Salt is one of those ingredients, like fat, that has accumulated a bad misunderstood reputation. So what exactly is salt, why is it so misunderstood and are all salts created equal? Let's dig in!
What is it anyway?! STOP!!! Before we do anything else, we need to know what exactly is salt?! This can help resolve some issues with just this answer alone. Salt is a natural occurring mineral technically called Sodium Chloride. It’s used in A LOT of applications from salting driveways, to manufacturing, making soaps and all throughout maintaining health in your body among other things. In your body, salt helps regulate a host of internal functions, and is therefore considered an essential nutrient. Salt is a utility knife in the kitchen as well. From fermenting & preservation, to bringing out muted flavors, to improving the texture and shelf life of our baked goods, it truly is a hard working mineral.
When and where does it come from?
The first recorded uses of salt were as a preservative in foods. It literally changed the game in keeping foods from spoiling. Remember this was before refrigeration. Before this discovery, it was almost impossible to transport food goods over an extended distance. Of course like many things, we've taken this idea WAAAAAY further than intended to the point where many shelf stable items in your grocery store are just PACKED in salt AND salted for seasoning, but we'll get back to that later. Due to the importance of this mineral AND its difficulty to harvest in those times, salt was also a form of currency. Some of the earliest roman roads were constructed with the idea of making salt trade easier. So why was it so expensive and hard to come by back then? Salt is typically sourced from 2 areas, sea water bodies and mining for the mineral halite or rock salt. That's the picture you see on various boxes of salt that you always wondered, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH SALT?!...it IS salt in its most pure form. The most common source of salt tended to be dried up lake beds. These beds could house 1000's of feet of these slabs of rock salt. I just realized, people were probably standing on your salt back then...the past was weird...ANYWAY, another way to harvest was called solution mining. Solution mining involved adding water to a portion of the dry sea bed and removing it to boil. The salt floats to the surface and is now called brine. Once the water evaporated, only the salt crystals would remain. Crystals would be collected, and then you would start all over again. It took a lot of resources and time, hence the added value. In fact, it was so valuable, that Latin culture created a word specifically to describe money given to people to buy salt...Salary or salt money. Eventually it evolved by the 19th century to describe any money rendered for services on a periodical basis.
Why did salt become such a salty topic?...see what I did there? So the question becomes, how did such an essential mineral which our bodies LITERALLY can't survive without, become so misunderstood? With major concerns first being published in the early 1900s, this is needless to say, not a new topic. Back then, some French doctors reported high blood pressure in several of their patients and reported that they were salt fiends creating the first widely known thought. Now, let’s fast forward to the 70's and a man named Dr. Lewis Dahl. According to Scientific America, he then claimed that salt leads to hypertension. He concluded this by giving rats 500 grams of salt a day. To put this into perspective, the avg human consumes about 8.5 grams TODAY! That's in spite of industrialization and salt being used tremendously in most food for shelf stabilization and extended life! He also concluded and stated that countries with a history of higher salt consumption will also have a higher rate of heart disease, higher blood pressure and more strokes. Years later, other scientists have had a hard time reaching the same conclusion, suggesting it had more to do with genetics and local cultural factors instead. This, of course, didn't stop America in the late 70's from essentially condoning salt, by reporting based on Dahl’s original report, that Americans should cut their salt intake by 50-85%!
In '88, over 50 various research centers across the world conducted a study using updated technology of the time and ultimately concluded across the board no direct correlation between salt intake, and heart disease. In fact, they found that some higher intake cultures had less heart disease than some lower intake cultures. In 2003 and 2004, another institute also conducted across multiple studies that reduction of salt intake had little to almost NO effect on systolic or diastolic blood pressure measurements. In fact NO study I was able to find concluded that salt intake had anything to do with increased risk of heart disease. Many, like the study in the 80s, concluded that increased Sodium intake seemed to DECREASE the risk of heart disease. What has become the vast conclusion by those who study it, salt in itself isn’t bad for the populations, what matters more than anything else, is your individual sensitivity to salt. Those who are hypersensitive will of course have a lower moderation of what's considered healthy for them. Those with lower sensitivity will have a higher moderation available to them. What's ironic, there are fact based reports that suggest something else in our vast attempt to decry salt intake. When we cut our typical salt intake by just 35%, the body actually releases enzymes and hormones that INCREASE blood pressure. So for some, reducing your salt intake can have the opposite effect they're going for. So why hasn't the government changed their policy and thus the medical community based on the standards the government sets forth? Essentially, nobody wants to foot the bill for the government to have a full fledged experiment to confirm the findings of everybody BUT Dahl. So we're stuck with, as usual, a wildly exadurated sidenote from a research paper and misunderstanding of how this key mineral actually effects our bodies. A conclusion found to ultimately not be worth its weight in salt...yeah, I'm in my dad joke phase.
So, now that we know what it is and how it affects each of us, what's the deal with ALL OF THESE TYPES OF SALT?! What salts the right salt for me? What's the difference in all of the flavors, textures, origins and grinds? The better question is, what's the right salt for the job?
Though there are tons of flavors of salt out there now, there are essentially only a few grinds of salt. Grind is the size the sodium crystal has been broken down to. So let’s start there. You mainly have fine, course, kosher and rock. Fine ground includes any salt that's ground to the size of essentially small sand particles. These are great for recipes where you need exact measurements such as baking applications. Do to the size of the crystals, they tend to be more prone to moisture absorption and break down faster. Unless it's freshly ground by your hand, those you find on the store shelves, tend to include anti-caking agents like cornstarch to help keep the crystals separated. This is a common practice among shelf stable seasonings and spices including granulated, powdered and fine ground. In salt in particular, this results in a more mild sodium flavor. This is what causes people to add more of this grind salt to their foods at the table.
Kosher is typically more of a flaky larger grind of salt, it almost seems like snowflakes rather than salt in some cases. This salt is great for dry rubs and most cooking applications. This size crystal is also good at drawing the moisture out of meat so the flavors outside can start penetrating, then dissolving and tenderizing the protein. It can be used for baking in a pinch, but it's not as accurate as the smaller grind in measurement. This and larger grinds tend to be pure salt and typically has a larger sodium flavor since it doesn't have the anti-caking agents muting the flavor. It's also a good finishing salt.
Next would be course ground. This salt looks like small seeds. It's actually pretty close to the size of popcorn kernels for reference. This salt is great for brining, preserving, aging and finishing.
Lastly, you have rock salt. This is usually just raw salt that for culinary purposes is used for grinders to break down to the smaller forms. In its base grind however, it's great for chilling ice, like the salt you see sprinkled on ice bars for oysters. This same process is used to chill the ice bath when making homemade ice cream. This is the same size salt crystals used for driveways, streets and sidewalks in the winter. This one, for consumption, has been cleaned of course. NOTICE I SAID THE SAME SIZE, NOT THE SAME SALT COMPOUND! So don’t go telling anybody I said to use their driveway salt as a backup! lol There are many that cook with this salt as a form of steaming. They place a protein like fish inside of some rock salt and bake it. The packed salt insulates the protein and the water from the protein is trapped inside the pocket creating steam. Due to the size of the crystal, it doesn't completely break down and get absorbed by the protein. So what you get is a steamed piece of fish with a mild salty flavor. With the uncut slabs of salt found in nature, some cultures will heat the salt slab and sear things on it. I haven't found many other uses for this particular uncut version of salt.
Where’s the best salt?
Now that we know of how it's used, let’s find out why all salt isn't created equal. Around the world, you have various areas that are ideal for salt formation. Just like plants, depending on where it grows, determines a great deal about what secrets the salt contains. For example, where salt is from, can determine its color, flavor and mineral make up. These salts tend to be completely unprocessed maintaining their unique flavors and appearance. Most commonly found in nature are Black Lava Salt, Pink Himalayan, Pink Hawaiian, Red Hawaiian and the clear form commonly referred to as Table Salt. As confusing as it is, fine ground salt known as table salt, shouldn’t be confused…if that’s possible, with the category of worldly salts know as table salt which is the name most widely used to describe sodium chloride aka the white stuff. Table salt is the most common form found and harvested. Though it’s techinically the same crop, the main difference between table salt as it’s commonly known and sea salt is the processing. Simply put, table salt that goes in your shaker is processed, whereas sea salts as they’re labeled, are either not processed or minimally processed . Due to it’s ease of obtaining, it tends to be the cheapest.
There is a special type of Table salt that’s a bit harder to harvest called Fleur de sel. This is one of the highest quality forms you can buy and the price reflects it. Why so expensive…because it’s French!...lol actually it’s because of the labor intensive way it’s harvested. Just like everything else in France, there’s certain small ponds which are the only ponds that produce this unique salt. In these ponds, the sea water evaporates leaving a thin fragile layer of salt on the surface. Workers use wooden rakes to harvest this salt by hand. It’s a long and tedious job, so of course, that translates to big bucks from you. It’s a one of a kind taste that’s less salty with minerals that give it a more rounded flavor. Each pond has it’s own unique and distinct flavor. It’s typically white or even off white and it’s snowflake texture, similar in size to kosher salt, and unique flavor makes it great for a finishing salt for meats, veggies and even fruit!
Himalayan Pink salt is salt harvested from Himalayan mines in Pakistan. It’s usually harvested by hand as not to taint the flavor. Since it’s never processed, it maintains it’s distinctive hue due to the minerals iron, potassium and magnesium. It has a very mild flavor which makes it great for finishing and baking finishing applications like salted chocolate chip cookies, etc.
Red Hawaiian Salt comes from sea salt that’s been grown in the volcanic Alaea clay from Hawaiian shores. Though California also produces A “Red Hawaiian” salt, it’s not the true version. The original pure version costss much more money. Due to the many minerals contained in the clay, especially Iron Oxide, the color tends to be a brick red. The flavor tends to be sweet, nutty and mild. Though it primarily used as a finishing salt, this salt has been used for all of the above by native Hawaiians for centuries. It’s even used in ceremonies. It’s said that if you mix red salt with water and use it as a dip for pineapple, it will eliminate the tingling feeling some people get from eating it. Haven’t tested it myself as I don’t get it, but I’ll tell my wife lol.
Pink Hawaiian like Red is harvested from the Alaea clay but under slightly less moist conditions. It produces a salt that’s less briney, slightly more punch and less of a mineral flavor. It’s also another great finishing salt.
Black lava salt typically comes from a few areas if it’s naturally harvested. High sulfuric areas of the middle east such as Pakistan and India. It’s also harvested in Cyprus and Hawaii. Most of the time these regions tend to have volcanic activity that gives it’s high sulfuric content and signature black color. This of course also contributes to the name of Black Lava Salt. In india, they also call it Kala Namak. Now just like the other salts, where it’s harvested, determines it’s distinct flavor profile and appearance. The Hawaiian version tends to have a very earthy flavor, while the middle eastern version tends to have a smoky and umami flavor. It’s very popular in Asian cuisine in the region. Be aware however, that there are many current versions of black salt which are simply sea salt mixed with charcoal. IT’S NOT THE SAME! Find out where it was sourced on the packaging to help you determine if it’s traditional or something else. Another way to tell is the actual color. Artificial black salt tends to have a pitch black color. Though some true black salts have a near black appearance, they're actually shades of dark grays and blacks. Many other harvested black salts are mixed with shades of dark brown and very dark red tones.
One of the more rare salts is Persian Blue. This finishing salt owes it’s blue hue to the amount of cobolt, sylvinite and iron it contains. You can find this salt in ancient salt ponds in the Semnan province in the Northern Iranian mountains. It’s thought to be one of the oldest known harvested salts. It’s flavor is slightly sweet and complex due to the amount of generous minerals and nutrients that make it possible. It has a delicate yet noticeably crunchy texture. Due to it’s rarity, difficulty to harvest and location, “Sapphire” salt is pretty expensive compared to some other salts. It typically pairs well with desserts, seafood and high end ingredients.
We have clear, white, blue, red black, pink and we also have FRENCH GREY! Yep, you heard me GREY and not like that dirty snow gray lol Sel Gris is a course salt harvested from various various regions of France like Brittany’s’ Sel Gris de Guerande. It’s rich in Iodine while being lower in sodium. It’s hand harvested because the French like to be difficult and not update their techniques with technology…joking joking. It’s a delicate crystal due to it being a natural evaporated harvest. So the grains tend to be a bit more delicate. It can only be harvested between June and October and even then, it’s weather dependent. So of course due to these limiting factors, this finishing salt can be on the upper end of the price spectrum.
After having all this information, I’m sure you’re wondering where all of these other flavored salts come from. Well, these are known as compound salts. These flavored salts are made by adding ingredients to the salt and either serving it as a blended ingredient or allowing the salt to absorb the flavor. One very popular version of flavored salts are smoked salts. These are typically sea salt grinds that are put inside of a smoker and allowed to absorb the smoke. This changes the color many times to a brownish amber color and imparts a very specific smoky taste. SPG is another popular one. That’s Salt, Pepper, Garlic which either has granulated garlic infused or the salt sits in crushed garlic for a time, then is mixed with pepper or another similar technique. The fact is, there are TONS of variations such that I can’t NEARLY name all of them in this format. However, I’ll post a link here if you’re interested in shopping one of my favorite vendors for some unique and delicious compound salts.
I’m sure after all of this information, you’re itching to start a salt adventure of your own to truly fulfill the flavors of what your food can actually be. So, go fourth and seek the salt of your life. Remember to eat it in moderation but understand the more natural the salt, the better it is for you. If you opt out of iodized salt, seek another source for your iodine. Have fun with your fully flavored food!
Until Next Time