Like jazz, or the collected works of Ernest Hemingway, salt is one of those seemingly straightforward topics that become increasingly complex the more you get into it. Sure, you’ve got your everyday kosher and maybe a jar of fancy-pants fleur de sel gifted to you by a generous ex-boss. But the sea of seasonings is vast. Should you use crystalline or flaked? Flavored or infused? Red Hawaiian or black Hawaiian lava? Relax. We did the research, polled the experts and put together this user’s guide to the wide world of salt.
1. Kosher Salt
The workhorse of the kitchen, kosher salt is remarkably versatile. Made by compacting granular salt collected from mines and deposits, it has irregularly shaped flakes that dissolve easily and relatively evenly. If you don’t really care about salt, and just don’t want to be ashamed of that blue canister of Morton’s in your cabinet when judge-y friends come over, this is the salt for you.
Fun fact: Pious cooks, take note — despite the moniker, kosher salt is not certified kosher. It got its name because its large flakes are well suited to drawing blood out of meat during the kosher butchering process. When to use: A good, medium-coarse grind kosher salt can be used in pretty much every cooking endeavor. Sprinkle it in sauces, use it to cure a ham, fold it into soups. The world is your (salted) oyster.
2. Sea Salt
All you need to make this centuries-old natural beauty is a bucket and a dream. Salt farmers take a gallon or two of saltwater, strain out any impurities and heat at a super low temperature until delicate, snowflake-like fleur de sel start to form along the sides. (More on fleur de sel later.) Soon thereafter, chunky flakes of bona fide sea salt collect at the bottom. Best of all, the simplicity of the process gives sea salt a true terroir, as in the vaguely sulfuric taste of South Asian kala namak and black Hawaiian lava salt.
Fun fact: There are two types of sea salts on the market: fine-grind and flaked. Go with the latter. It is slightly more expensive, but provides more bang for your buck in terms of flavor and versatility. Plus, if you’re really jonesing for the ground stuff, you can always just crush a few flakes with your fingertips. When to use: Take a cue from Mark Bitterman, who wrote the book on salt. (Literally: his first book, Salted, tackles the topic to James Beard Award-winning results, and we’re way psyched for his latest.) He says that flaked sea salt contains minimal moisture and dissolves instantly, so you can use it on more delicate items. His pro-tip for understanding the power of salt? “Fix a green salad, and make your own salad dressing with very little salt – or no salt, if you dare. Then add sea salt to the finished, dressed salad. It snaps! It explodes on the lettuce! The whole thing will have a tangy, Pop Rocks quality.”
3. Infused Sea Salt
Take the sea salt process described above, and add herbs, spices, dried truffles or whatever your non-iodized heart desires. Infusions rely heavily on the caliber of the added ingredient, so look for high-quality producers and AOC or DOP designations.
Fun fact: Ben Jacobsen, whose hand-harvested salt from Oregon’s Netarts Bay has made him a darling of Portland’s restaurant scene, recently started jarring flake sea salt infused with Willamette Valley pinot noir, plus a new blend using Stumptown coffee. When to use: Infusions work best as finishing salts. Drizzle saffron salt over grilled vegetables, and dust truffled salt atop mashed potatoes. When April Bloomfield visited Ben Jacobsen in Oregon, she sprinkled his Stumptown salt over homemade vanilla ice cream. “It was awful, and I definitely didn’t eat a lot of it,” Jacobsen reported.
4. Sel Gris
Also known as gray or Celtic sea salt, sel gris is the unsung hero of the salt world. During harvest, it is raked from the bottom of the saltpan, giving it that rather elegant gray color and naturally crystalline shape. It is coarser than standard-bearer fleur de sel, but similarly mineral- and moisture-rich. Unlike fleur de sel, it is sold both as crystals and fine-ground sea salt.
Fun fact: As in French wine, sel gris’ region of origin greatly influences the quality of the end product. The taste, texture and moisture of sel gris from the Atlantic coast of France (i.e., Normandy, Guerande, Ile de Re.) are superior to those harvested from the Mediterranean. When to use: Sel gris shines on big, hearty foods, but can be used on everything from rubbing the inside of a chicken to topping a juicy steak. For generalists who consider themselves a step above kosher salt, it’s a great, everyday cooking salt. Bitterman recommends the coarser grind, citing its solubility and versatility. And unlike kosher salt, which pulls moisture out of foods, sel gris makes a solid finishing salt.
5. Fleur de Sel
The blue-ribbon benchmark against which all other salts are measured, fleur de sel literally translates to “the flower of salt.” Its lofty price tag is the result of a labor-intensive harvest: after solar-evaporating salt water, a layer of fragile, blossom-like crystals start to form on the surface of the saltpan. With a steady hand and strong heart, a salt farmer then has to gently rake the top layer of delicate “flowers,” removing them from the pan. The process is precise as all get-out – crystals are über-fragile and, if conditions aren’t quite right, they won’t form at all – but universally praised for its high minerality, incredible moisture content and fine, irregular texture.
Fun fact: Trappist monks on the French Atlantic were the first to harvest fleur de sel, but, now, secular salt farmers in France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Philippines and Peru are all in on the action. Briny trailblazer Ben Jacobsen is the only person harvesting fleur de sel in America. When to use: Pretty much always. “Fleur de sel is a three-dimensional salt,” says Bitterman. “It doesn’t melt easily, so it permeates any medium-bodied food and brings out its flavor. Use it on cooked vegetables, roast pork, fried fish. It elevates every dish.” Because it’s packed with moistures and trace minerals, fleur de sel is also an excellent finishing salt. Sprinkle it on toast with butter, or fried eggs. You won’t regret it.
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