How to Use the Right Salt for Every Occasion
Who knew that salt could be so complicated. It’s white. It's tiny. You have legitimate reason to gripe if there's not a little of it available at your table in a restaurant, which is not something you can say about curry powder, cayenne pepper, or even Sriracha. Salt's like your mother's love, or that thing your girlfriend does -- it's so common in life we rarely stop to think about its complexity.
But seriously, if you want to earn those hipster salad forceps you bought yourself last summer, you’ve got to get your salt knowledge on. Not all salts are created equal, and knowing which to use when can make the difference between a competent meal and a meal people keep bothering you to make for them over and over again.
Before we get started, you need to be hip on two genres of salt: ingredient salts and finishing salts.
- Ingredient salts are used for regular cooking, or for shaking out on top of something you want to ruin. They generally have smaller grains, and dissolve during the cooking process.
- Finishing salts you sprinkle on top of something as part of both preparation and presentation. These salts tend to be larger, and often have an interesting color or shape.
Refined table salt
This is what you probably think of when you think salt. It's pretty much pure NaCl, and considered blander and more bitter than other kinds of salts due to the purification process. You can get it in iodized and uniodized forms. Iodized salt is sprayed after purification with a coating of iodine, which became a thing during the depression when people started developing goiter due to iodine deficiency (think fluoride in your water).
Use it on: Anything, for a safe and reliable option. You can't screw up recipes using table salt. It's what most recipes are written for.
This is the salt that’s used in making other things kosher. It should really be called koshering salt. You probably know koshering salt from pretzels or your margarita glass, where it's used as a finisher. It's big. It's flakey. It's cleaner-tasting, smoother, and significantly saltier than other salts. This has to do with the shape of the grains, which puts more surface area in contact with your tongue than other shapes.
Use it on: Everything, according to Alton Brown. Use it especially on dishes with a little sprinkled salt for garnish, since the larger grains make it look cooler. If you replace table salt with kosher as an ingredient salt, dial back the amount by ¼ to start to account for the stronger saltiness.
Most salt comes from mines, but sea salt comes from -- drumroll -- the sea. Pools of seawater are dried, and the salty residue is collected, then processed to give you cooking salt. Unlike mined salt, which is refined, sea salts make a point of keeping the trace elements to give the salt more nutritive minerals and different flavors. This stuff comes in more varieties than most other options.
First you have to choose flaky or grain sea salts. Though some cooks make a huge deal of the difference, mostly just know to use grain salts as ingredients, and flaky salts as a finisher.
Second, you have to decide which sea you got the salt from. Red and black Hawaiian, French, Welsh, Italian, and gros sel are all popular sea salt "brands." Every one of them claims some special quality that makes it the superior salt for some local dish. Sometimes, people who aren’t poseurs claim to taste the difference. Sometimes, those people are lying.
Use it on: Whatever the brand combination calls for. Gros sel is said to be great as a crusting salt when making fish, while red Hawaiian goes well with pork. You can read any sales guide for your sea salt brands to get started.
Three guesses what color this stuff is. It’s a moist sea salt, meaning not all the water has been removed, so it comes either caked up or as a slush, and contains a fair bit of clay. "Real" grey salt is collected using traditional Celtic tools and techniques, except for the slave labor and dysentery parts (we think). It’s gotten a lot of press of late from one celebrity chef or another, and does offer a different look and feel from most other salts you’ll find at your local expensive specialty grocery.
Use it on: Whatever the grain size demands. Coarse-grain grey salts are good for finishing. Fine grey salts (ground with real stone mortars and pestles, natch) replace your table salt as an ingredient. You can even get "velvet-grain" grey salts to sprinkle on trail mix or popcorn (bring your own if your local movie theater doesn’t stock big-ass buckets of salt that cost a whole paycheck). It’s so fine you get only the flavor, not the grainy texture.
Name-brand artisan salts
Because sooner or later the marketing flacks and hipsters come in to ruin everything, we now have specialized, name-brand salts. Most claim to be absolutely perfect for one damn thing or another. Most of the time, it's about the same difference as between Nike and Reebok, but if you try some and find them different, who are we to tell you you’re wrong? A few of the more common name-brand salts include:
Not a variety of dispensary weed (well, not just that), it’s pulled from ancient sea-salt deposits in Pakistan. You can use it as an ingredient or finisher, or buy a slab to use for serving food on, which is the preferred use for elk in Williamsburg.
Fleur de sel
One of the original name-brand salts, they make this stuff by scraping the surface of grey salt pools so the grains don’t get contaminated by the muck on the sides. Use it on pretty much anything, if you can afford the top-shelf-brand price.
An unrefined pink salt with a pungent odor. It goes well with eggs, and is part of the flavor profile for authentic lassi drinks, if you’re a stickler for that.
Mixed with activated charcoal, it’s sold as a detox agent to idiots. It also has a strong crunch, and can look pretty badass sprinkled over a light-colored dish like zucchini or whitefish.
Jacobsen's sea salt
Out of (of course) Portland, OR, Jacobsen’s is pretty much on every upscale menu in town (yes, Portland really does put the kind of salt its dishes use on menus). Honey salt. Lemon zest salt. Pinot noir salt. Basically, you can do this all day, like Bubba, but with high blood pressure instead of elevated levels of iodine.
Deeper into the salt mine
This is only the tip of the salt iceberg, folks. Besides regular salts, you have a whole range of seasoned and smoked salts -- which are either mined with flavorful impurities or have extras added after refinement. You also have pickling, rock, and bath salts. Pickling salts are, unsurprisingly, for pickling foods. Rock salt is lubricant for your homemade ice cream. You take bath salts so human faces are delicious.
Our point is that salt is a whole new way to get your geek on with your cooking. Like all true cooking adventures, your job is to branch out and experiment. Find out what you like best, or what impresses your girlfriend’s parents most, and, to quote the poets at Frank's RedHot, "put that shit on everything."
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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and awesome dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of awesome, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at brickcommajason.com.