Ask any chef which ingredient he couldn’t live without and you’re likely to get the same response—salt. The reason is simple: sharp-tasting salt makes the flavor of food pop.
All salts come either from the sea or from salt mines. Mined salts are found in dried-up salt lakes all over the world. Already in crystal form, this type of salt is easier to extract, more common and less expensive than sea salt, which has to be evaporated from seawater. While every dining room on the planet now seems to have a shaker of salt on the table, the crystalline condiment was once a hotter commodity. Roman soldiers were paid in salt; in the Moorish markets, an ounce of salt went for an ounce of gold; and in Japan, salt was given as a gift to the gods.
In recent years, salt has been elevated to its glory days (though thankfully you won’t need to melt down your 24-carat gold rings to pay for it). Hordes of varieties with different textures and flavors lend distinctive characteristics to your dishes. But with so many types available, figuring out which one to use can be confusing.
Dry your (salty) tears. This guide to the most common salt varieties will help you figure out what they are and when to use them.
What it is: a fine-grained refined salt sold with or without added iodine
Taste: refining removes the natural minerals, which makes table salt sharp and salty
Texture: additives like magnesium carbonate are added to make it stay fine and clump-free
Use it for: baking, where exact amounts matter, and in salt shakers
What it is: a course-grained salt without additives widely used by chefs
Taste: mineral with a salty zing that’s milder than table salt
Use it for: cooking. Keep in mind that the density of kosher salt means that you’ll likely need about ¼ teaspoon more than what a recipe calls for
What it is: the salt that remains after evaporating seawater
Taste: slightly briny and mineral-like
Texture: fine grain, coarse or flakes
Use it for: the finishing touch on freshly cooked food. I love crushing the delicate Maldon flakes over a dish just before serving.
What it is: a sea salt hand-harvested from marshes in Brittany, France, and evaporated solely by the sun
Taste: mineral-rich with a mellow, sweet and salty flavor
Use it for: cooking and finishing special meals (the 2,000-year-old process and the exclusive location make it pricey)
What it is: a fine-grain salt without additives used to brine pickles, sauerkraut and turkey
Taste: concentrated saltiness
Texture: fine grained
Use it for: brining. If a brine recipe calls for kosher salt, use less, as pickling salt is saltier
Fleur de sel
What it is: my favorite salt! When the sun and wind are just right, the salt blooms like a flower on the surface of coastal ponds off the coast of Brittany, France, where it’s collected by hand
Taste: delicate mineral
Texture: crystalline and a little moist
Use it for: finishing special dishes (it’s not cheap). With it’s delicate flavor, this salt shines best when sprinkled over simply flavored foods like sliced heirloom tomatoes or corn on the cob.