Salt is salt, right? Well, yes and no — especially when it comes to finishing a dish.
For most of my cooking life, I was of the opinion that all salt was the same. Then I began pickling things and making charcuterie, and I learned that most table salt contains iodide and anti-caking agents that will impart an off taste to preserved food. So I switched to kosher salt and left it at that.
All this talk about flavors in salt, that one is so much better than the next left a bad taste in my mouth. The descriptions of these Gucci salts sounded like parodies of bad wine reviews. “Delicately fun, sprightly and reminiscent of candy corn and hay.” Fer chrissake people, salt is sodium chloride! Do you reallymean to tell me that your sodium chloride tastes better than mine? Sheesh.
Then, one day, my friends began giving me fancy salts — probably as a joke. The first one I received was salish, a smoked salt from the Pacific Northwest that was so strong even a few grains would add smoke flavor to a dish. More than a few grains will make food taste like the inside of a barbecue. I reckon it will take me a lifetime to go through my 9-ounce jar. But still, I was intrigued by what those few grains could do. I could now add smoke flavor to otherwise delicate foods, without having to fire up my smoker.
My next salts were Hawaiian, a black lava salt and one mixed with and orangey-red clay called alaea. These salts don’t taste much different from regular salt, but I like their ability to add interest and color to a plate: Both salts look great on contrasting food, especially white food. A little bright red alaea or black salt on a white cream sauce looks very cool.
I also noticed something else about these Hawaiian salts: They were harder than regular salt, so they stayed crunchy longer.
I was perfectly happy with my little salt collection until I opened a book by Mark Bitterman called Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral. I’d met Mark before, in Portland, where he runs a remarkable shop called The Meadow. The Meadow is home to perhaps the world’s greatest collection of salts, and Bitterman’s book is both a walk through these salts and is a call to arms for cooks to take this element more seriously in the kitchen.
Apparently what I did not know about salt could indeed fill a book, and I read Bitterman’s tome from cover to cover. Afterwards, I immediately bought several more salts to play with:
- A French fleur de sel de Camargue, which was wet and coarse
- Sel Gris, which is another French coarse sea salt that is slightly gray from clay deposits
- An Italian fiore di sale which is a fine-grained fancy finishing salt
- A salt lightly smoked with wood from Chardonnay wine barrels
- A pink flake salt, whose grains looked like little pyramids
- And a large container of fine-grain sea salt from Trapani, in southern Italy. Bitterman said this is a good everyday salt to replace kosher.
I messed around with all these salts for several months. Having done so, I have become a convert to Bitterman’s way of thinking. Salt matters. A lot.
Yes, it is true that sodium chloride is roughly 98 percent of all salts. But that 2 percent cancreate discernible differences in flavor. Bitterman does get carried away with his descriptions of the various salts — he describes the smoked Chardonnay salt as having a flavor that is “oak with grass and spice.” Uh, not so sure about that. But it is a wonderfully subtle smoked salt that I find far more useful tool than the salish, which is a sledgehammer.
I used the smoked Chardonnay salt recently for a dish I am really proud of, a dinner-party main course of seared Canada goose breast, sous-vide butternut squash, pureed sunchokes and pomegranate seeds. I used the smoked Chardonnay salt to bring it all together. The gentle smoke flavor from the salt really made the dish.
As for that fiore di sale from Cervia, Bitterman says it is sweet and almost fruity — and I have to say I agree with him. Frankly, I was shocked to pick up something other than saltiness in an unflavored salt. Something in this Italian salt that is not sodium chloride is giving it this flavor. What it is, I don’t know, but fiore di sale from Cervia has become my go-to salt for fancy or delicate dishes.
Bitterman’s book includes another revelation: The importance of water in your salt. Yes, water. Good salt, apparently, has a relatively high water content. Several of the salts I received from The Meadow were practically slushy. Water content matters because without it, the salt attacks the surface moisture of the foods its put on and dries them out. This is great with charcuterie, but not so great on, say, the skin of a partridge.
Bitterman’s book includes a recipe for salt-crusted partridge, bless his heart, so I decided to conduct an experiment: I’d encase one bird in kosher salt, the other in sel gris, as Bitterman suggests.
It worked. The bird baked in the sel gris crust came out moister and, oddly, the skin was crispier than the one cooked in kosher salt. It was not wishful thinking, either. The difference was obvious. Now sel gris is not as cheap as kosher salt, but it’s nothing like the expense of a good finishing salt. I reckon the salt crust on the partridge cost me about $2, which isn’t so bad.
But the varying flavors in all these fancy salts are subtle; I suspect only an expert like Bitterman can discern most of them. Flavor, however, is not the greatest contribution a finishing salt brings to a dish: it’s texture. If I put three different salts, each with a different degree of coarseness, on three identical steaks, you would be amazed at the differences.
- A coarse, crunchy fleur de sel will add a muscular bite to the flavor of the meat. It is primal, and screams of the outdoors.
- Flake salt crackles in your mouth when you eat it, creating the impression of a brittle, crunchy crust on the meat. It’s a little bit more refined a feeling, like remembering campfire eating without actually being outdoors.
- Fine grain sea salt, like the Italian fiore di sale, will rest on your steak like snow on a sunny day. It will offer just the slightest zing of saltiness as it dissolves. This is white-linen dining, folks.
Bitterman offers a salt for every occasion, from salads (flake salts) to fish (Japanese salts) to pork (Hawaiian black lava salt). He even offers some salts to avoid, notably the mass-produced “sea salt” extracted from the salt flats of San Francisco. He describes the flavor as “flat dullness.” As to what foods this salt matches well with? “None.” Ouch.
So what’s the bottom line here? Salt is an easy way to elevate your cooking, and every decent cook should have several in the kitchen at all times.
Although Bitterman would cringe, I still recommend using kosher salt when you are using lots of it, such as blanching vegetables or cooking pasta. The exception to that would be when you bake meats or vegetables in salt; then use sel gris.
Use a smoked salt to add a rustic flavor to otherwise fancy dishes. Smoked salt is fantastic with wild game, fatty fish, fried potatoes, even chocolate ice cream. I use two kinds: Salish, for a seriously smoky flavor, and the smoked Chardonnay salt for delicate dishes.
Buy two finishing salts, one coarse and one fine. You can’t go wrong with the fiore di sale from Cervia for a fine salt, and the various French fleur de sels are great for coarse salt.
Finally, I’d have a flake salt kicking around — especially if you are into salads. Maldon Sea Salt is a good choice. This salt will liven up all sorts of leafy greens, and it is wonderful on delicate fish, melons, even foie gras.
Best part? These fancy salts won’t ever go bad, so you can use them for years. After all, salt is just a rock. Remember?