Food & Drink

Salts of the earth

Some salts, like standard table salt, work well in cooking or at the table. Some, such as coarse sea salt, are best enjoyed as a finishing touch.  (Larry Crowe / The Associated Press)
Some salts, like standard table salt, work well in cooking or at the table. Some, such as coarse sea salt, are best enjoyed as a finishing touch. (Larry Crowe / The Associated Press)

Salt used to be so simple. Now recipes are very specific about types, grinds and flavors. Anyone who does a lot of home cooking needs a whole kitchen shelf to hold all the varieties. Here's a salt primer to help you figure it all out.

Salt comes from two sources: It is either mined from the ground or taken from evaporated seawater. The most common salt is mined.

TABLE SALT: This is what most of us fill our salt shakers with. It's fine-grained with additives that keep it from clumping together. Some connoisseurs believe the additives affect the flavor of the salt.

IODIZED SALT: In the olden days, it was common for people to have hypothyroidism, which is caused by lack of natural iodine in the diet. Iodine was added to salt to prevent that problem.

KOSHER SALT: This is a coarse-grained salt that contains no additives. It is often used in Jewish cooking, especially when preparing meat. Many cooks prefer it because it is pure salt flavor. For some recipes, it may be necessary to grind it to a finer texture.

SEA SALT: This salt is made from evaporated seawater. It comes in several crystal sizes. You might find solar sea salt, which means the water was slowly evaporated by sun exposure and the salt has been collected by hand.

CELTIC SALT: This is solar sea salt from northern France. Connoisseurs say it has a slightly sweet flavor.

ROCK SALT: This type is in large chunks. It sometimes has a gray look because it is not refined and it contains minerals. It is used primarily for decoration or for making hand-cranked ice cream.

PICKLING SALT: This is very finely grained salt that has no additives. It is used for pickling because it stays clear when added to liquids.

SEASONED SALT: This is salt combined with dried herbs and spices, such as onion or garlic.

In addition to these basic salts, there are exotic salts such as Bolivian rose, French fleur de sel, smoked salt or even Hawaiian salt.

The difference in the flavors and colors depends on the type of mineral that is found in the salt or flavors added in the processing. The red Hawaiian salt, for example, contains small amounts of clay.

When a recipe just lists salt in the ingredients, use table salt such as Morton, and it doesn't matter if it is iodized or not. In general, you can use salts interchangeably in recipes as long as the size of the crystals is similar. Pickling salt, for example, is so fine that if you substitute it for coarse-grain sea salt and do not adjust the measurement, you will end up with far too much salt flavor. If you have coarse-grain salt and your recipe calls for regular table salt, you can use the coarse-grain, but you should crush or grind it before measuring.

Also keep in mind that if you substitute an exotic salt, such as smoked sea salt, for table salt, the smoke flavor will come through in your recipe.

If you are interested in trying some exotic salt, check the Salt Works Web site at www.saltworks.us. You will be amazed at the types and flavors that are available.

— The Sacramento Bee
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