Studies have shown that the more salt one eats, the more one craves it. And no wonder – salt is the most powerful flavor enhancer on Earth.
The salting of food predates even cooking. By the time humans had developed language, the use of salt was already commonplace.
Not only does salt flavor our food, sodium intake through salt is necessary for life. Salt stimulates nerve impulses and maintains a balance of electrolytes and fluids. Sodium ions are crucial for heart activity and other metabolic functions, like helping the small intestine absorb nutrients.
Our bodies can’t produce salt so throughout history we’ve had to seek it out in the environment.
We have to be careful, though, as too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Salt is one of the most used materials by volume in all the world, and not just for cuisine. Other uses include deicing roadways, manufacturing plastics and PVC pipe, removing contaminants when making aluminum, tanning hides, and even soapmaking (a bit of salt is added to increase hardness).
Whether mined from the ground or harvested from the sea, all salt shares the same chemical makeup – a one-to-one ratio of sodium and chloride – but there is great variety in terms of texture, color, taste and even saltiness.
To help you sort through the differences, below is a primer on some of the most common types of salt and their uses.
Kosher salt: This salt is a great choice for cooking and is a favorite of chefs. It dissolves easily and its light texture adds a more delicate flavor than traditional table salt. It’s about half as salty as the latter, which makes it harder to oversalt a dish. It also means that more must be added to salt the cooking water for pasta or vegetables. (Remember: Julia Child recommends that cooking water be “as salty as the Mediterranean Sea.”)
Be aware that there are brand differences in kosher salts; my preferred brand is Diamond for its larger crystals (which makes it less dense) and lack of additives.
Sea salt: As its name implies, this salt is the result of evaporated sea water. There are many types of sea salt – it’s a huge category – and the texture and brininess vary depending on where it’s harvested. Many of the salts noted on this list fall under the sea salt umbrella. In general, sea salt is sold in coarse or finely ground form. Most finishing salts come from the sea.
Table salt: Table salt is mined from the extensive underground beds of salt that exist in wide swaths of the U.S. and Canada, as well as in other parts of the world. The deposits are left from the drying up of ancient seas or salty lakes. The largest underground salt mine is under Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada. Table salt is mined from these deposits and most brands are iodized to aid in the prevention of iodine deficiency. Trace minerals are removed in the refining process and anticaking agents are added.
Rock salt: Also known as halite, it’s salt in its natural form, that is, the mineral form of sodium chloride. The crystals are typically colorless or white but can be imbued with a variety of different hues depending on the inclusion of other materials, impurities or anomalies in the crystals. Rock salt can be found in varying shades of blue, pink, red, yellow or gray.
Himalayan pink salt: Mined in Pakistan, this salt is reputed to contain all 84 minerals found in the human body. The presence of these minerals gives the salt more flavor complexity than the average table salt. Its characteristic pink color can vary from a faint blush to brightly vivid. This is the salt that I use when I want to add flavor directly to food at the table; a grinder filled with its coarse crystals is always on hand. Slabs of Himalayan salt have become a popular medium for cooking foods as it can hold heat for hours.
Flake salt: This category of salt is identified by the structure of its crystals, which form as thin and flattened out with a large surface area and a low mass. This gives it a crunchy texture which makes for a good finishing salt, adding bursts of flavor to foods such as grilled meats, roasted vegetables or even crusty sourdough bread dipped in olive oil. The crystal structure can be formed naturally or can be achieved through a variety of artificial methods.
Fleur de sel: Harvested from the surface of tidal pools in Brittany, France, fleur de sel (literally “flower of salt”) is considered one of the world’s best salts. Special wooden rakes are used to harvest the salt by hand and harvesting is only done in perfect weather conditions. Delicate and aromatic (with subtle floral tones and notes of the ocean), it’s typically used as a finishing salt and pairs well with meats, fresh vegetables (radishes, for example, or a green salad), and sweets such as caramels. In addition to its pleasant flavor, fleur de sel is prized for the texture it imparts to foods.
Celtic sea salt: Also known as sel gris (literally “gray salt”), this salt in varying shades of gray is coarse, granular and moist. Like fleur de sel, it’s harvested by hand on the French coast but in a different manner. The salt is removed from the bottom of the salt pan (typically lined with clay), rather than from the top as with fleur de sel. This contact with the bottom gives it its characteristic gray color. Sel gris can be used as both a cooking and a finishing salt because of its coarse grain size and mineral complexity. It’s much denser than kosher or table salt, with more salt in an equivalent volume. Because of its dampness, it doesn’t suck moisture out of foods as some salts do. It’s typically paired with heartier foods like steak and root vegetables.
Black salt: Also known as Indian or Himalayan black salt, kala namak, sulemani namak, or kala loon, this is Indian volcanic rock salt which has been heated to extremely high temperatures and mixed with Indian spices and herbs. The seeds of the harad fruit, which contain sulfur, are included in the mixture and contribute to its sulfur-laced umami flavor. Some varieties are black in color, but others can vary from brownish pink to deep purple. Egg-free vegan recipes benefit from its flavor, which can mimic eggs due to the sulfur. This salt is a component of Ayurvedic medicine and is commonly used as a flavoring in India, Pakistan and other Asian countries.
Hawaiian salt: Salt from Hawaii can be red, composed of unrefined sea salt combined with red volcanic clay (making it high in iron), or black, made from volcanic sea salt blended with activated charcoal. When used as a finishing salt, both varieties impart a salty crunch to dishes. Since it dissolves more slowly than other salts, it can be successfully used in dishes such as ceviche, which contains some liquid. This salt is typically used on seafood and all types of meat (chicken, lamb, pork, beef), especially those that are barbecued, and is especially good with tomatoes.
Smoked salt: To achieve a smoky flavor, salt is slow-smoked (typically for about two weeks) over a burning wood such as hickory, applewood, mesquite or even grape vines such as Chardonnay. Each wood imparts its own unique flavor to the salt. I especially enjoy using smoked salt in bean dishes and hearty soups, and I understand it’s wonderful for brining meats for grilling or barbecuing.
Maldon sea salt: This high-end finishing salt is from a company in Maldon, Essex, England and is known for its pyramid-shaped crystals. The salt brine is drawn from clay-lined salt pans dating back to Roman times on the high-salinity banks of the Blackwater Estuary. The brine is dried over brick flues, and this process renders the shape of the crystals. Maldon sea salt is known for being particularly briny without bitterness. Because of its strong salty taste, less is needed.
Pickling salt: This is a pure salt specific to pickling which is free of iodine, anticaking agents and trace minerals. This allows the true taste of whatever is being pickled to shine through without the influence of flavor from the salt.
In addition, salts may be enhanced in a wide variety of ways through flavoring. Some popular examples include Japanese salt, which contains ground seaweed, truffle salt (great on popcorn!), and vanilla salt, which is nice for using as a finishing salt on desserts.
Flavored salts can be easily created at home using one of three methods – the reduction method for liquids, the wet method for condiments, and the dry method for things such as herbs or vanilla beans.
The combinations are seemingly endless and only limited by the imagination. Think Sriracha or whiskey, candied ginger or lime, chili or sage.
Choosing the salt – coarse, fine or flake, sea salt or mined – can be almost as important as finding unique flavor combinations. When in doubt, kosher salt is a good fallback.
Today’s recipe is for a salt flavored with chili and lime, wonderful for flavoring fajitas or tacos. Enjoy!
¼ cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ teaspoons lime zest
Use a zester or the fine side of a cheese grater to remove the outer zest of the lime. Be careful not to include the bitter white pith. (Note: Rinse and pat the lime dry before zesting. Using an organic lime is preferred.)
Set the zest aside on a plate or paper towel and allow it to air dry for a few hours.
Combine the lime zest, red pepper flakes and salt in an airtight jar and enjoy!
Esther Oertel is a writer and passionate home cook from a family of chefs. She grew up in a restaurant, where she began creating recipes from a young age. She’s taught culinary classes in a variety of venues in Lake County and previously wrote “The Veggie Girl” column for Lake County News. Most recently she’s taught culinary classes at Sur La Table in Santa Rosa. She lives in Middletown, California.