In a world history of food and cooking, salt is the most universal ingredient. Sweet, savory, meat, vegetable, in the background or in your face, there is salt.
“Salt is the single most important ingredient in cooking and the single most powerful tool for improving the flavor of food,” says Mark Bitterman in his encyclopedic book, “Salted.”
So it’s no wonder that you may experience decision paralysis when it comes time to select a salt from the grocery store shelf or your pantry. Or you may take the exact opposite approach and give absolutely zero thought to this staple ingredient.
Here’s why it matters and what you should consider.
Know the types
There are four types of salt that most home cooks use on a regular basis: table, kosher, sea and finishing. The good news? They’re all essentially chemically identical — as in salt, or sodium chloride. The differences boil down to how they’re made, their shape and, depending on whom you ask, their flavor.
Table salt is granulated with a fine texture consisting of small cubes. It often includes potassium iodide to provide iodine (more on that later) and an anti-caking agent to keep crystals from sticking to each other, Harold McGee writes in “Keys to Good Cooking.”
Kosher salt consists of larger, flakier crystals, named because of its ability to help extract blood and moisture out of meat during the koshering process of Jewish dietary law. It is not iodized.
Sea salt can be more or less refined than other types, with smaller or larger crystals. It may feature additional minerals that impart a bitter flavor, McGee says.
Finishing salts often boast pedigree of sourcing and can come in a wide array of shapes and colors.
Understand why the shape and size matters
“The type of salt can make a major difference in how well it blends in. Flakey sea salt and Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt blend faster and better than granular table salt,” Shirley Corriher writes in “BakeWise.” That has to do with how each type of salt is formed. Corriher points out that 90% of a granular salt will bounce off a surface, while 95% of a hollow flaky salt will stick, not to mention dissolve faster. Both factors are major reasons chefs and cookbook authors often express a preference for Diamond Crystal, which is a hollow flaky pyramid. Other kosher salts, such as the common Morton’s coarse salt, are formed when granular salt is flattened by rollers, according to Corriher. She favors sea salt for baking (she advocates grinding Maldon as needed), as does Rose Levy Beranbaum, who in “The Baking Bible” notes that “it integrates more readily into batter than does a coarse salt.” One other factor to consider: Kosher salt is easier to pinch, pick up and see when you’re, say, seasoning meat. Kosher salt also makes for a clear brine.
In “The Food Lab,” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt calls kosher salt the “only one you absolutely need in your kitchen.” If you’re concerned about iodine deficiency, know that plenty of foods, including dairy, seafood and vegetables, include iodine.
Understand the flavor
Here’s where things get fuzzy. Do different salts taste different? Depends whom you ask. Bitterman, a writer and gourmet food shop owner who calls himself the world’s first “selmelier,” is adamant that they do. He has little use for grocery store salts, describing the flavor of table salt as “drying spray paint, dirt, fishhooks,” kosher salt as “hot, bright, sometimes metallic and/or faintly acrid” and sea salt as “sharp flatness.” Needless to say, he doesn’t recommend using any of them in home cooking.
I fall into the same camp as McGee, who says, “All salts without added flavors taste about the same, especially in food. Exotic origins can be very interesting to the mind but don’t register on the plate.”
If you’re baking, Beranbaum cautions against using iodized table salt, which she says can impart an “unpleasant taste.”
Do what also makes economic sense. Don’t burn your fancy designer salt on pasta water.
Figure out how much you need
Ideally, recipes will specify what type or brand of salt to use. Otherwise, McGee recommends starting with a smaller amount and increasing according to taste. If you want to change the type specified, keep in mind the uses and characteristics above. Says Corriher: “To get as much salt as there is in 1 tablespoon of granular salt, one must use 1 1/2 tablespoons of Morton’s kosher salt or 2 tablespoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt.” And keep in mind a tablespoon of each type of salt will have a different weight based on the size of the crystals and how densely they’re packed in the measuring spoon.
Emphasize the finish
For most of us, this is where to get the most bang for your buck with more expensive specialty salts. “Finishing with salt is the linchpin of strategic salting; it’s a versatile cooking technique and one of the most effective ways we have of playing sensually with what we eat,” Bitterman writes. “The practice of finishing with salt is straightforward: choose an artisan salt, scatter it across the surface of your food, and eat.”
Think about color and texture here, whether you want something that will contrast or complement the food. Finishing salts can be a variety of shapes, from delicate flakes to crunchy crystals. Or make your own flavored topper, combining salt with herbs, spices or citrus zest.
Whatever you choose, season the food at serving temperature, McGee says. Hot food can heighten a variety of flavors, including saltiness.