by Victoria Challancin
One of the questions I am frequently asked is “With all the varieties of salt available to today’s consumer, how do I know which to choose?” A good question. Something that was once so basic has become a quandary for diners and cooks alike. Let’s take a look at some basic facts about salt.
What is salt?
If there is one formula most of us non-scientists remember from our chemistry classes in what seems like the days of yore is NaCl, or sodium cloride, a crystalline compound that comes from the oceans. Salt is either harvested from sea water through evaporation or mined from inland deposits left by ancient seas. NaCl. Sodium Cloride. Salt. So what’s all the fuss about? The consumer now has the option to consider texture (fine, coarse, flaky), source (Hawaii, France, Wales, England, the Himalayas), color (white, gray, pink, yellow), and mineral content. Here is some basic information to help sort it out.
1) According to the American Medical Association processed foods account for 75 to 80 percent of the daily sodium intake for most Americans.
2) The sodium that naturally occurs in fresh foods accounts for another 10 percent.
3) The “discretionary” use of salt, either added at the table or during the cooking process by the cook, accounts for 5 to 10 percent of daily sodium consumption.
While the actual amount of salt you consume is of course up to you, let’s see if we can clear up the mystery about the actual type of salt you add to your food and which you can control.
There are two basic “sizes” or textures of salt created during the refining process: fine and coarse.
Fine salt, such as the table salt we all grew up with, dissolves easily and is easy to measure. This makes it perfect for general use, especially in baking where both characteristics make it practical. Often it contains iodine, which was first added to salt in the early 20th century in the United States to help prevent the widespread problem of goiters, and anti-clumping additives. The bulk of fine table salt sold today comes from salt mines, though fine sea salt with no additives is increasingly available.
Another fine-textured salt is pickling salt, which contains no additives that might cloud the pickling brine. You can also sometimes find something labeled “popcorn” salt, which is simply extremely fine salt that is perfect for popcorn, French fries, or anywhere a light dusting of salt is desired.
Coarse salts include Kosher salt, rock salt, and some sea salts. Coarse salt, which doesn’t dissolve as quickly or as easily as table salt, makes a good choice for developing a flavorful crust on meats, breads, and roasted vegetables. It is also frequently used on finished dishes to give a crunchy “bite.”
You would think that Kosher salt refers to salt that conforms to Jewish dietary laws, but this isn’t the case. Kosher salt, a term restricted in use to North America, really indicates a coarse salt that is used for koshering meats where the meats are coated in a coarse salt to help in the extraction of blood, a process thus rendering them “kosher,” or suitable for use in strict Jewish diets. Because kosher salt grains take up more space or volume than regular table salt, the amount used often has to be increased; often one and a half to twice as much kosher salt is needed in a recipe. Generally, kosher salt isn’t recommended for baking, as baking recipes do not typically require sufficient liquid to thoroughly dissolve the larger salt crystals. However, chefs often prefer kosher salt for other recipes because it doesn’t have a metallic taste, which ordinary iodized table salt has, and because its more open granular structure yields a flaky product that has pleasing, irregular particles.
Less-refined, grayish rock salt is the chunky crystal salt traditionally used in ice cream machines. Due to its size, it is not suitable for cooking, except to serve as a bed or base for roasting potatoes, serving oysters on the half shell, or encrusting meats or fish during the cooking process and removing before eating. A word of warning: Make sure rock salt is labeled “food-grade,” if using for cooking.
In today’s trendy food world, there is a glut of specialty salts, which are mainly sea salts made from the evaporated water of the oceans. These salts, which come in both fine and coarse textures, receive minimal processing which means that certain minerals are left in tact, giving the salts different colors and subtle differences in taste due to the presences of trace minerals. Before you pay the price for these exotic colored sea salts to use at home or when dining in up-scale restaurants, note that all these salts lose their unique flavors when cooked or dissolved. It is best to save them for a final garnish where their subtlety might be distinguishable.
A Few Tips for Using Salt in Cooking
- Be careful when adding salt to foods that are naturally high in sodium, such as beets, kale, chard, celery, spinach, dandelion greens, carrots, endive, corn, artichokes, and the Mexican romeritos.
- Salt also occurs naturally in all seafoods, so use additional salt sparingly and remember that salt will also toughen shellfish.
- Because the tip of the tongue is less sensitive than other parts, be sure to sample a large enough portion to cover the middle and sides of the tongue when checking the saltiness of foods while cooking.
- High heat dulls the taste buds, so be sure to cool foods a bit before tasting.
- If using high temperatures during cooking, it is a good idea to salt meat before the cooking begins. This helps to form a crust and seal in moisture as well as caramelize the natural sugars in the meat itself.
- Do not store salt in a silver salt shaker as the chlorine in salt reacts negatively with silver, causing a green discoloration.
- Salt doesn’t just enhance the other flavors of food, it has an actual chemical function in the cooking of various foods, making it essential to certain processes such as the making of bread, where it can’t be eliminated from recipes requiring yeast.
- If, when making vinaigrettes, salt is whisked into vinegar before the oil is added, the mixture will emulsify more easily.
- There are excellent quality low sodium soy sauces on the market for people who are salt sensitive or on salt-restricted diets.
- When cooking soups, stews, or any long-cooking recipe in which the evaporation process concentrates the salt flavor, add salt sparingly at the beginning of the cooking and adjust it, if necessary, at the end.
- The same thing is logically true when making reductions: salt sparingly at first, then adjust the seasoning at the end of cooking.
- Leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard have a natural high water content, much of which evaporates upon cooking. Add your salt at the end of the cooking time.
- It is better to use a coarse grain salt such as kosher salt to salad greens as fine-grained salt causes greens to wilt more quickly.
- Lemon and lime juice sharpen the flavor of salt, so be careful when adding salt to any recipes that uses such citrus juices.
For myself, I have on hand three kinds of coarse specialty sea salts for finishing certain dishes (two were gifts!), regular table salt for baking and salting pasta water, and Morton’s kosher salt in a salt caddy beside my stove for just about everything else, as I like the flaky texture and the control of sprinkling it by hand.
A Favorite Recipe Featuring Salt
I learned to make this thirst-quenching yogurt drink years ago when I lived in Abu Dhabi. Subsequent trips to India, where it is enormously popular during hot weather, taught me countless variations.
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup water or carbonated soda water
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Mint for garnish
Place all ingredients in the blender. Process until smooth. Serve over ice or in a chilled glass.
This is an extremely flexible recipe. Add any of the following to suit your taste:
3/4 to 1 teaspoon ground, dry-roasted cumin seeds (very popular in India)
3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon ground dried mint
1 serrano chile, with or without seeds
A sprig or two of fresh cilantro
More yogurt, if a thicker texture is desired
I am submitting this article and recipe to Weekend Herb Blog, established the Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen (http://kalynskitchen.blogspot.com) and hosted this week by Kel from Green Olive Tree (http://greenolivetree.blogspot.com).