.”
The answer to this dilemma? For Bitterman, it’s using hand-harvested fleur de sel. “Fleur de sel is salt that is evaporated with the sun and only the sun,” says Bitterman. “You get these naturally formed crystals with myriad complexities on them and about 5 percent trace minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium, which add nutrition and complexity of flavor. It’s very versatile for finishing food as well. It really makes things shine.”
Why Chefs Love Sea Salt
Chef Bernard Ibarra of the Terranea Resort in Los Angeles agrees with Bitterman. “I am a really big advocate for sea salt. It’s a bit lower in sodium and has more minerals,” he says. “I recommend using it for all your cooking needs because I’d rather have salt from the ocean than one that’s been processed and boiled down.”
He’s such a proponent of sea salt that he actually makes his own. With the resort nestled alongside the water, he’s been harvesting sea salt directly from the Pacific Ocean for three and a half years, and last year he launched a sea salt conservatory and sea salt workshop. “It was like holding snowflakes,” he says of the first batch he had tested for quality. He’s been making salt ever since, bringing buckets up from the ocean to his salt glass pond, where it is filtered before undergoing a two-step drying process that takes about a month. Ibarra says he now makes about 300 pounds of salt per year, which is used for cooking and baking in the kitchen and for treatments at the resort’s on-site spa.
“I always say you can’t have just one salt, just like you don’t want one type of pan or one type of knife,” says Bitterman. “It’s the most powerful flavor enhancer for food. You should have a tool kit of salts—an all-purpose salt, a finishing salt, and a flaky salt.”
SALT BUYING GUIDE
Kosher salt: Favored for its affordability and consistency, it’s ideal for savory cooking, but less so for desserts because of its large flakes. Kosher salt is less dense than table salt. If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of table salt, use 2 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 1½ teaspoons of Morton salt. This is an industrially made product that’s heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Table salt: Preferred for baking because of its fine texture. This is an industrially made product that contains additives such as iodine and free-flowing noncaking agents.
Fleur de sel: This is salt that has been culled from the sun-evaporated salt brine from an ocean, pond, or marsh. It is naturally made and contains trace minerals. It can be used for savory cooking or desserts and can do double duty as a finishing salt.
Sel gris: Also called French gray salt, this is a moist, course salt that is intensely flavorful. It’s best for soups and roasts, used in a meat rub for chicken or prime rib, or sprinkled on steak or leg of lamb.
Flaked salt: Think big flakes that add texture to a dish. Try it on salads or fresh vegetables. Maldon is the most famous brand of sea salt, but Bitterman also recommends Murray River Pink Salt Flakes from Australia, Cyprus Black Lava sea salt flakes, Halen Môn Silver Flake Sea Salt, made in Wales, or Alaska Pure Sitka Flaked Salt.
Himalayan rock salt: If it were more accurately named, Himalayan salt would be called Pakistani salt, as it is mined from that particular region of the Himalayan mountain range, which stretches from Afghanistan through Nepal and Tibet and into Burma. It’s a rock salt mined from an ancient salt deposit about 600 million years old in Pakistan. “It is far and away the oldest food you will ever eat,” says Bitterman. “You hear people saying, ‘Oh, Tibetan monks make this salt,’ but that’s all complete fantasy,” says Bitterman. “It’s made by wonderful people in Pakistan. But I guess Himalayan rock salt’ sounds better for marketing than ‘Punjabi pink salt,’ which is what it actually is.” Bitterman uses it in cooking but not as a finishing salt because the salt has a chunky, rock-like texture.
Hawaiian rock salt: Typically hand-harvested sea salt using evaporation techniques. Red rock salt is most common; it’s the product of combining the white sea salt with volcanic clay. Black “volcanic” salt is also popular and is typically white sea salt that has been combined with activated charcoal.
Andrea Strong’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, and a host of other publications, including The Strong Buzz, her blog devoted to New York City’s food scene. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her two kids, and her big appetite.