A General Guide To Salts & Salting

Introduction

WE HAVE AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP with salt, grain by grain, in our fingers as a pinch, between our teeth as we bite into a crystal, on our tongue as it melts. We have salts we prefer, salts we seek out.

The variety of salts available today to cooks in the developed world would have astonished our forebears. The differences in their tastes and textures are subtle but marked. There’s the intense harsh saltiness of refined sea salt, pure white sodium chloride with all impurities removed, in contrast to the more complex taste of “raw” (unrefined) salt from land or sea, whether gray or white or pink. Coarse pickling salt has medium even crystals. Coarse sea salt crystals are generally larger, and sometimes irregular in shape. Table salt is quick to dissolve and doesn’t cake or clump. It’s worlds away in flavor and texture from the cracking, melting fragility, and delicate aroma of the flat crystals of the flake salts often referred to as fleur de sel.

What Does Salt Do?

The salt that we depend on to season our food and to maintain our health is sodium chloride; NaCl is its chemical formula. One molecule of salt is about 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chlorine by weight. In our bodies, sodium is an electrolyte that controls fluid balance and is necessary for the transmission of electrical impulses in our nerves and muscles. Sea salt or salt from underground deposits may contain small amounts (up to 10 percent) of other salts, mainly potassium chloride, calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride.

Salt is a key to flavor and, in some dishes, to texture. It heightens flavors, lessens bitter elements, and enhances sweetness. In food preservation, it’s a contributor to the processes that give fermented and cured foods their enticing umami flavor.

But how does salt enhance or heighten flavors? Scientists tell us that sodium stimulates the sensors in our taste buds, or awakens them, you could say, so that they are more sensitive to other flavors in food. Without salt, more subtle flavors often go undetected. That’s why unsalted food tastes flat.

The exception to this is bitter: salt mutes our receptors for bitter flavors. This is one of salt’s gifts to us in the mouth: by lessening bitter tastes, it allows other tastes (often sweet) to become more noticeable. Why do we salt greens? Originally it must have been as a way of making them taste less bitter. (The English word salad has its root in the Latin term for salt or salted: salata.) We salt eggplant, and the salt mutes the eggplant’s bitterness, as well as draws out bitter liquid. That’s also the reason why the pinch of salt traditionally added to campfire coffee (where the coffee boils in a pot of water until strong and dark) makes it less bitter.

When salt is added to vegetables or meats, it draws out water, and that frees some of the aroma molecules. For example, when we add salt to chopped scallions, they start to smell stronger because as the salt draws out water, some of the volatile aroma molecules are released and then reach our noses. Since what we taste comes partly from our sense of smell, this is another reason why salted food has more flavor. And it’s also a reason for holding back and doing a final salting just before serving, so that appetizing aromas will be released as the food comes to the table.

Salt also serves as an antibacterial agent by drawing water out of plant or animal tissues so that pathogens cannot flourish. (This is true for bacterial cells also; through osmosis, salt draws water from these cells, causing them to die.) After light salting, chopped vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber, and radishes lose water and become inhospitable to all but the friendly, naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria that make fermentation happen. The result is preserved vegetables with enhanced flavor (think sauerkraut or kimchi). In contrast, heavy salting of vegetables draws out most of their liquid and the salt then dissolves in it to make a very salty brine that prevents the growth of all bacteria so that no fermentation will take place. The brine is reabsorbed by the vegetables, which will stay crisp and well preserved in sealed containers for a long time.

Salt’s effect on the texture of foods is noticeable in a number of situations, from bread-making to pre-salting meats. Apart from the traditional salt-free bread of Tuscany, leavened bread all over the world is generally made with some salt. In addition to adding taste, the salt slows down the growth of the yeasts and also strengthens the gluten strands in wheat and rye doughs so that the dough can rise and hold its shape.

Salting leafy vegetables briefly to draw out liquid (rubbing salt into kale leaves, for example) causes them to wilt and become more tender.

Salting meat or poultry before cooking causes excess water to be drawn out and firms the flesh, intensifying flavors. Brining meat by immersing it in salted water for a longer period before cooking seasons the interior of the meat as well. First things first, you need to know about food safety basics.

Taste and Aroma

Elegant display of various salts on rustic wood

The differences in taste among various salts are often extremely subtle. In many cases, it’s only when you taste them side by side that you can clearly note what distinguishes one from another.

The way in which sea salt is produced has an effect on both its taste and its texture. Seawater contains trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, as well as sodium chloride, and so do many rock salts (since they originated in ancient seabeds). Phytoplankton and other microscopic creatures found in salty water can also affect the taste and color of salt.

The crystals of unrefined sea salts from different salt producers have discernibly different tastes and characteristics. Some of this depends on their place of origin and the water in which they were dissolved, and some on the technique used by the people who produced the salt (by solar evaporation or boiling or a combination), as well as on their skill and judgment. Those differences involve both taste and the shape of the crystals; see more on texture below.

In Tokyo, I visited a remarkable store called Ma-Suya that carries many kinds of salt, a place to test and taste as much salt as you are able to handle. As with trying perfume, most people, including me, hit their tasting/testing limit pretty quickly. It was rather overwhelming. I ended up trying only six or seven and then opting to buy just four.

I did ask myself what I was looking for, apart from the chance to see how many salts there were in the store. Yes, I could taste differences between them, but what difference would the taste of a particular salt make in my own cooking? With rare exceptions, the role of salt is not to be tasted on its own as the star of the show but instead to alter and enhance the foods it is added to. Salt plays a supporting role, an essential one, it is true, but like a good actor, its job is to blend seamlessly, to be there, but not so obtrusively that it becomes too noticeable, or the main flavor.

Nevertheless, the taste and smell of some salts can give us enormous pleasure. The aroma of unrefined solar-evaporated sea salt is evanescent. You get a tantalizing whiff of it when you open a sealed container, but it’s so delicate that it’s quickly overcome by the taste and smell of any food you sprinkle it on. Still, the gift of that aroma is one good reason for using natural sea salt.

For the eater and, in some ways, for the cook, the finishing salt is the most important. You want the crunch of fleur de sel, perhaps, or the color of a tinted salt. Or maybe the aroma of the sea, or of a flavored salt such as vanilla salt (see here) or spruce tips salt (see here). All these are useful for finishing, for being noticed as you bring a mouthful of food up to your mouth and then take it in. That’s when aroma is most important.

I have come to love the clean taste of salt evaporated from the cold waters of the northern Pacific and northern Atlantic, from Iceland and Ireland to Oregon, Nova Scotia, and Vancouver Island. It’s especially noticeable when flake salt is sprinkled on at the last moment by the cook or at the table, for then, with luck, the flakes stay intact long enough that you taste the individual salt crystals as you crunch down on them.

I was introduced to sea salt when I lived in France for a year as a teenager. I tasted salt from the Guérande and from the Ile de Ré, both on France’s Atlantic coast. My preferred unrefined sea salt, both coarse and fine, is still the gray salt from that coast. Madame J, who cooked wonderful meals for her pensionnaires, including me, would deftly add a pinch of fine sea salt to finish a dish, or a spoonful of coarser salt to a pot of soup. None of those salts had the off-putting smell or taste of the iodized table salt that my mother used and that is still the standard in many kitchens in Canada and the US.

At Wajima market, on Japan’s Noto Peninsula, you’re invited to taste salt.

Texture and Weight

Texture is easier to talk about than taste, which can be so subjective.

The texture of a given salt is determined during its harvesting and/or production. Crystal shape and size depend on the methods used to evaporate the seawater and process the salt. Salt that rises to the surface of the brine during solar evaporation, if undisturbed by wind, can form large, flat crystals—e.g., fleur de sel. Salt that is evaporated by boiling the brine in vats can also be gently simmered toward the end of the process to produce a flake salt like fleur de sel. Apart from artisanally produced salts, though, most salt is machine-processed after evaporation or extraction to create evenly sized grains or crystals—fine, medium, or coarse—and crystals with distinctive shapes or properties.

Crystal shape and size affect many things: the feel of the salt between your thumb and finger when you take a pinch; the size of pinch you take; the speed with which the salt dissolves in liquid; and, importantly, how much a given volume of salt weighs, which is actually another way of saying how much saltiness a tablespoon of that salt will add. The texture of salt you prefer will depend on what you’re using it for as well as on your own kitchen habits.

Feel, and Judging Your Pinch of Salt

Bowl of fine white salt on dark wooden background

Medium-sized salt crystals, such as those of kosher salt or coarse pickling salt, are the easiest to pick up quickly as a pinch between your thumb and forefinger. That’s why I generally use coarse pickling salt when adding a pinch of salt. For the same reason, many chefs choose kosher salt in the kitchen because its industrially produced crystals are medium to large, easy to pick up, and of even size, so a pinch gives a consistent amount of saltiness. Fine salt can be trickier because it can stick to your fingers, especially if it’s unrefined sea salt. Coarse unrefined sea salt, and many flake salts, have irregularly sized crystals, which can make them uncomfortable to pick up and also make it difficult to judge amounts consistently.

Dissolving Speed

Large crystals generally dissolve more slowly than small grains of salt. (Large crystals used to be called “corns,” which is how corned beef got its name.) Old-style salt cures, sometimes known as salt-box cures, in which the meat is buried in salt for a number of days, traditionally used very coarse salt because it was cheaper. Kosher salt, the salt used for koshering—the process in the Jewish tradition of drawing the blood out of freshly slaughtered meat—is somewhat different. It’s not intended to infuse meat with flavor but to create a salty environment at the meat’s surface that will draw out liquids through osmosis. Its crystals cling easily to the surface of the meat.

Sometimes you want the salt to dissolve as quickly as possible. That’s true when you’re fine-tuning the seasoning of a dish as it finishes cooking. You want the adjustment to dissolve right into the dish, so fine salt is the best choice. And when you’re baking, whether it’s bread or pastry or cakes or cookies, you want to use fine salt, which will dissolve evenly into the dough or batter. When you add salt to a pot of water for cooking pasta, or when you’re salting the cooking water for potatoes or other vegetables, it will dissolve more quickly if you add it once the water is hot. And you don’t want large salt crystals sitting on the bottom of the pot, so avoid coarse unrefined sea salt, which often takes longer to dissolve. I find fine sea salt or fine or coarse pickling salt are both good choices here.

When you’re sprinkling a finishing salt onto food as you serve it, you don’t want it to dissolve but instead to keep its delicate crunch and to have its flavor still concentrated, so that your guests get an intense little hit of salt with their first bite. A good choice here is flake salt, a colored salt, or, perhaps, a smoked salt—or one of the flavored salts in the following chapter.

When you’re doing a salt cure of meat or vegetables with a measured amount of salt, the salt starts drawing liquid out of the meat or vegetables. Fine salt crystals will dissolve in that liquid, making a brine, a little more quickly than coarse crystals will, though that difference is usually inconsequential.

To recap, the pinch of salt used to adjust the seasoning as you finish cooking should be a fine salt that dissolves quickly, and it should be a salt with which you’re familiar so that you know how much salt flavor you’re delivering in that pinch. Salt sprinkled on at the last minute to give surface crunch or a quick salt hit as part of the dish (or put out at the table as a condiment) should be a flake salt, unrefined fine sea salt, or, perhaps, a colored salt. A generous spoonful of salt tossed into the water when you are cooking pasta or boiling potatoes should be an inexpensive refined salt, which in my case is coarse pickling salt, my generic kitchen salt.

Custom and habit play a big role in my salt usage and preferences. There may well be other salts I would like as much as those that I have in my kitchen, but the familiarity of the ones I know is important to me. You may feel the same way. I am used to judging how much salt to use in a given situation by eye and by feel. I do believe that because we so often use our fingers to add salt, that act becomes a question of intimacy, of intimate physical knowledge and connection. That’s why switching to another salt can feel disorienting. Learn more about freezing.

Weight, Density, and Saltiness

Crystal size and shape affect the density of a salt—in other words, how much a given volume of salt weighs. Density varies widely among different salts. Because it is the weight of the salt that determines how much sodium a given volume of salt contains, and thus the amount of salty taste it will add, using volume measures for salt rather than weighing it can give wildly different results. Table salt tends to be the densest (heaviest per volume) because of the shape of the crystals, which pack tightly together. Flake salts are the lightest (least dense), because their large irregular crystals don’t pack tightly, leaving gaps in the measuring cup or spoon.

When the volume in question is small—a teaspoon, say—such variations are less important. But when you’re working with larger amounts, for example, ¼ cup or more, these differences matter. This is why it’s especially important to measure salt by weight rather than by volume when preserving and pickling, especially if the quantities are significant. These preservation techniques rely on the taste and antibacterial strength given by the sodium, and that amount, which needs to be reliable and consistent, will vary if you measure the salt by volume.

If you always use the same salt, you’ll have developed an intuitive sense of how much you need to add to a soup, for example, as you adjust the seasoning. But when you’re doing salt-curing, or following a recipe that’s new to you, or using a salt that is new to you, it’s best to measure salt by weight rather than by volume. 

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