A Beginner’s Guide to Salts (And Why It’s Important to Use the Right One)411
with Ashlee Redger
Test Kitchen Chef
The difference between an incredible restaurant-worthy meal and a mundane one can really all come down to the use of salt. In my mind, salt falls into two categories: everyday and special. Special doesn’t mean unique color or exceptional mineral content or whatever, though. What draws the defining line for me is the texture of the salt. There’s the reliable salt on my counter that I reach for when I’m making dinner on a Tuesday or measure into my batch of chocolate chip cookies… then there’s the interesting stuff. You know, the beautiful flakes that drift delicately over fresh sliced tomatoes or grace the tops of luscious homemade caramels and dark chocolate brownies. Special salt is the stuff that I break out when I spend a Sunday making soft pretzels and need an interesting crunch and burst of salty flavor. So how can you make the best meals ever? By studying up on the best types of salt for every situation.
Everyday salts are the ones you should always keep by your side while cooking. You need one, maybe two, from this category that can be your reliable go-to for seasoning that weeknight pot of soup or measure out while baking. You might even keep a shaker on the table for last-minute sprinkling (if that’s your style). For that reason, we can’t not mention the relevantly named table salt that’s ever-present on dinner tables, in salt packets, and pouring out of cardboard canisters that you found on the bottom shelf of the grocery store. The crystals of table salt are super fine and sometimes include iodine (hence: iodized salt). This should not be your everyday salt.
First of all, iodized salt has a metallic, bitter note to it that really isn’t pleasant, no matter how it’s used. Iodized or not, it’s difficult to get the tried-and-true three-finger pinch of table salt because it just filters through like fine sand—and everyone knows that trying to season by upending your shaker is just a recipe for loose lidded disaster. If you’re using table salt, you’re getting more salt per teaspoon (stick with me here). Because of the tiny little granules, when you scoop some table salt, it packs in and fills all those spaces completely.
For all of these reasons and more, Kosher Salt is the reigning champ of professional chefs and home foodies alike. The crystals are much larger, almost “fluffy,” which makes it great for picking up out of a salt cellar and sprinkling to your heart’s content. It’s just coarse enough that you can use it as a finishing salt on things like fresh veggies or desserts if you don’t have a flakier salt on hand. Without any added iodine or anti-caking agents, it won’t affect sensitive processes like fermentation or pickling.
It doesn’t pack as much saltiness per spoonful though, so if you’re used to using table salt in recipes or you’re just set in your fine salty ways, Pink Himalayan Sea Salt is your gal. The smaller grained pink salt also shines in applications where you need even coverage, like popcorn or homemade fries.
If I can ask one thing, it’s that you don’t confuse “special” with “special occasion.” These salts deserve a place on your weekday fried egg for breakfast just as much as on your dinner party showstopper. Coarse salts like Sel Marin de Guerande Grey Sea Salt are easy upgrades to things like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (Salty sweet? Yes, please!) or simply sprinkling on buttered sourdough bread. Go one step further and use vibrantly colored salts like Hawaiian Black Lava or Red Gold salts, or the pastel rock version of the aforementioned Pink Himalayan. These are the salts to top savory bread doughs before baking or season fresh veggies or fruits like watermelon.
The special salts that get the most attention though are the flaky types (I can’t argue; I adore them too). Maldon is well-loved amongst foodies for it’s giant, intricately detailed square crystals and you’ve probably seen it at gourmet candy shops on caramels. If you’re missing the tinted salt though, try out Murray River Salt Flakes, which are apricot-hued and perfect for seafood because of its slight mineral flavor.
Bonus: Seasoning Salts
Did I say there were only two types of salts? Well, consider this a bonus. Seasoning salts combine salt with other ingredients to not only enhance the flavor of the overall dish by adding salinity, but they also bring their own distinct boost to the table. Take Makrut Lime Sea Salt for example. Sure, you could top your avo toast with some Kosher Salt, but it’s so much better when you do it with a tangy, citrus-y sprinkle. They’re shortcuts to great flavor. If you’re grilling meat, season it with smoked sea salt beforehand to add an extra hint of woodfire flavor. Shallot Salt is my personal fave for basically anything savory—from chicken salad to cooked grains. If you’re a truffle fan, you should keep a bottle of the fancy stuff with you at all times, should any fries come across your plate. There are a million options (well, close) so I’ll leave the important choices up to you.