When you’re running around the grocery store after work, choosing the right type and brand of salt is probably the last thing on your mind, but this kitchen staple deserves a little more attention than you’d think. From kosher and Fleur de Sel to Himalayan pink, each variety is fundamentally the same but simultaneously different, and should be used in specific ways. There are dozens of intricate differences in salt, but I’ll focus on the four main varieties for the home cook: table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and rock salt.
I’m currently reading Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History, which lays out the complete history of human salt use and consumption, from the ancient Egyptians to the Chinese Han dynasty to the modern day. If you’re not dying to read an entire 450-page book on the stuff, you should know a few fundamental elements of salt. First of all, there are two main methods for gathering salt: mining it from salt deposits in the earth or harvesting it from evaporated saltwater. The natural evaporation method uses sunlight to produce varieties like classic Fleur de Sel, while the industrial steam heat method produces commercial table and kosher salts. Second, all salt is made of sodium chloride (NaCl), but the level of “saltiness” in the same measurement of each variety can be vastly different, and can make or break your recipe. Stick to these basic guidelines and you’ll up your cooking game dramatically.
Iodized Table Salt
The small, granular salt is the most ubiquitous form found at home and in restaurant salt-shakers (think of the Morton yellow-raincoat-and-umbrella girl). It’s basically pure sodium chloride, which is sprayed with iodine after it’s processed. This dates back to Depression times when iodine deficiency was actually a widespread thing and iodine was added to the salt like fluoride is to the water. Table salt can be useful for baking precise recipes (like this pumpkin spice cake with salted caramel), although honestly I avoid it altogether, since it’s more bland than kosher or sea salt and it contains metallic non-caking agents.
Kosher salt is a true cooking staple, especially in restaurant kitchens, where boxes of Diamond Crystal are king. If you’re not a frequent cook, you’ll probably recognize it from the rims of margarita glasses or the tops of ballpark pretzels. It’s big, flaky, and perfect for everyday recipes. Why is it called “kosher?” Salt companies in the late 1800s marketed this larger grained salt for salting meat, thereby “koshering” it, and the name “kosher” salt stuck even after its uses became more widespread.
However, there’s a bit of a debate around the use and production of kosher salt. For one, the two major brands (Diamond Crystal and Morton) have supposedly different tastes, with Morton’s tasting almost twice as salty as Diamond Crystal. Furthermore, kosher salt is actually highly processed, and its industrial production relies heavily on fossil fuels. Still, it’s a great multi-purpose option in the kitchen. When a recipe doesn’t clarify the type of salt, using Diamond Crystal kosher is your best bet.
You can’t get any simpler or tastier than a good quality sea salt. It’s naturally extracted from—you guessed it—the sea, using the sun to evaporate the surrounding water. What you’re left with is a sustainably-produced batch of pure sea salt and trace minerals. It’s delicate, flavorful, and reliable for savory cooking, baking, and garnishing. There are a few main variations of sea salt, primarily including Celtic sea salt (also known as Sel Gris, or gray salt, which is harvested from tidal pools off the coast of France and has a moist texture and gray color) and Fleur de Sel (meaning “flower of salt,” which is skimmed off the tops of tidal pools in Brittany, France by hand, and is the most expensive kind of salt due to its labor cost, scarcity, and high mineral content). Perhaps the most popular brand of sea salt is Maldon Sea Salt, which is known for its irregular shaped flakes and bright flavor that is perfect for finishing dishes. Check out other variations like Hawaiian black and red salts, smoked sea salt, or flavored salts for a unique garnish.
The most common type of rock salt is Himalayan pink salt, which comes from an ancient salt deposit in Pakistan and is known for its beautiful rosy hue. The color comes from minerals in the salt, like magnesium, calcium, and potassium, and is becoming a trend in the health world for its supposed purification powers (ever seen one of those bulbous pink salt lamps?). Whether or not it offers life-changing health benefits, it’s still delicious—but it’s best as a garnish or in imprecise recipes because of its chunky texture. (Fun fact: That gross salt poured on icy winter streets is another form of rock salt mined underground).
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