Guide to Culinary Salts

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How Salt Is Made

All culinary salts are derived by evaporation. Table salt is made by driving water into a salt deposit (in a mine). This process forms a brine which is then evaporated leaving dried "cube-like crystals that look like granulated sugar". The salt is then refined. Kosher salt is made in a similar fashion except the brine is raked continually during the evaporation process. The resulting product has a light and flaky texture. Sea salt is evaporated sea water. All salts are nutritionally the same. Sea salt has trace amounts of minerals not found in mined salt.

Common Types Of Salt

black salt
Black salt
named Kala Namak in India (shown above), is really a blend of minerals characterized by a strong sulfur odor.  It is commonly used in snack foods in North India.

Fleur de Sel de Guérande is the premier quality of Grey Sea Salt from France.   Before the evaporation process is complete a light film of salt forms. This is harvested and sold as Fleur de Sel. (See more about Grey salt below).

 Grey Sea Salt  Kosher Salt  Fine Sea Salt  Coarse Sea Salt
 grey salt  kosher salt  fine sea salt  coarse sea salt

Grey salt (sometimes sold as "gray" salt) sel gris is organic sea salt from the coastal area of Guérande, Brittany, France. The salt is "moist" and unrefined.  It remains a light grey, almost light purple color because of the clay from the salt flats where it is collected. The salt is not collected by machine but by hand using traditional Celtic methods. It is available in coarse or stoneground fine grain. It is considered by many to be the best quality salt available. This salt has really gained fame in the main stream culinary world in the last few of years.

Hawaiian sea salt is produced from the Hawaiian waters.  A natural mineral called "Alaea" (a red clay from Kauai rich in iron oxide)   is added to the salt to add beneficial trace elements to the product.  This natural additive is what gives the salt it's distinctive pink color.  It is said to have a more mellow flavor than regular sea salt.

Kosher salt is an additive-free coarse-grained salt. It is used in the production of Kosher meats to draw blood out of the meat. (Read more about the Koshering process) The salt is also preferred by some chefs because it disperses more readily.  By nature of it's "flake" texture it melts easily and is lighter (less dense) than table salt.

Lite salt is a mixture of salt and another substance such as potassium chloride. Read the label.  Don't bother using these products unless you have a medical reason to do so.

Pickling Salt - Pickling salt is fine-grained salt that does not contain iodine or anti-caking preservatives which cause darkened pickles and cloudy brine.

Popcorn Salt - This is just a superfine, flakier crystal version of table salt.   We can't think of any real good reason to use it.

Pretzel Salt - A large-grained salt that does not melt quickly. The preferred salt for pretzels, salted bread sticks. 

Rock Salt - Is a large crystal salt that is a slightly grayish color.  It is less refined and still contains minerals that are removed from normal table salt.  Rock salt is has a few culinary uses such as in mechanical ice cream makers and is sometimes used a a bed for serving certain types of shellfish.  

Salt substitutes, are available for people on low-salt diets. They contain little or no sodium normally made of potassium chloride.

Sea salt is produced by evaporating sea water.  This process is more expensive than salt produced from mines. Sea salt comes in fine-grained or larger crystals. Many of these salts are refined and use some of the same additives as table salt.  Read labels carefully.  The crystal variety can be crushed in a mortar and pestle or a salt grinder.

Seasoned salt is regular table salt blended with other herbs such as celery, onion, and garlic.

Smoked Salt  has become very popular in the culinary scene.  High quality smoked salt has actually been smoked with specialty woods such as Alder Smoked Salt or Fume de Sel - Chardonnay Smoked Salt which is smoked in old wine barrels.  Lower grade salts just have artificially smoked flavoring added.  Smoked salt can be used on meats, fish or vegetables.

Sour salt is not salt at all but it is citric acid.  It is used to add an extra tart flavor to sour dough and rye breads.  It may be used in canning to prevent fruit from turning dark.

Table salt is the most commonly used salt.  It is a fine-grained and looks the same in appearance as fine grained sea salt. Iodized salt is just table salt with Iodine added.

Taste Tests

We did a (non-scientific) blind taste test of Kosher, Fine Sea Salt, Grey Salt, and ordinary Table Salt. We found that the Kosher salt always tasted 'less' salty--probably because the flakes are larger and and less dense than the fine grained salt giving us less salt on our tongue. We also found that Sea Salt had a slightly different, less bitter aftertaste than the iodized table salt. Both Sea and Table salts used an anti-caking agent. The only real ingredient difference was iodine. The best tasting salt was the French Grey Salt. While there was a slight flavor difference we feel it would not be distinguishable "in" food. However, for special dishes that benefit from a sprinkling of salt prior to serving, the Grey Salt is a superior ingredient. We did not feel the normal processed Sea Salt had sufficient flavor difference to warrant a lot of extra cost. However we should note that the authors of The New Cooks Catalogue disagree with our assessment. They state;
"These days, natural sea salt, fine or coarse, has become widely available in supermarkets, and most people who use it find that it distinctly enhances the flavor of food. We agree and believe that if sea salt is available, there is no reason to use regular table salt...or kosher salt is a good alternative."

Conclusions

If your primary use for salt is for cooking we recommend Kosher Salt and the use of Grey Salt for "special" preparations and presentations. We liked the lighter texture of the Kosher salt and find the fact that it has no additives or iodine to be a plus. If you add salt at the table on occasion then you can keep some in a salt grinder ready for use.You may also use the larger crystal sea salt in your grinder if you prefer.

Recipe Substitutions

Kosher Salt - Use coarse pickling salt which contains no additives and is roughly the same texture. You can also use non-iodized table salt but use half as much as the recipe calls for (table salt is more dense). Kosher salt adheres to the food better than table salt.

Pickling Salt - Use Kosher salt as a substitute because it does not contain any anti-caking additives which will cause your pickling brine to cloud. Pickling salt is fine-grained so you can double the amount of Kosher salt, or use a salt grinder and grid the Kosher salt before you measure it.

Grey Sea Salt - Kosher salt or coarse Sea salt is the best substitute for recipes requiring coarse Grey salt. If a recipe calls for fine sea salt you can substitute regular table salt.

Pretzel Salt - Kosher salt is a good substitute or coarse sea salt.

Table Salt - If a recipe calls for table salt you can use roughly 2 X's the amount of Kosher salt or substitute the exact amount of sea salt.

Salt Holders & Grinders

silver salt dish 

It's handy to keep a small container of salt next to your cooking area.  This small chrome vessel is from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

 Salt Grinders

salt mill
Peugeot Salt Mill

Peugeot has designed a new salt grinder specifically for grinding moist salts such as grey salt or Fleur de Sel. The garden variety salt mill mechanism will just clog up as the salt sits. (works fine for dryer sea salts as well). The Peugeot mill has a center turning device that moves the salt as it is ground and keeps the moist salt from caking. The mill is made of acrylic with a wood top.

Salt FAQ's

Why is iodine added to salt?
The health of our Thyroid gland is dependant upon iodine which occurs naturally in our foods via the soil foods are grown in. Back in the 1920's there was a region of the U.S. referred to as the "goiter" belt. This was an area around the Great Lakes and in the Northwestern U.S. It was named that due to the high incidence of "goiter" the Thyroid disease caused by the lack of iodine in peoples diet. These regions were far from the ocean and natural iodine was depleted from the farming soil. It was decided to add iodine to table salt to solve the problem (a commonly used food additive).

Is sea salt better for my health than other table salt?
All salt that reaches our table (whether it is mined or comes directly from the sea) is produced in the same way, which is evaporation. Many of the sea salt products available even use the same anti-caking additives as the standard table salt. Grey Salt from Brittany, France is the least processed and most "natural" product. There may be trace minerals in sea salt that are not found in mined table salt but they are not in large enough quantities to justify any additional cost.

Is too much salt bad for my health?
Too much of almost anything may be bad for your health. People who have high blood pressure must avoid salt in their diets. Three quarters of the salt most Americans eat in a day is from "processed foods". Eating more fresh foods and fewer processed ones can make a significant decrease in your daily salt intake. Read More.

How much salt should I have in a day?
There is no recommended daily allowance for salt because it is overly plentiful in natural food sources. The recommended daily maximum amount of salt for an ordinarily healthy person is 2400 mg. A quarter of a teaspoon is almost 600 mg. Salt occurs naturally in most fruits and vegetables and in alarming quantities in most processed foods. You can obtain sufficient amounts of salts in a normal healthy diet without ever adding a grain of salt to your food.

Other Salt Uses

Cocktail Glass Salt - Cocktails such as Margaritas and Bloody Mary's are traditionally served in a glass with a salted rim.

Sprinkle Kosher salt on a plate. Moisten the rim of the glass with lime or lemon and dip the glass rim into the salt using a slight twisting motion. Lightly shake off excess salt.

For More Information

The Salt Institute
Morton Salt
Cargill Salt Company
author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.