Other Names: Melah (Hebrew); melh (Arabic); sel (French); sal (Spanish); sale (Italian); salz (German); shio (Japanese); sol (Russian).

General Description: Salt (sodium chloride) is a mineral composed of chlorine and sodium, the latter of which is essential to life. The only mineral, nonbiological food humans regularly eat, salt is one of the four basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, and bitter (five including “umami,” or savory). Throughout human history salt has been essential to the preservation of foods. Humans and other animals have an inherent taste for salt, which brings out natural flavors, retards food spoilage, regulates fermentation rates, strengthens gluten in bread, and is essential for preserving meats and sausages. Salt is also an effective carrier of flavor, thus celery salt, onion salt, and garlic salt are common in the kitchen, and many chefs prepare their own flavored salts.

The word salt probably originates from the ancient town Es-Salt, close to one the world’s best- known salt sources, the Dead Sea. Roman soldiers were given money to purchase salt, the salarium argentums, from which we get the word salary. The Romans also liked to salt their greens, which led to the word salad. The expression “He is not worth his salt” can be traced back to ancient Greece, where salt was traded for slaves.

Salt was integral to preserving the vast catches of cod and other fish discovered by European fishermen in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland at the end of the fifteenth century. Salt taxes have had profound impacts on world history, being a significant factor in the French Revolution, contributing to the toppling of China’s imperial government in the early twentieth century, and galvanizing Mahatma Ghandi’s resistance to British colonial rule in India. The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was known as “the ditch that salt built” because salt was its main cargo.

Salt, in the form of the mineral halite, is obtained from underground mines such as the famed Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland and the mines near Salzburg, Austria. The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah are the dried-up residue of ancient seas. Sea salt, prized by connoisseurs, is made by evaporating seawater, which averages 2.6 percent salt. Although much sea salt is evaporated artificially, in places where the ratio of rainfall to temperature is low enough, seawater in shallow basins is evaporated naturally by the heat of the sun. Sea salt typically contains traces of other minerals, including iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, and iodine.

Table salt comes in very fine crystals and is treated so it will pour easily. It usually derives from salt mines and is refined until it is pure sodium chloride. Iodine, a trace element lacking in some diets, is often added. Popcorn or flour salt is superfine salt designed especially to adhere to popcorn and other snacks. Pretzel salt, large-grained salt that doesn’t melt quickly, is used for pretzels and salted breadsticks.

Kosher salt comes in large, irregular crystals and is used to prepare meat according to Jewish dietary guidelines (where meat must be salted to remove the blood before cooking), as well as on the rims of margarita glasses. With a large surface area due to the hollow pyramid shape of its crystals, kosher salt readily absorbs moisture. It’s preferred by American chefs because it’s light and easy to pinch and crush with the fingers, so it can be sprinkled evenly, doesn’t make salad watery, and, unlike table salt, isn’t prone to be confused with sugar in the kitchen.

Canning or pickling salt is fine-grained and does not include iodine or anticaking agents, which would cause darkened pickles and cloudy brine. It may form lumps in humid weather or if exposed to moisture.

Alaea salt or Hawaiian sea salt contains a small amount of volcanic clay (alaea) that colors the salt with red iron oxides and also imparts a subtle flavor. Hawaiian black lava salt is evaporated with black lava rock, and charcoal is added. Black salt (kala namak or sanchal) from India is an unrefined mineral salt that is actually a pearly pinkish gray and has a strong, sulfuric flavor. French gray sea salt is a naturally moist, sandy-textured, unrefined salt harvested from the Atlantic off the coast of Brittany. Flake sea salt, a light crystal reminiscent of snowflakes, is made by evaporating seawater with sun and wind, then heating the brine until delicate crystals of salt appear. The town of Maldon, England, has produced quality flake sea salt since the Middle Ages. Australian flake sea salt is produced by evaporating saline water in arid northwestern Victoria. Fleur de sel is a highly esteemed salt comprised of “young” crystals that form naturally on the surface of salt evaporation ponds in the Gu√©rande region of France. Prized by chefs for sprinkling on foods just before serving, this high-priced salt contributes crunchy texture and bold, explosive flavor. Sel gris is gray from trace minerals in the water. Italian sea salt is produced along the coast of Sicily, where salt pans, low-lying depressions, are filled with the seawater in spring and left to evaporate by sun and wind. To make Japanese uni no houseki (jewel of the ocean), named for its gemlike appearance and utmost quality, surface seawater is combined with deep water for a rich balance of minerals. Peruvian pink salt comes from an ancient ocean now underground high in the Andea mountains. The shimmering flakes of South African sea salt come from the country’s dry, windy west coast.

Smoked sea salt is smoked over wood fires using a method dating back to the Vikings to infuse the salt crystals with smoke flavor from woods like juniper, cherry, elm, beech, and oak. Korean roasted salt is pearl gray and almost powdery, with a distinctive flavor from its mineral concentration, accentuated by roasting.

Rock salt’s large crystals are grayish because it’s less refined than table salt. It’s mixed with ice to lower the temperature of water when making ice cream and used as a bed for serving seafood items like baked oysters. It is not eaten.

Purchase and Avoid: Table salt is the most common variety; more obscure types may be found at specialty grocery stores.


  • In cooking, salt added to raw ingredients will draw out moisture. For example, when making cucumber salad, first tossing the sliced cucumbers with a little salt and allowing them to drain will keep the salad from being watery.
  • A very small amount of salt will enhance sweetness in baked goods and even very sweet fruit, such as watermelon or peaches. Add a pinch of salt to your favorite cookie and cake recipes for best flavor.
    *Salt that’s added to a liquid, such as stock, that will later be reduced will concentrate as the water evaporates, so it’s best to wait to salt stocks, sauces, and the like until they’ve already reached ideal consistency.
  • Salt can impede some foods, such as beans and whole grains, from becoming tender, so it’s best to add it once they’re half cooked.
  • Salt tames the action of yeast, so it’s important to add salt to bread dough to keep it from rising too much.
  • Use flake salt or kosher salt when seasoning whole fish or meat for the grill, not only for seasoning, but also to make a light crust that will resist sticking to the grill.
  • Sprinkle specialty salt on food just before serving or at the table rather than while cooking.

from Quirk Books: