Homer referred to salt as “a divine substance”, while Plato described it as “especially dear to the gods”. In fact, salt has always been especially precious to humans. The mineral is vital to human physiology; we can’t live without the exchange of salt and water through our bodies at the cellular level. And salt, along with sweetness and spice, is among the most basic of human tastes. Humans have methodically turned to salt in a constant search to improve living conditions, whether our abode has been caves, tents, houses or castles. Initially used in tanning, dyeing and bleaching, salt was later utilized in glazing pottery, soap-making and the early manufacture of chlorine. Today salt is widely used in the chemical industry. But the history of salt is far from mechanically dry. It is uniquely compelling, with plot twists that include the founding of nations, destruction of empires, mapping of ancient roads, socio-political revolution and even the outcome of major wars.
Historically, salt has been used to preserve butter, pork, fish and other seasonal foods. Without these preserves, humankind across wide swaths of the northern hemisphere would have never been able to survive barren winters. In his book Salt: A World History (Penguin; 2003), Mark Kurlansky theorizes that the use of salt as a food preservative drove Basque fishermen from the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the farthest reaches of the North Atlantic. The Scandinavians likewise sailed to distant lands in a constant search for salt to preserve their greatest resource: seafood. Salted cod remains a delicacy for these nations, bacalao in Spain and klippfisk in Scandinavia. The economic implications of this search for salt are immense on a global scale: the transportation of salt from inland deserts or seaside fields gave rise to early trade routes across unknown oceans and remote continents, and marked a seminal moment in the emergence of modern international commerce.
Home cooks often overlook the importance and proper use of salt. When used as a condiment or a singular ingredient, salt brightens flavors and balances sweetness and acidity. Sometimes avoided because of its link to health issues, sometimes over or under-utilized as an essential flavoring, mastering the use of salt is arguably one of the most important skills a cook can develop.
While our mothers and grandmothers may have used the famous Morton’s table salt, contemporary cooks have many other options, (thanks again to the opening of those trade routes!). In fact, salt has become another trendy, heavily marketed food product that can often be confusing. There is a wide world of salt beyond that blue container with the handy pour spout! Here is a brief guide to help you in your culinary exploration. As you enter the holiday season, a time of baking, roasting, braising and making preserves as gifts, use this time to experiment with salt, or at least to learn how to use it better.
TYPES OF SALT
Table salt is mined from underground salt deposits, and includes a small portion of calcium silicate, an anti-caking agent added to prevent clumping. It possesses very fine crystals and a sharp taste. Because of its fine grain, a single teaspoon of table salt contains more salt than a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt.
Kosher salt Kosher salt got its name because coarse and irregular, craggy crystals make it perfect for curing meat — a step in the koshering process. It is particularly useful in preserving and pickling, because its large crystals draw moisture out of meats and vegetables more effectively than other salts. It contains no preservatives and can be derived from either seawater or underground sources. The size and shape of kosher salt crystals don’t permeate food as easily as fine table salt would. Note: Don’t substitute kosher salt for table salt in baking, and don’t use table salt for preserving.
Crystalline Sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater and receives little or no processing. Different minerals infuse the salt, depending on where it is sourced, making for innumerable types and flavors. The availability and exotic locations of sea salt add value and corresponding expense. Texture ranges from fine to coarse, and the size of the irregular crystals affects how fast the salt dissolves. Sea salt varies in color, depending on the minerals it contains (iron-rich red clay, for example, gives Hawaiian sea salt a pinkish hue. Black Salt, referred to as Kala Namak or Sanchal is marked by a strong sulfur odor and pearly pink-gray color). Note: sea salts lose their unique flavor when cooked or dissolved, so they are best used at the end of cooking for a flavor punch.
Flaked Sea salt is shaped like snowflakes, a product of solar and wind evaporation. Maldon is a popular flaked salt brand found in most local groceries. Use it to bring a complex flavor to steamed vegetables or shellfish. Crush a pinch of flaked salt over prepared foods. Note: Maldon salt has very large, crunchy flakes- use it as a condiment, not as a preservative or in baking.
Fleur de Sel (France), Flor de Sal (Portugal) is known as the caviar of sea salt. It is hand harvested only when perfect weather conditions allow the salt to bloom on the surface of the water. The flavor, like wines, varies depending on the region from which it is harvested.
Fumée de Sel is premium Fleur de Sel crystals that are cold smoked in oak wine barrels that have been used for years to age fine Chardonnay wine. The moist Fleur de Sel crystals readily absorb the natural smoked flavors of the oak and chardonnay. As with all Fleur de Sel, its flavor is best when used at the end of the cooking process or in finishing a dish.
Celtic salt is harvested via a 2,000 year-old method of solar evaporation from the waters of the Celtic Sea marshes in Brittany, France. Its flavor is described as mellow with a salty, yet slightly sweet taste.
Gos Sel, Gale Grosso is a larger grain salt which resists moisture and is intended to be ground.
Italian Sea Salt, Sicilian Sea Salt, or Sale Marino is harvested from the Mediterranean Sea by hand, using traditional methods of natural evaporation. This salt is high in iodine, fluorine, magnesium and potassium. It is a delicate salt good for salads and in sauces.
Smoked Sea Salt is smoked over real wood fires to add flavor to the crystals. The flavor is strong and assertive. It is best used to garnish chowders, pasta, poultry and fish, although it is also interesting on French fries and homemade tater tots. My favorite is Salish Alder Smoked sea salt, which Natives near my hometown in Washington State produce.
Rock salt is less refined and grayish in color. It is used in ice cream machines, to bake potatoes and to encrust meat, seafood or poultry for baking. Rock salt makes an impressive bed for oysters on the half shell. Note: when using rock salt for cooking, be sure it is food-grade.
Pickling salt is a fine-grained salt with no additives that is generally used in brines to pickle foods.
Seasoned salt: Single or multiple herbs and spices are added to salt to make garlic salt, onion salt and Herbes de Provence.
Herbes de Provence Salt
Herbes de Provence is simply sea salt mixed with the dried herbs typically used in the south of France: lavender, thyme, rosemary, fennel and savory. It can be expensive, depending on how and where the herbs and salt are grown and processed. Why not make your own? It can be used in a variety of applications, including everything from roasted chicken and root vegetables to grilled meat or fish and hearty soups.
- 2 cups sea salt, grey salt or fleur de sel
- 3 TB Herbes de Provence blend
Herbes de Provence blend
- 1 ts. dried basil
- 1 ts dried thyme
- 1 ts dried marjoram
- 1 ts summer savory
- 1 ts rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ ts lavender flowers
- ½ ts fennel seed
- ½ ts rubbed sage
Place salt and herbs in a food processor. Pulse until evenly mixed. To give as a gift, divide evenly and package in decorative containers.Feel free to share...