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A Chef’s Guide to 15 Types of Salt

SheKnows logo SheKnows 2018-09-05 Heather Barnett
a close up of a logo: A Chef’s Guide to 15 Types of Salt © Ashley Britton/SheKnows. A Chef’s Guide to 15 Types of Salt

The history of salt is intertwined with the history of humanity, and for good reason. Not only has salt been used for thousands of years to preserve foods, especially meats, prior to the availability of refrigeration, it's also one of our five basic tastes (along with sweet, sour, bitter and savory, aka umami, though others have been proposed).

The simplest of our five tastes, salt reigns supreme — actually enhancing or minimizing our other taste senses, according to BBC's Science Focus.  

And while all salts are chemically similar, they aren't all created equal. They all make their own unique contributions to our culinary endeavors. Additives like iodine lend a slightly metallic taste to table salt, but differences in texture — the actual size and shape of the salt crystals — also make a big impact on your finished recipe. For example, if you substitute table salt for kosher salt in a recipe using the same measurements, you'll quickly find that your finished product is oversalted, sometimes to the point of being inedible, due the smaller size of table salt granules.

There are also flavored salts, which are typically table salt, kosher salt or sea salt mixed with other flavors: Think garlic salt, onion salt and season salt. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to good old NaCl.

Before you break out those fancy new salts, take a look at this quick guide to all the salts available and what you can (and should) use them for, and below, all the info you need, like where they come from and how they're made.

a close up of a blue wall: Salt infographic © Provided by Penske Media Corporation Salt infographic

Rock salt

  • Also called halite
  • Formed from sodium chloride, though there may be other trace minerals in it 
  • Formed when large lakes and seas dry up and mined from the Earth from ancient salt beds that can be hundreds of meters deep 
  • Usually white but can be other colors; may contain inedible impurities 
  • While not used directly in food, it is used as a bed for certain seafoods and in the making of ice cream (and for melting the ice on certain surfaces)

Table salt

  • Also called iodized salt
  • Harvested from wells built over salt beds or via solar evaporation of water
  • Refined to contain 97 to 99 percent sodium chloride and fortified in the U.S. with added iodine, an essential mineral many people don't get enough of 
  • Dissolves quickly and is a good all-purpose seasoning; the most common salt called for in baking 

Kosher salt

  • "Kosher" refers to its original role in koshering meats by removing surface blood rather than the salt itself being kosher
  • Harvested and refined the same way as table salt, though it has a larger grain size and is rarely iodized
  • Dissolves quickly and is a good all-purpose seasoning (many chefs prefer it because the larger grains make it harder to overseason); rarely called for in baking except as a finishing salt (such as on pretzels in place of pretzel salt) 

Sea salt

  • Harvested from evaporated seawater and generally white when marketed as just "sea salt" 
  • Rarely refined, so it may contain beneficial nutrients not present in table or kosher salt; these nutrients result in a more complex flavor than refined salts 
  • Coarser grain than table salt and often more rocklike than kosher salt; larger grains may need to be ground prior to use 
  • In cooking, it can be used in place of refined salts when seasoning to taste, but not necessarily when measuring and not in baking unless specifically called for 

Himalayan pink sea salt

  • Harvested by hand from the Himalayas and varies in color from off-white to deep, almost red, pink
  • Unrefined and considered the purest salt in the world, containing 84 potentially nutritionally beneficial minerals and elements 
  • Coarser grain than table salt and often more rocklike than kosher salt; larger grains may need to be ground prior to use 
  • Boldly flavored, it works well in seasoning to taste in some dishes, including homemade butter, and as a finishing or cocktail rimming salt; slabs of it are often used for cooking because it imbues its flavor to foods and maintains heat well 

Celtic sea salt

  • Also called sel gris ("gray salt") because of its grayish color
  • Scraped from mineral-rich seawater and unrefined
  • Grains are moist and plump and have a briny flavor, making it an excellent salt for fish and some meats; can be used in baking as a finishing salt

Black Hawaiian salt

  • Also called black lava salt
  • Gets its color from the activated charcoal present in the volcanic islands it is harvested from
  • Unrefined, it is crunchy and coarse-grained 
  • Makes a good finishing salt for seafood and pork 

Red Hawaiian salt

  • Also called alaea salt
  • Harvested from seawater mixed with iron-rich volcanic clay alaea in Hawaii, which is where its deep red hue comes from
  • Brittle and crunchy, it is a flavorful and beautiful addition to seafood and salads, makes a stunning rimming salt for cocktails and a festive finishing salt for bread and desserts 

Persian blue salt

  • Harvested from an ancient lake in Iran, it's mineral-rich
  • Its blue glacial color comes from both the mineral content and the natural compression, which causes the light to refract differently
  • Slightly sweet (salt-wise) and lemony in flavor, it's recommended for fish en papillote, tomato dishes and can be used as a rimming salt for cocktails 

Kala namak

  • Nepalese for "black salt"
  • Himalayan sea salt is mixed with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark and fired in a furnace, then aged 
  • Has a reddish-black color and a pungent, egglike flavor to complement its saltiness, and as such, is often used to give vegan dishes an egglike flavor 

Smoked salt

  • Technically just a sea salt that's smoked, it can have a variety of smoky flavors depending on the wood used to smoke it (it can be as mild as applewood or as strong as hickory or mesquite — there are even bamboo-smoked salts) 
  • The flavor is intense, so it's generally best reserved for beef, heartier cuts of pork and hearty veggies (such as potatoes or cruciferous vegetables) — though applewood flavors may work well on robust seafood, such as salmon or tuna

Pickling salt

  • Also called canning salt
  • Essentially the same as table salt in terms of harvesting and refinement, it's free from the anticaking agents and iodine that can discolor preserved food
  • Used for canning or pickling, but it can also be used in place of regular salt in a pinch (though to keep it from clumping, you should put a few rice grains in the shaker) 

Fleur de sel

  • Literally means "flower of salt"; it's also called the "caviar of salts" because the intense limitations on harvesting make it one of the most expensive salts in the world 
  • A sea salt skimmed from the surface of water off the coast of Brittany, France, it is flaky and paper-thin when harvested 
  • Has a blue-gray tint from the high mineral content in the ocean it's harvested from
  • Because it doesn't dissolve quickly, it's always used as a finishing salt — for everything from seafood and vegetables to chocolate, cookies and caramel 

Flake salt

  • Like fleur de sel, it has a flakey texture and is thin
  • Harvested from saltwater through evaporation or boiling, it differs from fleur de sel in that it has a brighter salty flavor and dissolves easily 
  • Best used as a finishing salt for meat or seafood (avoid using it on sweets) 

Sour salt

  • Actually not a salt at all — it's citric acid 
  • Made by heating citrus juices and straining out the calcium citrate, adding sulfuric acid, heating and allowing the liquid to evaporate
  • Doesn't taste salty, but does add a good kick to foods 
  • Used in canning to prevent browning but can also be used to season popcorn and other foods, as a rimming salt or even sprinkled in some pilsner-style beers, in homemade lemonade mixes and cheese-making 

Sources: EcoWatchWide Open EatsMorton SaltWikipediaThe Spice HouseMaldon Salt CompanyWhat's Cooking AmericaGourmet SleuthTerre ExotiqueMy Spice SageMorton SaltKing Arthur FlourThe Fresh LoafThe Spice HouseLeaf

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