A User’s Guide for Gourmet Salt
Salt: a simple, plentiful, sodium based compound, to which we in large measure (pun intended) owe our very existence. Salt helps regulate the fluid balance in our bodies and plays a key role in transferring electrical signals throughout our nervous system. We have flavor receptors on our tongues (taste buds) that are solely dedicated to sensing saltiness in the foods we eat.
Salt has been referenced in all religions and is used in medicine and therapy since the dawn of time. Some of the very first human settlements have been traced back to salt caves, and salt is as culturally significant now as throughout the ages.
So we know that salt is essential to all life here on Earth, but what of its significance as a food additive? In recent years, gourmet salts have been socially trending as the internet and global marketing have revolutionized what is available to the average consumer.
Is this just elitist foodie nonsense, or are we actually widening our epicurean palate? Although I briefly discuss a few of its thousands of other uses in our modern culture, my focus here is to explain some the culinary distinctions of gourmet salt and lend you my experience as a chef to find your favorite. Bon Appetite.
The Hierarchy of Gourmet Salt
Do You Know the Differences?
Sometimes a picture is worth five thousand words! Although there are many other variations, I’m sure you’ll find your favorites amongst these. I have!
Some Background Facts You May Find Helpful: Extraction, Processing and Texture
All salt comes from seawater, either crystallized in rock form or from standing bodies of salt water (live oceans). It is either mined from underground deposits of solid rock (rock salt), or channeled into salt ponds via oceans and bays, evaporated and then processed.
Salt is either processed by refinement or left unrefined.
Refined Salt: Refined salt, similar to refined sugar and flour, is a very pure product, uniform in size, color and quality. It has thousands of applications in industry from metal processing (such as refining aluminum), to oil and gas drilling, rubber manufacturing, and life saving pharmaceutical applications.
It is of course, also a key ingredient in the food industry. If refining salt has a downside, it is that this process strips away vital nutrients. This is why many food products that are refined are then enriched with vitamins and minerals. If left un-enriched, these highly refined food products contain little to no nutritional value. Since less than 20% of all refined salts are used for culinary purposes, refining keeps its cost to a minimum.
Table salt and Kosher salt (evaporated salts) are usually extracted from deep within the earth by dissolving rock salt deposits with water and creating an underground solution mine. The brine that is created from this soaking is then pumped to the surface and high-heat treated to evaporate the water. This high-heat processing also removes the impurities and leaves behind highly refined salt: about 99 percent pure sodium chloride or NaCl.
What's inside this article...
- A User’s Guide for Gourmet Salt
- The Hierarchy of Gourmet Salt
- Some Background Facts You May Find Helpful: Extraction, Processing and Texture
- Rock Salt
- Table Salt – Iodized or Plain
- Kosher Salt
- Himalayan Pink Salt
- Himalayan Pink Salt Cooking Slabs
- Sea Salt
- French Sea Salt – Fleur de Sel
- French Sea Salt – Sel Gris (Grey Salt)
- Italian Sea Salt – Sale Marino, or Trapani sea salt
- Hawaiian Sea Salt – Alaea (Red Clay Sea Salt) Alaea Salt (Pronounced a-la-AY-a)
- Hawaiian Sea Salt Hiwa Kai (Black Lava Sea Salt)
- Indian Black Sea Salt – Kala Namak
- Cold Smoked Salts
- Bamboo Salt – Jukyom or Jook Yeom (Parched Salt)
Unrefined Salt: Unrefined salt is a natural, minimally processed, final product.
Rock salt, or Halite, is salt that’s been mined from underground and crushed into very coarse pieces. It is used as an ice melting agent for driveways and roads. It’s added between the walls of ice cream machines and used to make bath salts. With minimal processing, rock salt is also edible. Cut into smaller blocks, it is used as an essential salt lick for animals and for human consumption as is the case with Himalayan salt.
Sea Salt is also an unrefined salt, but is evaporated out of fresh seawater by the sun and wind. Most fine sea salts are gathered and processed by hand, each with their own distinct regional characteristics. See how it’s done in this short video.
The methods used for the processing of salt determine its varying textures. The most important ‘textural’ variables are moisture content and the shape of the crystals. Moisture content in salt varies between almost zero and 13 percent . If a salt is very low in moisture, such as table salt, it more readily absorbs into moist foods. That is, it wicks the moisture out of the food and then dissolves back into the food. Conversely, when the salt’s moisture content is high, like a finishing salt, it will not dissolve as quickly on your food or your tongue. Texture is also determined by the shape of the crystal whether it’s cubic, flaked, or pyramidal.
Rock salt or Halite, is naturally formed NaCl (Sodium Chloride) created from lake beds and oceans that dried up millennia ago. Formed under intense heat and pressure, rock salt lies in-between layers of sedimentary rock and spans for miles. Rock salt ranges widely in color from pink, purple,and blue, to red, orange and yellow; depending on its impurities. These deposits can be mined in one of two ways; using a solution mine, or blasting the rock with explosives.
A solution mine is created by drilling holes and saturating the salt rock with water. This brine is pumped to the surface and then evaporated to form salt crystals. This technique is used when traditional mining is too difficult, time consuming, or unsafe.
Mined traditionally, rock salt is either blasted out of salt mines with explosives or cut and then exploded. When uncut, holes are simply drilled into the salt and filled with explosives and jagged pieces are formed. These pieces are milled or crushed into semi-uniform pieces. Conversely, if the salt rock is cut and then blasted in a specific pattern, large sheets of salt break off. Similar to mining other rocks, these sheets are cut into uniform slabs or blocks or milled into crystals.
Over 90 percent of the salt produced in the United States is rock salt. Worldwide only 6 percent of the rock salt produced is used for food. The preponderance is used to create ice melts and have been simply blasted and then crushed. Himalayan salt is first cut and then blasted. This method allows it to be sold as blocks, plates, and beautiful lamps.
Table Salt – Iodized or Plain
Table salt is the most commonly used of all culinary salts because of its low price point and ease of production. It is mass-produced and inexpensive as opposed to sea salt, which is more labor intensive and may take as long as three years to produce.
Table salt comes either plain (non-iodized) or sprayed with trace amounts of iodine. Iodine was first added to salt during the Great Depression when many people were suffering from malnutrition and developing goiters. The government chose to address this problem by adding iodine to salt because it has a very long shelf life, and could be consumed in reasonably predictable quantities.
In modern times however, most people get their recommended daily amount of iodine from the food they eat. Iodine is a trace mineral and a natural part of many diets because it is absorbed by the plants and animals we consume.
Texture: Table salt is usually very fine and absorbs quickly into food and therefore provides little texture itself. As an additive it acts in the same way as other salts in that it reduces water content and aids in preservation.
Flavor: Harshly salty (high sodium content). Some say that because of its purity and lack of minerals (flavor), this salt is bland and somewhat bitter.
Uses: As you probably already know, table salt is sprinkled on meats, vegetables, and fruits, added into baked goods and used to salinate water. I would not use it as a finishing salt on a dessert, although I might preseason food with it for fast even absorption.
Price: The price of table or iodized salt is extremely low. Approximately $.03 per ounce.
Kosher salt is also an evaporated salt. It is mined and processed in the same way as table salt with the exception of being raked during the evaporation process, to form larger flake crystals.
Its name implies that the salt itself is kosher. It probably is, but not for the reason you might think! With few exceptions, almost all salt is kosher.
To be kosher, a product must be certified by an organization that checks that the product meets kosher standards as defined by Jewish Law. The name of the salt is kosher because it is used to make meats kosher by absorbing blood from the meat’s surface.
This salt is coarse, so much of it stays on the surface and isn’t absorbed. It usually contains no additives, such as iodine and although iodized kosher salt is available it is far less common. Kosher salt is my ‘go to’, ‘all purpose’ salt. Personally and professionally, I like its more delicate flavor and texture.
Texture: The thick flakes are larger than the grains of table salt yet not as large as a coarse salt, which usually needs to be ground. This salt adheres well to most any food and imparts only a light crunch if added at the last moment. As many chefs know, the great thing about kosher salt is that with it’s a larger grain, you can better sense how much salt is in your own specific pinch.
Flavor: Being less salty in nature and more subtle than table salt, most find this salt purer in taste than iodized as it lacks additives. Some say it’s lighter and cleaner tasting, making it ideal for homemade spice blends.
Uses: Kosher salt has grown immensely in popularity and is widely utilized by chefs and home cooks alike. Sprinkle it before and after cooking to season. Cure and pickle meats like beef or fish, or pickle vegetables for canning. Use it as an abrasive to make a flavorful garlic paste. This salt also stands up well to grilling and is wonderful sprinkled on french fries, and all other fried foods. It gives a more briny yet fresh taste to pasta water, poaching water, or any other highly salted cooking liquid. It’s great for rimming glasses for cocktails like margaritas. (I like to combine it with lime zest beforehand, to give it interesting color and flavor). One cooking discipline for which I would not suggest using kosher salt, is baking.
Baking is more of a science than cooking and most recipes refer to table salt in their measurements. Since table salt is more dense by volume, the actual measurement of kosher salt as a substitute, must increase by approximately 25 percent. Additionally, If the recipe is low in moisture, this salt may not fully dissolve.
Price: Still very affordable as a general-purpose salt. Approx $0.10 per ounce.
Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan pink salt is unique because it is hand-mined in Pakistan from deep underground. This salt has been untouched since the Jurassic Era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was suddenly covered over by a thick layer of volcanic ash, protecting it from pollution and impurities. Himalayan salt has the highest mineral content of any unrefined salt and its pink hue is due to its high iron content.
This salt has seen a huge rise in popularity. It is prized for both its beautiful variations of color, and health benefits. Like other salts, such as Bamboo salt, it is ionic and purifies the air, and has detoxifying effects on the body. Himalayan pink salt is a wonderful flavor enhancer, and also great for presentation and display.
Himalayan salt slabs present a revolutionary way to add salt to your food. Instead of being sprinkled on your food, food is actually cooked or presented on the salt itself.
These slabs look like thick pieces of semi-transparent rock and are stunning! The amazing thing about rock salt slabs is that they can be rinsed, air-dried, and reused over and over without dissolving.
Since the salt is naturally anti-microbial, it is completely sanitary. Simply heat up the slab on your grill or in the oven and place food right on top. As it cooks it creates moisture, dissolving some of the salt, which is then absorbed by the food.
It can also be chilled in the refrigerator and is most commonly used to present sushi, cheeses, and crudités. It can even be frozen and topped with ice cream. Salt slabs are a wonderful conversation starter and offer a new twist to how we cook and eat.
Texture: This ranges from an intense crunch to a light dusting. I prefer the block form, because Himalayan salt looses color when it is ground and looses its aesthetic appeal. When finely grated, it provides little texture, but great uniform flavor.
Flavor: It is strongly salty so a very little goes a long way!
Uses: Himalayan salt can be used instead of table salt as a general-purpose salt. Great for chicken, beef or creating a salt crust on fish. You can also use it for pickling and curing.
Price: $0.75 an ounce and up
Himalayan Pink Salt Cooking Slabs
I own the ‘raw edge’ cooking slabs for cooking and for presentation. No matter which type you choose, they are always a hit when friends are over!
Sea salt, (solar salt, or bay salt) is formed naturally in warm climates, using the sun and wind to evaporate the brine and form salt crystals. This is accomplished using a series of large man-made ponds or troughs called “salt ponds”.
Connected to oceans and bays by channels, these salt ponds are wide and shallow with a clay lining to hold the brine. As the salinity of the brine increases by evaporation, it is pumped from one pond to the next, until eventually, in the last pond, salt crystals form.
This lengthy process can take up to 3 years, before the salt is then harvested, usually by hand. Sea salt is considered unrefined, or minimally refined because after harvesting it undergoes little to no further processing. Most commonly after harvesting, sea salt is rinsed in seawater to remove any pieces of mud or other impurities on the surface that may remain.
This lack of refinement and slow evaporation leave the minerals intact, and much healthier for you than table salt.
The region from where the seawater is collected determines the salt’s specific characteristics, such as variations in mineral content, flavor, texture and uniformity. Here I’d like to discuss a few of the different types of sea salts I use, by region.
French Sea Salt – Fleur de Sel
Fleur de Sel, meaning “Flower of Salt” in French, is much acclaimed in the culinary world and revered by many chefs. It is a highly prized finishing salt, with supremely subtle flavor and delicate mouth feel.
Harvesting this salt is truly a labor of love, and has been done the same way since the seventh century. A fine layer of salt crystals form naturally on the surface of a salt pond. This layer is carefully skimmed from the pond, using wooden rakes, before it can sink to the bottom (this is an important distinction between Fleur de Sel and Sel Gris). After skimming, the salt is left in piles to be dried by the sun and the wind.
As with the common mislabeling of sparkling wine, the name Champagne is only correctly attributable when it is produced in the Champagne region of France. So too, sea salt is truly only Fleur de Sel if it is produced in the Guérande region of France using those traditional methods.
Texture: Crisp, thin flakes, almost like wet snowflakes. Delicate in texture, with a great mouth feel. A very moist salt with total water content sometimes as high as 10 percent. The size of the crystals or flakes is very irregular, which means that as the flakes hit your tongue they dissolve at different rates. Fleur de Sel gives the food a very slight crunch and glimmer.
Flavor: Lightly salty, almost sweet, with a faint floral note of violet. Complex and balanced in flavor, it takes very little to make a unique and graceful impact on the tongue.
Uses: As the crème de la crème, this salt is sprinkled over decadent deserts like molten chocolate cake and caramels. It also takes simple dishes like a bowl of good chocolate ice cream to the next level. Try it on salads or sprinkle it on freshly sliced tomatoes or buttered radishes. It imparts wonderful flavor on grilled meats or fresh vegetables.
Price: This is one of the most expensive salts on the market at around $2.00 (and up) per ounce.
French Sea Salt – Sel Gris (Grey Salt)
Sel Gris, (grey sea salt), or as it is often known in North America as Celtic salt, is also produced along the coast of France but in various regions, unlike Fleur de Sel. Sel Gris is also harvested differently; the salt is allowed to sink to the bottom of the bed. There, it absorbs minerals over time from the clay, which gives the salt a distinctive taste and high mineral content.
Grey salts get their name from the hue they acquire from the grey clay lining the bed of the salt pond. Sel Gris is naturally coarser than Fleur de Sel, and is slightly less rare and less expensive. Like sugar, it can be purchased in coarse, fine or extra fine grinds. The latter is reminiscent of confectioner’s sugar, and is often used to coat popcorn or mix into butter or cream cheese.
Texture: This varies based on your selection of a coarse, fine or extra-fine grind. Coarse is the most traditional form. Sel Gris is also a moist salt, sometimes containing a water content as high as 13 percent. I prefer a coarse grind for most uses, but also love to process my coarse salt into extra fine, using my coffee grinder (a separate one used just for spices of course). This way, I have coarse and extra fine salt in one purchase.
Flavor: Since this salt is denser than other sea salts, in general, it is slightly saltier. However when compared against table or kosher salt, it has a more mellow flavor. Proponents say it is slightly sweeter tasting than a typical table or kosher salt as well.
Uses: Coarse grey salt is best paired with meats in hardy dishes like stew, on cooked vegetables, or especially over braised vegetables (my favorite). Extra finely ground grey salt, when mixed into unsalted melted butter, makes a superior topping for popcorn.
Price: About $1.00 per ounce and up.
Italian Sea Salt – Sale Marino, or Trapani sea salt
Italian sea salt (Sale Marino, or Trapani salt) is produced along the west coast of Sicily in the city of Trapani. Trapani lies on the famous salt road used by the Phoenicians to support Sicily’s economy with the production of salt. It is home to some of Europe’s oldest salt marshes. These marshes, fed by the Mediterranean, in turn, feed the salt ponds.
In this case, like all other sea salts, the sun and the wind evaporate the water and leave behind salt crystals. In Sicily it is sold fresh and wet.
For commercial packaging however, it is further dried and milled into coarse or fine cubic salt grains. Italian sea salt contains trace amounts of minerals such as iodine, potassium, and magnesium. These minerals give the salt its unique flavor.
Texture: Trapani is similar to Kosher salt in size and texture although the grains are slightly more cubic. It is not as moist as Fleur de Sel, but moister than kosher salt, making its texture somewhere in-between the two.
Flavor: This salt is pure tasting, yet delicate. The minerals in Italian sea-salt present a bright, clean taste, without being so strong as to overwhelm the taste of the salt. It is a great replacement or substitute for kosher salt, with the added benefits of these minerals.
Uses: This salt is great on salads, and seems to be uniquely suited for fish. More so, it is an ideal salt to use for cooking as well as finishing! It freshens the flavor of almost any dish. Try it in your favorite marinara, or use it to finish appetizers of fresh bruschetta atop crusty baguette slices.
Price: $0.80 per ounce and up
Hawaiian Sea Salt – Alaea (Red Clay Sea Salt)
Alaea Salt (Pronounced a-la-AY-a)
Hawaiian’s use Alaea salt as a seasoning but also as a purifier, or a cleanser. It is used to bless tools, boats, homes and temples. As a seasoning Alaea is the salt found on most Hawaiian family’s table. It is used in most native dishes, ensuring its flavor is a traditional part of Hawaiian cuisine.
It is used to prepare raw fish for preservation and as a fresh appetizer, it is mixed with seaweed and used in native meat dishes. Alaea salt gets its deep pink to red color and name from a red volcanic clay called alae.
It containing approximately 80 different minerals, primarily iron oxide, hence the almost rusty pink color. Since a higher percentage of this salt is comprised of absorbed minerals and less sodium, many agree it is one of the least harsh of sea salts.
Texture: The salt, can be ground or left in it’s coarse state. The coarse grain is the traditional Hawaiian form. Its texture is similar to kosher salt, but with only slightly larger flakes. It exhibits a smooth texture when melting on the tongue and dissolves rather slowly.
Flavor: Light and earthy, with a slight aftertaste of minerals.
Uses: This salt is great on pork loins, beef tenderloins, prime rib, and, of course traditional Hawaiian dishes. Try it on oven roasted potatoes or sautéed vegetables. It can be used in place of table salt although it is more expensive.
Price: $1.00 per oz. and up
Hawaiian Sea Salt
Hiwa Kai (Black Lava Sea Salt)
Hiwa Kai is a black sea salt also produced in Hawaii. This salt is produced the same way as the Alaea salt except that instead of being mixed with red clay, Hiwa Kai is mixed with activated volcanic charcoal; to give the salt it’s color, flavor, and mineral content. Hawaiians claim this salt offers many health benefits due to this charcoal possessing anti-aging and detoxifying properties. It has a stunning, glossy black surface reminiscent of glimmering black diamonds.
Texture: Hiwa Kai has coarse grains and thick flakes similar in appearance to kosher salt, except black. This salt has a slow smooth melt, making the texture silky and elegant. Great for providing a crunchy garnish!
Flavor: Briny with a very slight mineral tang aftertaste. This salt has a ‘zing’ that hits you but then dissipates as it dissolves slowly on the tongue.
Uses: Hiwa Kai is most commonly used as a garnish because of its great color and crunch. It’s ideally suited to top rice and bright green vegetables because of the contrast of colors and its crunchy texture. Great for creating an impact on your plate.
Price: $1.00 per oz and up
Indian Black Sea Salt – Kala Namak
Indian black sea salt or Kala Namak is produced in the same way as other sea salts except that ground herrod seeds are boiled with the brine before evaporation. The salt crystals are large and black or brown with a purple hue that turns pink when ground.
Texture: This salt although very coarse, is usually ground into a fine powder when used, therefore providing little to no texture itself.
Flavor: Vegan chefs have contributed to this salts popularity in western cultures because its sulfuric flavor is very similar to eggs. It is salty and somewhat pungent in both flavor and smell.
Uses: In western cuisine It is primarily used in Vegan dishes that mimic eggs such as omletes or a tofu ‘egg’ salad. It is used in the Indian culture in many condiments, such as chutney and as a main component of Indian spice blends like chaat masala. Similar to bamboo salt, Kala Namak is used medicinally; as a laxative, as a cure for heartburn, and as an additive to toothpaste.
Price: $1.00 per ounce and up
Cold Smoked Salts
Cold smoked salts are almost exclusively derived from sea salts, because of their more delicate base flavor. The salt absorbs the flavor of the smoke and darkens in color, taking on the flavor characteristics of the wood used to smoke it. Common woods include hickory, applewood, and alderwood. It can take up to 10 days before the salt is fully smoked.
The smoking process requires somewhat specialized equipment, and technique. If incorrectly smoked, the water content in the salt can be leached out, dissolving the crystals and ruining the final product.
Texture: Smoked salt has a very interesting texture. Smoking causes the water to further evaporate out of the salt crystals and it leaves behind tiny holes. These holes can make the salt more porous than other types, and ‘pop’ in your mouth more than crunch.
Flavor: Smoked salts assert a smoky taste and aroma to many types of food. Make sure to use 100 percent naturally smoked sea salt. Some cheaper brands have simply been sprayed with liquid smoke and offer a terrible chemical aftertaste.
Uses: This salt quickly adds smoked flavor to any dish it finishes and used alone, often works best. Frequently when mixed with other strong spices, its particular taste characteristics get muddied. It imparts great flavor to chicken breasts, ribs, pork, steak and even rice or potatoes. Mix it into mayonnaise for a smoky tasting sandwich!
Price: $2.00 per ounce and up
Bamboo Salt – Jukyom or Jook Yeom (Parched Salt)
Bamboo Salt (parched salt, jukyom or jook yeom) is primarily produced in Korea with its origins stemming from Taoist Monks. These monks first created the salt over 13 centuries ago and passed the technique from generation to generation. The creation of this salt focuses on healing.
The minerals and nutrients found in bamboo and the yellow clay, in which it grows, are fused with the salt by burning or roasting the salt inside of a yellow clay lined kiln, which burns pinewood. The pinewood creates smoke and charcoal, which is also absorbed by the salt.
Charcoal is known to have detoxifying effects on the body. The salt is packed into the natural segments of bamboo and capped with yellow clay. The salt is then burned in the kiln until no bamboo remains. This leaves behind a salt block. Depending on the type, this process is repeated up to nine times (the optimum number according to monks) each time the salt is crushed and repacked into bamboo .
Jook Yeom is labeled with the number of times it has been roasted, typically one, three or nine. 9X salt has been roasted, crushed, and repacked nine times. The additional roasting darkens the color, sometimes turning red or even lavender, and absorbs more smoked flavor and minerals.
An important note is that after the 8th roasting, the salt is transferred from the kiln into a metal forge, where it is heated to a an even higher temperature. This completely melts the salt, producing a product much different than 1X or 3X bamboo salt. The intense heat rids the salt of any impurities and creates a very pure product packed with minerals and other micro-nutrients.
This salt is claimed to have detoxifying properties and has historically been used by monks to cure any ailment. Korean’s add it to a wide variety of products including toothpaste and face-cream; citing its antioxidant richness as an anti-aging compound. Historically, Koreans used salt as a toothpaste, spreading the salt on their teeth, using their fingers to brush, and rinsing with warm water.
Texture: Although many different grinds are available, powder, or extra fine is the most common. This is due to Bamboo salt being consumed on its own, much like a daily supplement. Sprinkled on food it absorbs very quickly and doesn’t have much, if any texture on the tongue.
Flavor: Bamboo salt has a very bold flavor. The less times it has been roasted the saltier it will taste. 3X roasted bamboo salt is the most sulfuric with stronger mineral taste. 9X bamboo salt is the most powerful. It has a very strong mineral taste and is only slightly sulfuric. The flavor is quite complex, smooth and sophisticated, however because it is strong it is an acquired taste.
Uses: You can use it to replace table salt, and may be a good switch if it is as healthy for you as many claim. I am still undecided. It lends great flavor to traditional Korean dishes and oriental dishes. I use it in stir-fry!
Price: $2.00 per ounce and up
And that’s it for our roundup of gourmet salts. I think we have covered the most important aspects. But if you think we forgot something, or you’d like to contribute some of your knowledge we’d love to hear from you. Just comment below and share with us and our community.