This is Not Your Mother’s Salt & Pepper
So there has been a big push in the last few years around boutique salt—many think it has a much more subtle flavor. Plus, it’s fun to experiment with since its various global origins allow for a mosaic of tastes and pairings. Hawaiian pink sea salt sprinkled on fish carpaccio will always look more appetizing (and taste better) than table salt, but apparently the iodized salt isn’t all that bad for you, and in fact provides iodine that our bodies need. However, it’s still a “dreaded additive” and we tend to consume the small amount of iodine we need from many other sources like seafood and dairy. See tips about buying gourmet salt below.
So what do you need to know about salt when you cook?
As a general rule, less is always more with salt. You can always add more salt later but you can’t really take it away. Be especially careful when working with salty ingredients like capers, anchovies, or pancetta/bacon. Let There Be Bite recommends Vincenzo Gucciardo’s sea salt from Trapani, Italy.
If you want your ingredients to break down in a pan, like onions, you will want to add salt as you begin the cooking process. Salt makes ingredients sweat water and break down in the pan. If, though, you are caramelizing something, like a fish filet, you would not add salt, since you want the water to stay locked into the food, sealed with a nice golden crust on it.
Don’t forget salt’s best friend, freshly ground pepper—not that sad, silty mix that comes in those miniature packets when you order take-out. I almost always end up asking the waiter for the fresh stuff if the pre-ground version is on the table (my subversive plot: they’ll get so tired of bringing it to persistent customers that they’ll just leave it on the table from now on).
And lastly, to salt the water before or after it boils? After, after, after.
SaltWorks, a gourmet salt company with 110 varieties from around the world, discusses which basic salt types should be in your kitchen and why.
Salt is one of the oldest seasonings in the world and is absolutely essential to healthy human life. Unfortunately, most of what we refer to as “table salt” has been stripped of its natural minerals, bleached, and saturated with additives. In both taste and health benefits, this is a far cry from all natural sea salt, which can enhance the flavors in your cooking as well as add depth and texture to your food. Some benefits of all natural sea salt:
- Contains more flavor than table salt, so less is needed than regular table salt
- Has trace minerals from the sea that are very beneficial to your health
- Is “natural” and therefore unrefined, unbleached, and free of additives
When picking out a sea salt:
- Look for labels that say “all natural”
- It should have no additives such as iodine or anti-caking agents
- All natural sea salt is typically white in color, and is a relatively dry crystal. It may resemble table salt in appearance, but the taste and quality is noticeably superior.
A note about iodine: Although iodine is a necessary supplement for a healthy diet, it is very easy to get enough of it from natural food sources, and it is not necessary to add it to sea salt.
Coarse Grain or Fine Grain?
Many people buy a coarse sea salt grain for grinding over their food. However, unlike pepper, grinding salt does not make it taste more “fresh,” or any different than having it in a finer grain. This is simply dependent on a buyer’s preference.
French Sea Salts
France has long been considered the authority on harvesting and producing fine sea salts. The best French salts are hand harvested in the Guérande region of France from clay-lined evaporation ponds. The two most popular varieties are Fleur de Sel (“Flower of Salt”), and Sel Gris (“Grey Salt”). These salts both have a slightly moist texture to them, and look and feel very different from standard table salt.
Fleur de Sel is often called the “caviar of salts” and is considered to be the finest salt in the world. It is hand-harvested from the top of salt ponds, during only the most pristine weather conditions. This highly treasured salt has a special flake texture unique to Fleur de Sel, which helps it dissolve quickly, delivering full and balanced flavor. This salt is best sprinkled over a dish just before serving.
Sel Gris, a French staple, is often referred to as a “poor man’s Fleur de Sel” because it is more common than the exclusive Fleur de Sel. Sel Gris comes from the interior of the salt ponds, where the clay gives the salt its beautiful grey color as well as an exceptional mineral content. Sel Gris has the same moist texture of Fleur de Sel, but is available in a selection of grain sizes to fit every cooking purpose. This salt is best used for everyday cooking and baking.
Flavored Sea Salts
Flavored sea salt is an innovative way to enhance your food, but the best flavored sea salts will not contain any unnecessary additives. For example, “lemon sea salt” should simply list “sea salt” and “lemon” as the ingredients. Just like unflavored all natural sea salt, avoid flavored salts with additives or anti-caking agents.
Because salt is a mineral, the United States currently does not offer an organic certification for it. Other countries have organic certification programs, so it is possible to purchase salt that is organically certified in other countries (although it would still not be considered organic in the United States). However, sea salt that is all natural, with no additives (anti-caking agents, iodine, etc.) can be used in products labeled organic in the United States.