When an ordinary food item suddenly becomes trendy, you don’t just see more of it, you see more iterations of it than you ever thought possible. Once, chocolate meant a Hershey bar; now entire shelves are devoted to dark, darker, and the seemingly incongruous blends of lavender, salt, and chili peppers. Olive oil used to be simple, until every town with a Mediterranean climate began producing their own. And while water has—and will always be—two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, we now have liquid that claims to be “smart,” energizing, and low-calorie.
But if the adoration and gourmetification of something as simple as water seems perplexing, one of the latest food trends, according to the American Food Institute’s “what’s hot, what’s not” survey, is something even more basic. Ranking in as the tenth hottest item on their list is our old friend, sodium chloride—a.k.a, salt.
It seems strange for such a common ingredient likely to be found on almost every kitchen table to become trendy until you realize that salt, like olive oil, has various places of origin and processing techniques, and thus, a wide range of properties and flavors.
There are two main ways of obtaining salt: from mines or the sea. The table salt most of us are familiar with is mine-made; water is sent into underground salt deposits and then evaporated until it’s pure sodium chloride. Table salt also contains anti-caking agents and stabilizers; the iodized version contains potassium iodide, which was added to prevent goiter, a (now rare) thyroid disorder.
Sea salt, on the other hand, comes from oceans, seas, and other salty bodies of water. Regional differences make sea salt as diverse as the locales from which it comes, contributing to its exotic, nuanced flavors, and of course, its price.
Cooking or Finishing, Course or Fine?
Table salt is generally a fine grain, but many of the new salts on the market are much coarser and flakier, and therefore have different melting and flavor properties. In general, chefs prefer the coarser salts, which they can add by hand as a finishing salt when a dish is ready to be served or at the table. The pinching rather than the pouring method is a more reliable or intuitive way of measuring salt. Finishing salts are used to enhance flavor, and since they reside on the surface of the food, sometimes less is needed.
Cooking salt is usually inexpensive, common salt used during the baking or cooking process, when the flavor of the salt is less important.
So what are the different types of salts, and how should they be used?
Kosher salt is a coarse, additive-free salt made by raking and evaporating brine. This process results in cube-like structures with large surface areas, traditionally used to draw the blood and impurities out of kosher meat. The large grains make it easy to sprinkle on food, but teaspoon per teaspoon will have less salt than regular table salt.
Uses: Both a cooking and a finishing salt, kosher salt is usually inexpensive, so it’s great for everyday uses. Margarita glasses, fries, and homemade focaccia will all benefit from its course grains.
I wasn’t totally convinced that sea salt was that much different from normal salt until a friend had me do a blind taste test. Sure enough, when compared with iodized table salt, the sea salt reigned supreme. The iodized stuff tasted like a chemical and almost toxic; the sea salt was light and pleasant, easy on the tongue.
Though specialty types of sea salt can be pricey (see below), the regular types are affordable and usually easy to find in big grocery stores.
Uses: Cooking, finishing, table salt.
Fleur de Sel, a.k.a, “Flower of Salt”
This is one of the luminaries of the sea salts, a truly artisanal salt from the west-central coast of France. Only when weather conditions are ideal do salt farmers hand harvest “young” crystals as they form on the surface of evaporation ponds. As you can imagine, this salt ain’t cheap—around $12 for 6 ounces.
Uses: As a finishing salt for any dish and on fresh vegetables, grilled meats, and fish.
French Sea Salt
Not to be confused with sea salt from France, French sea salt is an unrefined product harvested from Atlantic seawater. While most American sea salts are refined, the French stuff isn’t—and thus has more trace minerals—and is a natural source of iodine.
Uses: Great as a finishing salt and in salads, vegetables, meats. $8 to $9 for 7.5 ounces; cheaper varieties include La Baleine, which sells 26 ounces for $3.49.
Grey salt is an unrefined sea salt that sometimes comes moist, in a slurry. It’s harvested from the coastal areas of France; the color is from the clay in the salt flats. Like fleur de sel, it’s hand-collected, which is usually reflected in the price. Many consider grey salt to be the best salt on the market; a friend of mine that works for a high-end catering company describes it as one of the most delicious salts she’s ever had.
Uses: If you’re paying for it (a 16-ounce package runs $9), you’ll want to taste it. Use grey salt as a finishing salt on fresh vegetables and salads, or sprinkled on a baguette with olive oil.
Black Salt or Kala Namak
Black salt, made in India, is an unrefined mineral salt, and despite its name, is more pink than black. Its most notable flavor is sulfur.
Uses: Because of its eggy, sulfur-like flavor, Kala Namak is sometimes used by vegans to add egg flavor. Traditionally it’s used in Indian cuisine as a finishing salt, as well as added to chaats, chutneys, and snacks.
Hawaiian Sea Salt, a.k.a, Alaea This salt derives its reddish-brown color from the mineral Alaea, a volcanic, baked-red clay that is added to the salt. In addition to color, the mineral also adds a mild flavor.
Uses: Traditionally used in Hawaiian foods, meats.
Smoked Sea Salt
Smoked salts have a variety of flavors and colors, depending on the type of wood used to smoke them. Make sure to look for naturally-smoked; others just have artificial-smoked flavor added.
Uses: As a finishing salt on meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables.
This fine-grained salt is basically table salt without iodine or the anti-caking preservatives, which can cause the pickles to darken and the brine to turn cloudy.
Uses: Pickling. Can also substitute with kosher salt.
This is just a short list of the popular salts on the market; there are definitely more out there and there will surely be more in the near future. While perhaps we don’t need a rack devoted solely to salt, variety, as they say, is the spice of life—and so is salt.