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Salt is one of the most important ingredients you have in your kitchen, and there is no lack of types from which to choose. Most people have common table salt as their salt of choice, and some folks use kosher salt, but that’s about all you will find in most kitchens. Here, we are gong to discuss a few different basic and specialty salts, where they come from, and how to use them.
First, let me clear up the confusion about the difference between kosher and table salt. All salt is created equally. Culinary salt is sodium chloride across the board, and there is no difference between the sodium chloride in table salt and the sodium chloride in kosher salt; rather, the flavor differences in various salts are due to impurities in the salt and the shape of the salt crystals. Plain table salt and kosher salt are two of the best examples of plain salt you’ll find out there. Some table salts, though, have added anti-caking agents, flow agents, and nutritional additives such as iodine which give an undesirable chemical taste. Kosher salt is generally preferred because it doesn’t have these additives and, thanks to its flaked shape, is easy to control when you are cooking, adding a light pinch here and a heavy pinch there. Try using your fingers to sprinkle table salt on some veggies, and then try again with kosher. You’ll have much more control with the kosher salt. The flaked shape of kosher salt also affects how you taste it, hitting the tongue in a more pleasing way than the cubic grains of table salt do. Kosher salt is my day to day salt, no matter if I am salting pasta water, seasoning a chicken to roast, or making pot de creme. I don’t even have table salt in my kitchen, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would say “Gee, I wish I had some table salt to make this taste better.” It just doesn’t happen.
Now that we have the basics settled, let’s talk about some finishing salts, which are used for sprinkling on food just before you eat. First up, we have two salts known as fleur de sel and sel gris. Both of these salts are created via solar evaporation in salt marshes containing sea water. It;s a long process, but once the water in these marshes has evaporated to roughly half an inch deep, the delicate top layer of salt is carefully harvested with specialized rakes. This top layer of salt is fleur de sel, one of the most prized culinary salts available. The bottom layer of salt in these marshes is harvested as sel gris, which gets its namesake for the grey color it picks up from contact against the clay bottom of the marshes. Both salts have a mineral quality in taste beyond just the salt flavor, though that flavor is more pronounced in the sel gris. I routinely keep fleur de sel or sel gris in my kitchen and prefer using these as finishes to desserts such as salted caramels, truffles, ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, and other various desserts.
Next are the Hawaiian alaea red sea salt and the Hawaiian black lava salt. Contrary to what its name suggests, the Hawaiian alaea salt is produced in California, but it is an important ingredient in many traditional Hawaiian dishes. It gets its reddish color from added alaea clay; the black lava salt gets its characteristic color from added charcoal made from burned coconut shells. Both are coarse, crunchy sea salts often used as a finishing salt for textural and visual interest in a dish. In my kitchen, they both fall under the “fun but not very useful” category, but other cooks love using them. If I have these salts on hand, I’ll use them on handmade truffles and other salted chocolates, grilled fish, and anywhere the pop of color and salty crunch is appropriate, but I won’t seek them out.
The only specialty salt that I feel completely lost without is Maldon sea salt. Sourced in England, Maldon salt has a clean, briney flavor, comparable to what mist from the ocean tastes like, but what sets it apart is texture. Open up a box of Maldon and you’ll find pyramid-shaped salt crystals, some large enough to cover a fingertip. This creates an astoundingly good finish to steaks, eggs, avocado toast, or anything else that would benefit from a salty crunch here and there. This salt is worth seeking out if you don’t already have it.
Some of these salts are widely available, and others can be purchased at well-stocked grocery stores, specialty grocery stores, and online. Some grocers carry salt in their bulk section. If you have this available to you, it’s worth seeking out in order to purchase small amounts of specialty salt that you can play around with in the kitchen.
If you are interested in further information about salt, especially the anthropological history of it, I recommend picking up Salt: A World History. It’s a fascinating read.