A Beginner’s Guide to Salts
Is there anything more essential than salt & pepper? Even people who don't "embrace the spice" probably keep a shaker of each in their kitchen or on their table. Seasoned cooks and award-winning chefs know the importance of a good salt. Generally, salt falls into two categories: everyday and specialty.
There’s the reliable salt on the counter that you reach for when making dinner… then there’s the interesting stuff. You know, the beautiful flakes that drift delicately over fresh sliced tomatoes or grace the tops of luscious caramels and dark chocolate brownies. What we're saying is that there's a reason to get to know your salts a little bit better.
What is the Importance of Salt?
Essentially, salt is a flavor enhancer. Adding the right salt (and the right amount of salt) can take food from bland to delicious. It primes your tastebuds to enjoy all the flavor compounds and notes in a dish. This is also why salt is found in a variety of seasoning blends.
Sea salts come from, you guessed it, the sea. Salt is still harvested from ocean water in traditional ways. Mayan Sea Salt has a clean flavor and an interesting tie to the ancient Mayan way of life. This sea salt has long been harvested off the coast of Guatemala. It is estimated that, at the peak of the Mayan empire, up to 30 tons a day were transported into the interior of Mesoamerica.
French Fleur de Sel is considered by some to be the best salt in the world. Sea salt in France is still harvested in the traditional way, by drying seawater in shallow pools. As the water evaporates, crystals form. If wind, sun, and temperature conditions are right, bright white crystals will form on the surface. This Fleur de Sel, the flower of the salt, must be harvested quickly before it precipitates back into the water. This natural sea salt contains no additives or preservatives and has high levels of magnesium and calcium.
We have to mention the table salt that’s on dinner tables, in salt packets, and pouring out of cardboard canisters 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 note to it that isn’t very pleasant, no matter how it’s used. Second, iodized salt was originally created to supply supplemental iodine; however, with the variety of foods available today, eating a balanced and varied diet should provide most people with the necessary amount of iodine.
Iodized or not, it’s difficult to actually get a true pinch of table salt because it's so fine that it just filters through your fingers like sand—and everyone knows that trying to season by upending your shaker is just a recipe for loose-lidded, accidental piles of salt disaster. If you’re using table salt, you’re also getting more salt per teaspoon (stick with me here). When you scoop some table salt, it pack in and fills all of those spaces completely because the granules are so tiny, so it can actually make your dishes taste too salty!
If you’re used to using table salt in recipes or if you’re set in your fine salty ways, Pink Himalayan Sea Salt is your new best friend. For those recipes that require precision, it's easy to measure. The fine, dry salt shines in applications where you want even coverage and distribution, like popcorn or home fries. It also packs a flavor punch, thanks to the variety of minerals found naturally in the salt.
We might be calling these "special salts" but it’s important that you don’t confuse “specialty” with “special occasion.” These might be special salts but they definitely deserve a place on your weekday fried egg just as much as on a showstopping salted chocolate tart that's the big finish for your fancy dinner party.
Use vibrantly colored Hawaiian Black Lava or Red Gold salts in place of your "normal" salt on buttered sourdough bread, to top roasted veggies, or sprinkle on fruits like watermelon. They will pack the same flavor punch, with a little crunch, and look pretty impressive!
Perhaps the most beloved of the specialty salts are the crisp, flaky types (we can’t argue; we adore them too). Maldon is beloved by foodies and chefs for it’s giant, square crystals and you’ve probably seen it at gourmet candy shops on caramels.
If you know and love Maldon salt, you simply have to try out Murray River Salt Flakes, which are apricot-hued and equally flaky. This Australian salt has a slightly sweet mineral flavor, similar to Himalayan salt, and is great on seafood and other savory dishes...but don't hesitate to put a pinch on top of your brownies or cookies.
Bonus: Seasoning Salts
Did we say there were two types of salts? Well, consider this a bonus. Seasoning salts combine salt with other ingredients to enhance the overall dish. Think of them as shortcuts to great flavor. If you’re grilling meat, season it with smoked sea salt to add an extra hint of woody flavor. Supreme Shallot Salt is a great substitute (in place of garlic salt or onion salt) for anything savory—from chicken salad to cooked grains. If you’re a truffle fan, you should definitely keep a bottle of the fancy stuff with you at all times. For even more flavorful seasoning salts, check out our article: A Pinch of Seasoning Salt. There are a million options (well, close) so we'll leave the important choices up to you.
When Should We Add Salt While Cooking?
Salt can (and often should) be added at different points in the cooking process - both in savory and sweet applications. For example, if you're making Cacio e Pepe (which is basically a fancy version of mac & cheese), you'll heavily salt the water before boiling your pasta. That salted pasta water will also be used to make your cheesy sauce, and then you'll top the finished dish with a pinch of salt and generous grind of pepper before serving. Similarly, when making chocolate chip cookies, you might add salt to the dough and sprinkle it on top of the cookies before baking.
Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
These cookies balance fruity and floral Tahitian Vanilla Extract, chocolate-enhancing Pure Espresso Powder, and a flaky topping of French Fleur de Sel Sea Salt to create a chocolate chip cookie that is both luxurious and approachable.
Do you really need a recipe for this? Probably not. But it will give you a few ideas if you want to try a new salt on your summer fruits.
Salted Soft Pretzels
Flaky Murray River Salt and fruity Crushed Aleppo Chiles give a unique spin on a classic soft pretzel (pictured at the top of this article). Feel free to get creative with the salted topping if something else strikes your fancy though.