Salt is by far one of the oldest and most prolifically used ingredients in recipes around the world. Second-to-none when it comes to infusing dishes with flavor, there is not a single chef’s spice rack that does not prominently feature at least one type of cooking salt. Taking the top spot is regular or refined table salt, but did you know that there are scores of other varieties, including an entire smorgasbord of gourmet salts, colored salts, and finishing salts?
If your pantry is stocked with only one or two types of the conventional spice, or if your average use of salt in recipes is limited to a pinch here and a dash there – then you and your menus are due for a radical transformation regarding all things salt.
Salt – A Recipe for Success
Whether you are a professional chef, baker, or restaurant operator, working in the U.S. or elsewhere, it is safe to say that there is one universal truth in the global food-and-beverage landscape: Salt is truly the spice of life! Moreover, in the savory world of spices and herbs, it has been deemed ‘the salt of the earth’ – and for good reason.
Every cooking enthusiast, culinary student, and kitchen aficionado knows that to bring out the best in a dish or to turn a simple meal into a gourmet delight, one of the simplest and most effective seasonings to add is a measure of salt.
But what exactly is this ubiquitous ingredient and what makes it such a staple in the human diet? Let us begin our exploration by sinking our teeth into some basics.
If you really want to understand the complexities of salt and how to maximize its use in recipes, it is important to delve into its origins and learn how it is processed into the forms we are familiar with today.
So, what exactly is salt? Also known as sodium chloride, it is a crystalline mineral comprised of the elements sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). While its most common use is to flavor foods, salt is also a preservative that fights off bacteria and an essential element in the human body, helping transmit information between the brain, nervous system and muscles, and helping maintain fluid and move oxygen through the bloodstream.
Largely produced in the Mediterranean and other warm climates, salt is mined from natural water pools through different processes (i.e. evaporating seawater) to give rise to multiple varieties. In fact, the plethora of gourmet salts available to foodservice professionals today features countless colors, shades, and even shapes of crystals, allowing cooks to create noteworthy dishes that stand out from the pack in their texture, taste, and appeal. There are even finishing salts that are added at the very end of the cooking process and used solely for the purpose of topping off a dish. And yet, despite their physical distinctions and attributes, there are few nutritional differences between the various types of salt, giving chefs a free hand to mix and match ingredients and be as creative as possible.
Types of Gourmet Salts
Mined in Pakistan at the world’s second largest salt mine is Himalayan salt, one of the most popular types of specialty salts on the market. Distinguished by its pink color and reddish hues which are caused by the presence of trace amounts of iron oxide, it also contains trace amounts of 84 minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Historically, it was mined by hand from ancient sea salt deposits and considered a valuable trade commodity in exchange for goods or currency. Today, gourmet cooks and customers alike give it a ‘thumbs up’ for use in vegetable, salad, soup, stew, and pasta recipes, while its unique color adds a visual appeal to any dish.
Natural Sea Salt
Natural sea salts are a must-have item on any chef’s spice rack. Devoid of the additives found in conventional or refined table salts – where most of the minerals are removed and caking agents are added to prevent clumping – sea salts are created by evaporating sea water and contain trace amounts of essential minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, phosphorous, bromine, zinc and iron.
Depending upon how and where they harvested, there are multiple types of sea salts in multiple colors, tastes, and textures. The most common procedure is to funnel ocean waters into ponds, enabling the sea water to evaporate under the sun and leave behind pure sea salt. Some of today’s more unique crystals are carefully extracted from the water after growing or “blooming” on top of ponds.
In addition to adding the salts into your dishes during the cooking process by using a salt mill, they can also be sprinkled on top of foods afterwards. And here is a chef’s insider tip for you: The darker the sea salt’s color, the higher its nutrient concentration. And since the larger granules have more potent flavor, you can use less of them.
If the adventurous chef inside of you is hungry for a unique seasoning that is light, delicate, and melts in your mouth; that infuses flavor into main dishes and baked desserts; and that adds eye candy to the end result, then feast your eyes and on culinary flake salts. Ranging in texture from rugged and rough-around-the-edges to delicate and exquisite, no two crystals look alike! Flake salts are also valued for their broad granule size, allowing chefs to easily pick them up with their fingers and sprinkle over food.
Cyprus Flake Salts
When it comes to interesting-looking salts, Cyprus flake salts are a noteworthy selection. Resembling small thin pyramids, these finishing crystals are added on top of dishes where they sit without melting in and add tremendous presentation value. Some of their popular uses are on top of salads, vegetables, sweet potatoes, fish, and even ice cream.
This salt gets its name because it is used in the koshering process of meats and is best known for its flaky structure, large crystals, coarse texture and saltier taste than table salt. It is best used in meat prep, sprinkled on top of pretzels, or placed on the rim of margarita glasses but it can be used in any food prep situation, keeping in mind that the ratio of kosher salt to table salt is 2:1.
Also known as French Grey Salt and Sel Gris, this variety hails from the French Atlantic coast region of Brittany. Its standout features include its moistness (containing 13% residual moisture), its trace amounts of healthy minerals, its lower-than-average sodium content, and its light grey color that is the result of sea minerals absorbed from clay at the bottom of natural salt ponds. Popularly used as both a cooking and finishing salt, its texture makes it especially amenable for seasoning meat and vegetables.
Fleur de Sel
Considered by the French as the caviar of salts, and translated as ‘flower of salt,’ fleur de sel dates back to the seventh century when it was mined – and continues to be mined – from the top layer of ponds in France’s Guerande region. These crystals are exceptionally light and delicate, and while they lack a strong salty taste, they are perfect for bringing out the natural flavors in other foods. Cooks especially like using fleur de salt in light salad and fish recipes as opposed to heavier meats, however it is widely viewed as a dependable go-to-spice for most purposes.
Chef’s Guide to Salt and Gourmet Salts – Part II
If you have been inspired and intrigued by this treasure chest of specialty salts that you may have never heard of or used before, prepare your palettes for some more gourmet salts that are gaining ground on the global culinary scene, gaining traction in the U.S. food industry, and that are proving to be more than worth their weight in the quest for the perfect seasoning.
Comprised of a blend of sea salt and ground celery seed, this variety boasts a fresh herbal tang and light flavorful notes that make any recipe sing. With the ability to unlock a dish’s natural flavors, celery salt especially compliments salad dressings, marinades, and soups.
Gaining steam on the master-chef popularity charts, these crystals are slow-smoked in chambers with different types of fragrant wood chips, giving rise to distinct smoky tastes with subtle undertones depending on the wood type used. Described by mavens as ‘transforming stove-topped dishes into campfire-like cuisine,’ smoked salts are especially appropriate with foods cooked on a grill, such as meats, grilled chicken, and corn-on-the-cob. Less conventionally, they also add a unique dimension to foods such as stews, tacos, mac’-and-cheese, caramel desserts, and even Bloody Mary mixtures.
For the full dish on specific smoked salt varieties, look up the 411 on some of the following favorites: Bourbon Barrel, Hickory, Applewood, Alderwood, Mesquite, Cherrywood, and Chardonnay smoked salt.
Black Lava Salt
Believe it or not, this specialty salt haling from Hawaii’s volcanic shores boasts a distinct black color! The result of a naturally occurring ingredient called activated charcoal, chefs enjoy its ability to bring out the dark, smoky flavors of dishes such as stir-fries, roasted vegetables, barbecue foods, hearty soups, and more.
Red Alaea Salt
Another gem mined from the volcanic clays of Hawaii’s tidal pools, this eye-catching coral-colored salt pairs well with spicy and complex dishes and has long been used by chefs as both a seasoning and a preservative.
Hawaiian Sea Salt (aka Hawaiian Red Sait)
Distinctive in its rich, earthy reddish color, this salt contains trace amounts of over 80 minerals and is well regarded by top chefs who use it as a garnish atop potatoes and dips, as a rub on meats, and as a roasting salt mixed with herbs that lock in the flavor of the foods they are seasoning.
Hailing from the warm-water springs in the mountainous regions of Peru, and boasting a 2000-year old history, this natural salt can be used as both a seasoning and finishing ingredient.
Australian Peach Flake Salt
Yet another unique finishing salt bearing a light peach color, this variety is mined from waters that run down from the snow-capped Australian Alps into the prominent Murray River.
The world’s leading chefs are still mining salt’s many culinary assets while discovering new, creative uses for its cornucopia of specialty and gourmet varieties. There is no end to the ways in which you, too, as a savvy foodservice professional or restaurant owner, can expand your knowledge, skill set, and inventory of salts. At the same time, you will be pampering your customers’ palates, boosting your biz, and hopefully mining the rich (and perhaps salty) rewards.