May We Recommend: Salts to keep on hand | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

May We Recommend: Salts to keep on hand

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I recently received two gifts that set me wondering about what I thought I knew, but clearly didn’t. First, I received a cookbook in which the author calls for the cook to use not just salt but fine sea salt. And then, not long after, I received a gift of four kinds of salt – one gray, one black, one pink and one smoked. What is sea salt, I wondered? Isn’t all salt from the sea? How is sea salt different from the table salt I have in my pantry? And what am I supposed to do with black salt? Or gray or pink salt? How will each of these salts impact the taste of the dish I am preparing? And when asked, which salts would I recommend one have on hand?

I thought I knew salt: A small bowl of kosher salt sits at the ready, on my kitchen counter. But clearly there was lots more to know. There is salt from the sea and salt from underground salt mines, deposited there by oceans that dried up millennia ago. There is fine, table salt and there are different kinds of coarse kosher salt. There are finishing salts, most with a larger, coarser grain than the everyday salts one might use.

And a teaspoon of one is not equal to a teaspoon of another. When a recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt, clarify: Is it a teaspoon of kosher salt the cookbook author is looking for or a teaspoon of table salt? Because there’s a big difference in how much salt you get in a teaspoon of each. One teaspoon of fine, table salt is equal to two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons of Morton kosher salt.

And sea salt – the kind specified in my new cookbook – is, according to Lisa McManus, Executive Tasting and Testing Editor at Cook's Illustrated Magazine, far more expensive and saltier than table salt, which is mined. “Don’t bother cooking with pricey sea salt,” she advises. “We’ve found that mixed into food, it doesn’t taste any different from table salt. Instead, we use it as a ‘finishing salt,’ where its delicate crunch stands out.”

Which leads me to ask: What are finishing salts and colored salts? Why do I need them or want them? Clearly, finishing salts have become very popular. Go to any upscale kitchen store and you will find a large array of them. Even Costco sells an impressive selection. And try to order a chocolate or caramel dessert that isn't topped by a finishing salt. You can’t.

Every region has its salt, and the minerals found in each region will affect the taste and the color of the salt mined there. Himalayan salt, which comes from Pakistan, is pink thanks to trace levels of magnesium, potassium and calcium. It can be used in cooking, like table salt, but it is especially prized for its pretty and unusual color which works well sprinkled on a dish once cooked, to “finish” it. Fleur de Sel is a sea salt with a strong flavor and aroma of the ocean. It is slow and laborious to harvest, thus resulting in its high price. It is never used in cooking, but only used as a garnish, to heighten the flavor of the food once cooked. Cooks also prize Maldon Sea Salt Flakes for their large, pyramid shaped flakes. You don’t cook with these salts; rather, they are sprinkled on a special dish, for a final flourish. And black salt stands out for its unusual color and earthy flavor. It adds flavor and drama!

So just as there are thousands of olive oils out there, or dozens of different kinds of peppercorns, salt comes in a myriad of shapes and strengths, colors and flavors. Given the broad array of salts, which salt should every cook keep on hand?

I turned to Dan Souza, Editor-in-Chief of Cook's Illustrated Magazine. Dan recently released an on-line video entitled, “The Science of Salt: How it Impacts Your Cooking and How to Make Your Own: Salt." Souza suggests you stay with kosher salt for flavor and price and ease of use. Table salt is great to have around. And then for a final explosion of color and crunch and flavor, top your completed dish with an unusual salt of your choice. It could be the Fleur de Sel or Maldon, it could be the Himalayan or the black lava salt. Experiment! Your guests will love the surprise.

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