The Basics: Who is Salt

Sunday July 19, 2015

Salt has become one of my most interesting posts. It is an important addition to food, accenting and balancing the natural flavors in food.  While there is a lot of bad press nutritionally about salt, it is vital to good health and fundamental to the proper functioning of the entire body since it is the element that moves oxygen through our bloodstream and muscles.

All foods contain inherent salt  (as sodium) in some degree, which needs to be taken into account when determining the amount of seasoning.

Salt makes food taste better by the simple chemistry of increasing the electrical charge in the water content contained within the food, thus releasing the aroma molecules and giving the palate the sensation of concentrated flavor. Isn’t that totally cool? A bit of salt is nice; too much salt leaves a bitter quality.  A lack of salt is very noticeable as it is noticeable as an overall flat taste in the final cooked dish. Add some soy sauce or perhaps some Parmesan cheese, and the salty element is introduced and the flavor lifted.

A big pot of boiling water in which to cook pasta needs some salt. Roasts in the oven, both meat or vegetables, do well to be salted before cooking. Bread needs some salt to counterbalance the yeast both in flavor and in tempering the gluten strands. Without it, bread is just not right. In slow cooker cooking, very few recipes call for salt in the beginning of cooking, but the majority call for it at the end so you can taste and make your adjustments at that time.  This is because the flavors in slow cooking become more concentrated during the long cook times and salt, as with other seasonings, will intensify.  Stirring in the salt at the end of cooking gives it time to “melt” into the dish and harmonize the flavors.  Always add the salt for beans at the end of cooking, no matter what method, otherwise they will toughen and never cook to the desired soft texture.

If your ingredients contain capers, anchovy paste, olives, fish sauce, miso, preserved lemon, ham or bacon, Parmesan cheese, or soy sauce, take care adding salt; you may not need any since these ingredients are salty in nature.  Some vegetables, such as eggplant and greens are salted before cooking to draw out their bitterness. A little known appetizer pairs fresh cherry tomatoes with sea salt and a shallow bowl of vodka (one of those little bottles) for dipping; its a rave combo.  A pinch of salt makes sweet food taste better, such as in Indian style lassi smoothies; a tiny pinch of salt goes in with the fruit and yogurt. One of the most powerfully effective daily regularity tips is half a lemon in a glass of warm water with a pinch of salt. It is part of detox routines as well.

There are a number of excellent salts used in the good cook’s pantry, not restricted to regular table salt anymore, although regular salt is a fine ingredient to use in our recipes. Look at salt as you would your other ingredients–with a discerning palate and with respect to availability.  Fine iodized table salt (mechanically removed from rock-salt deposits with potassium iodine and magnesium silicate added to prevent caking), kosher salt (which is mined, but contains no additives), and fine sea salt (from saline deposits at the edge of the sea) can be used interchangeably. Take a chance and experiment with the flavor of salt like you would any other premium ingredient. Many salts come mixed with specialty herb blends as well. Depending on where it is harvested and the brand, salt varies widely in price. But what is the difference between Morton’s salt, sea salt, and kosher salt? Here are the most easily found salts on the market today so you will know how to buy salt. All these salts are available from Amazon.com unless noted.

Table Salt

Also called iodized salt, this is common sodium chloride, and is identified by generations in the blue box with the little girl with the umbrella. This is actually a processed form of salt, chemically cleaned, that is not recognized by our bodies and contains chemicals. Table salt is heated to 1200ºF and contains additives to make it free-flowing. Ferrocyanide, talc, and silica aluminate are just some of the chemicals added. It lacks the essential trace minerals, which are the components of real salt that we need to survive. It is available in every supermarket and of a fine consistency. It is shaped like very tiny cubes from the grinding process and blended with calcium silicate to prevent caking and clumping. Table salt is usually about 99 percent pure and, since it is not required to list it’s source, it can be mined or sea salt from evaporation ponds. It can also be bought as plain salt without the iodine added. The name in table salt is Morton’s.

In the end, generic table “salt” ends up being about 97.5% sodium chloride and a 2.5% balance containing an array of ingredients including:
Anti-caking chemicals.
Iodine to prevent goiters.
MSG and/or white processed sugar to help stabilize the iodine.
And aluminum derivatives such as sodium solo-co-aluminate.

Sea Salt

Brittany salt ponds

Sea salt is evaporated seawater that has been purified and somewhat of a hot craze in culinary circles since it has a variety of flavors, even labeled “tasty,” due to the traces of minerals.  Sun-evaporated, unrefined sea salts retain their complementary minerals, calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which give a distinct flavor reminiscent of the sea.  Trace minerals are often found in different sea salts, making it a favorite of cooks who are concerned with health as well as flavor. It is in high demand today. Today fewer than 50% of salt producers remain holding the knowledge of traditional methods of production.

Sea salt is most notably imported from Atlantic coast of Brittany, where it is laboriously hand harvested. But it is gathered from many other places in the world as well since salt is so important for seasoning food and health in hot climates. It is considered an artisan food and the saunier or paludier (male salt harvester) is an ancient profession.

The salt which is produced in the greatest volume is called either sel gris (gray salt) or gros sel (large-crystal salt).  It’s what you get when the water evaporates from the salt pond, so it’s composed of the various salts in seawater plus a little of the clay from the bottom and edges of the pond (that’s why it’s gray). 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. It’s used for cooking. And unlike kosher salt, which pulls moisture out of foods, sel gris makes a solid finishing salt. Celtic Sea Salt, touted by the macrobiotic community for its health-giving properties and easy assimilation, is an intriguing pale gray; it is the layer below the fleur de sel.

Celtic Grey Salt ponds/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.

The small volume, more expensive salt is called fleur de sel (flower of salt). Trappist monks on the French Atlantic were the first to harvest fleur de sel. Fleur de sel, the “flower of salt” that is the top layer in sun-evaporation pans is so coveted, that the pretty white crystals are simply sprinkled on top of the food, such as your fresh slow cooked beans. It’s produced when a warm wind blows over a salt pond which has evaporated enough to have a fairly high saline content, which is quite romantic in foodie terms.  The wind causes a film of salt to form on top of the water.  This is harvested by skimming it off the surface. 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. In composition it’s not just dried seawater – the process results in higher concentrations of magnesium, for example, and lower concentrations of sodium than in seawater.  Fleur de sel can be used for cooking, but it’s more often used to season food after it’s cooked to retain its subtle nature since it doesn’t melt easily.  After you use it for a while, regular table salt really lacks the subtle dimension, tasting quite briny.

Brands of Sea Salt Tell of The Origin

Fleur de Sel de Guerande, from Brittany, is considered the very best tasting sea salt and is available from King Arthur Catalog. Guerande salt is often used by name in caramels it is so famous. The Guérandais salt producers have an interesting web site:  http://www.seldeguerande.fr/index.php (and there is an English translation).

Fleur de Del de Camargue comes from lush Mediterranean marshes in the South of France, where warm sun form a crust of rare fine white salt flakes. Every harvest is unique and is labeled with the name of the master salt raker. Fleur de Sel de Camargue should be sprinkled by hand over foods just before serving to best appreciate its fine crystalline texture and special savor.

Anglesey sea salt is a flake salt taken from the water off the west coast of Wales around the Isle of Anglesey. This salt is shaped like snowflakes. The salt brine is produced by the wind and the sun in the evaporation process. Once the brine is obtained, it is heated slowly and smoked over Welsh oak chips creating the Champagne-colored flakes.

Maldon sea salt comes from Atlantic waters near the Maldon region of Essex in England where it has been produced since the Middle Ages. This light, delicate-flavored salt is created by waves washing up over the rocks and leaving pools of water that are evaporated by the sun. Maldon salt remains on the rocks in large thin flat crystals that can be used whole or ground for preserving food or for seasoning.

Celtic Sea Salt® is comparable to Himalayan crystal salt in its composition and health benefits. Being of a grayish hue, it is naturally harvested in Brittany France near the Celtic Sea using a 2,000-year old Celtic method that is crucial to preserving its life-giving nutrition profile. It is considered theraputic as well as a food enhancer.

But, there are many more salts now available harvested from the world’s oceans; each has a different mineral content, subtle flavor, color, and shapes of the crystals. The sea salts most often contain no preservatives or anti-caking agents so they will look clumpy.  Each has its own sublime taste. It comes in alluring muted colors such as grey, white, pink, or red, depending on the seawater from which it was harvested. Due to variable algal concentrations, vivid colors – from pale green to bright red – are created in the evaporation ponds. The color indicates the salinity of the ponds.

There is salt from Sicily and the coast land of Mauritius off Africa. Other brands include Tidman’s from the coast of Spain and Le Paludier from Brittany; the salt is often delicate flakes or colored like the local seaweed. Ducros of Provence markets sea salt in its own disposable grinder.

Black Lava Salt from Hawaii and the black salt of Cyprus, and is a blend of sea salt and purified volcanic charcoal. This salt is evaporated in above-ground pools that are formed naturally from lava flows. Activated charcoal is added for its detoxifying effects as an anti-toxin and digestive-tract palliative; many take it as a nutritional supplement. Black lava salt has an unforgettable aroma and important health benefits from the charcoal in lava. Its striking color and great smoky notes make it a great finishing salt for any dish. Try it in a simple tomato sauce.

Hawaiian Red Alaea, once used only in religious rituals by the native inhabitants of these islands, the legendary medicinal clay laden with healthful benefits. The red clay imparts the sea salt its russet color and earthy mineral flavor. The color is derived from the high content of iron oxide in the red volcanic clay called alaea. The alaea seeps into the ocean around the island of Kauai from inland rivers. When the red ocean water from tidal pools evaporates, alaea sea salt is the result. It is naturally unprocessed and has important health benefits linked to the mineral content of the product. Alaea has an earthy but delicate mineral flavor that is saltier but also mellower than regular salt. Great on cold and hot salads. Exceptional on mild aged cheese, dark chocolate desserts.

My newest salt is Pangasinan Star fleur de sel or Ilocano Asin Philippine Sea Salt. This is a hand harvested sea salt from the Pangasinan region of the Republic of the Philippines. Pangasinans salt’s

Pangasinan Star fleur de del

crystals are an exaggerated version of fleur de sel, with lush, almost billowy crystals that goad the senses to explore beyond the safe boundaries of our accustomed salts. Following a sensuous crunch, you will discover a flavor that is rich and a body that is voluptuous. This is a sea salt that can be used virtually anywhere, and is a great replacement for anyone seeking a change from the stalwart but more sedate finishing salts such as fleur de sel. The name Pangasinan translates to “land of salt” or “place where salt is made,” and refers to the province at the northern end of central Luzon.  The Philippine salt industry thrived until the early 1990s. With ratification of the GATT agreement, cheap imports effectively led to the collapse of the local salt industry. Pangasinan star Philippine sea salt is hand harvested by small, artisan salt producers working in their ancestral salt fields. Seawater is evaporated throughout the intensely hot day, and then raked into baskets in the afternoon sun.

The Pink Pangasinan salt derives its natural pink color from the sugpo shrimp. An appealing briny interplay of flavors support a sharp primal taste spurred by a firm lively saline structure. Its crunchy texture from hollow, pyramid crystals stimulate the palate and imparts a sense of ineffable firmness. This is a full-bodied salt, yet it wears its weight gracefully—a true flavor enhancer for fowl, fin, and swine, regardless of preparation.

The White Pangasinan salt is wonderfully bright, clean, crisp flavors powered by underlying minerals. Texture is crunchy from hollow, pyramid crystals allowing the salt to adhere on the surface of foods and pleasantly covering the palate. Use for grilling, roasting and finishing to boost all foods from sweet (top that caramel or truffle) to savory. Fleeting on the palate, use liberally without restriction.

Infused Sea Salt

Take the sea salt process described above, and add herbs, spices, dried truffles or whatever your non-iodized heart desires. Wood-smoked salts are used as finishing salts. Infusions rely heavily on the caliber of the added ingredient, so look for high-quality producers and AOC or DOP designations. Celtic Sea Salt offers an array of sesame sea salts (gomasio) including one containing flax.

Because of the life-giving nutrition sea salt contains:
Contains 60 trace minerals which help you stay hydrated.
Sufficient sodium levels that help balance your sodium-potassium ratios.
Powerful electrolytes like magnesium for electrolyte balance.
Trace elements required for proper adrenal, immune and thyroid function.
Digestive enzyme enhancers, which help your body absorb more nutrients from the foods that you eat.

Grinds of Sea Salt

Sea salt comes in fine and coarse textures, and are often marketed with a miniature marble mortar and pestle as well.  There are two types of sea salts on the market: fine-grind and flaked. I prefer fine sea salt for everyday use, such as La Baleine, an iodized sun-evaporated fine sea salt from the Mediterranean that contains no preservatives or anti-caking agents which has been owned by Morton’s since 1996, so it is often easily available in supermarkets.  If you buy sea salt, you want fine-crystal, which is a bit finer than table salt, or medium-crystal, which is ground like regular table salt.  The coarse salts, usually for sprinkling after a food is cooked or atop a candy, must be ground in a salt grinder or mortar and pestle before being added to cooking liquid.

pyramid shaped grains of Cyprus sea salt/www.wmsonoma.com

Mined Volcanic Salt

Some salts are downright exquisite and many specialty salts are mined in volcanos, such as in India and the Andes. Kala Namak (or Black Salt) comes from the Himalayan Mountains in India and has been used for centuries in Indian cuisine as cooking and finishing salt. The salt crystals appear black/violet in color, and are usually ground to a fine powder which is pink in color. When ground into the small crystals or powder, it actually changes color to pink. It has very unusual smoky aroma due to sulphur and iron mineral content. In addition to the supreme taste it also has some exceptional health benefits. In India black salt is recommended for people with high blood pressure and for people who are on low-salt diets, because it is lower in sodium and does not increase sodium content in the blood. It is also know for comforting intestinal gas and heartburn. It is also considered a cooling spice in ayurvedic medicine which uses this salt as a digestive. Great on: yogurt, cheese, cucumbers, watermelon, and mangoes, and use in chutneys.

coarse himalayan pink salt

Himalayan Pink Salt is considered a health food product. Himalayan Pink Salt is a pure, hand-mined in the Salt Mountains of Pakistan and India, encased in snow and ice most of

the year. It is then hand-crushed, hand-washed, and dried in the sun. It is believed to be the purest form of salt available. All the 84 elements within the pink salt have been preserved as they existed in the ancient oceans. It has never been exposed to environmental pollution! The high mineral crystals range in color from sheer white, varying shades of pink, to deep reds, the result of high mineral and iron content. Himalayan Salt is considered to be the most pure form of whole salt on the planet. Having never been exposed to impurities, and protected deep within the Himalayans for millions and millions of years, it was formed from the primordial ocean during a time of great tectonic pressure. Himalayan Pink Salt was originally formed from marine fossil deposits over 250 million years ago during the Jurassic era. Wow.  Harvested from ancient sea beds, this rare and extraordinary salt has been a valuable commodity for centuries. This is important today, as even the highest quality sea salts come from current ocean waters that can contain heavy metals and harmful pollutants and differ greatly from Himalayan Salt. It is also known as pink salt, Himalayan pink salt, Himalayan sea salt, or Himalayan crystal salt.  Himalayan Pink Salt is used by holistic chefs, spas, health professionals, and individuals for its range of nutritional and therapeutic properties.  Pink salt may be used in the same manner as table salt for culinary dishes and baking, but it is purer and higher in mineral content. It is very fine. Externally, pink salt can be used to stimulate circulation, relax the body, lower blood pressure, balances electrolytes, sooth sore muscles, and remove toxins from the body.  Use Himalayan Pink Salt in bath salt recipes, body scrubs, aromatherapy, homemade soap, and for all types of culinary and spa applications for skin rashes or psoriasis.

kosher salt

Kosher Salt

There are a lot of recipes that call for 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. Kosher salt (which is mined, but contains no additives) is preferred by many cooks for its purity and more mild salty flavor. It is considered about as half as salty as table salt. Since it is a coarse pyramid-shape flake, it needs to be dissolved properly in liquid or ground in a small mortar and pestle before adding to the cooking liquid.  Many restaurants use it for everyday cooking and baking, and it is a staple ingredient in Jewish cuisine.

Rock Salt

Rock salt is a very coarse salt and not purified, so it is not suitable for cooking purposes.  It is used in ice cream machines, as a bed for raw and cooked seafood, and on snowy roads to prevent slipping.  I have seen a cook from Latin America without salt use rock salt for cooking and it made for a very raw salty flavor, but no one got sick.

Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2005, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.

Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015

If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

The best sel gris is harvested on the Atlantic coast of France.


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