Salt is a transformative ingredient (if you’re in any doubt of that, see “Salt Fat Acid Heat”), but it isn’t just one monolithic substance. There are several different types of salt, and we don’t just mean kosher salt and sea salt. Technically, yes, all salts are primarily sodium chloride, but depending on where they’re harvested and how they’re treated, they offer a huge range of distinctive textures, colors, and flavors that makes them so fun to play with. Some salt is best used during cooking, but many varieties really shine as finishing salts, sprinkled over a dish just before serving.
For a long while, much like eggs, salt in general was vilified for being unhealthy, but many people have come around—and really, that old advice of “everything in moderation” is still pretty sound. In any case, we’re glad to see salt getting more respect these days, and even being celebrated (perhaps we owe a partial debt to Salt Bae too?). Here, then, are some of our favorite kinds of salt, most of them naturally occurring, but with a few infused varieties included—because like we said, they’re fun (and add tons of flavor to a dish)! Make some room in your pantry for a few new additions. (Martha Stewart keeps 47 kinds of salt in her pantry! But no need to go quite that hardcore if you don’t have that kind of space.)
Although you can find fleur de sel from southern France and Spain, some say that it originated in a town in the French province of Brittany called Guérande. This light and snowy sea salt is hand-harvested—and is, as a result, expensive—so it’s best used for finishing dishes; that way you can enjoy its crunch and flavor. We top Parker House Rolls with it or add it to steamed new potatoes for an extra spark. It’s also delicious sprinkled on sweets from caramels and chocolate mousse to ice cream sundaes.Buy Now
Celtic grey salt is made in the same ponds as fleur de sel and is also called sel gris. This unrefined variety is hand-raked out of the salt ponds (as opposed to being skimmed carefully from the top like its expensive cousin), its tint courtesy of the minerals in the clay lining the ponds. It’s cheaper than fleur de sel and makes a good table salt, but you’ll have to pinch it from a bowl because its moistness makes it tough to get through a grinder or shaker. You’ll find other types of gray salts on the market, but this one is highly rated.Buy Now
This reddish-pink mix is a blend of sea salt and red Hawaiian volcanic clay (alaea). Iron oxide in the clay gives the salt its unusual color. Use this to cook kalua pig or season steak, or sprinkle on a poke bowl; one Chowhound warns that it’s a hard salt that doesn’t melt easily, which makes it good for precooking or crushing finely onto chicken or fish.Buy Now
This hand-harvested salt comes from the east coast of England. It has a distinct flaky texture and a relatively mild taste (though you can also buy smoked Maldon sea salt). When it comes to sweets, we particularly like the flakes sprinkled on chocolate mousse with a little olive oil—and it’s the necessary ingredient to finish off a Salty Pimp.Buy Now
This salt is mined in the Himalayan foothills and in addition to bags both coarse and finely ground, it’s often sold in chunk form with a grater. In any case, it picks up its pretty pinkish color from minerals like iron, and it adds a toothy bite to many dishes. You can also find it in large, flat blocks: some that can be heated and cooked upon, and some that are used cold as serving plates to impart a bit of saltiness to moist foods. It tends to be especially popular among paleo dieters, but we think everyone should keep some on hand.Buy Now
Much like another expensive Iranian foodstuff (caviar), this rock salt is expensive largely due to being rare. It appears blue due to the intense pressures exerted on the salt deposits, causing it to refract light in an unusual manner; when ground, the color is less intense, but there are still pale blue pieces visible, and its mild sweetness makes this another nice finishing salt for special dishes, both savory courses and desserts.Buy Now
Often called black salt or rani black salt, kala namak is actually grayish-purple or pink; don’t confuse it with other black salts. It’s mined around India, and adds a distinct flavor to Indian fare like Jal Jeera, a refreshing drink made with cumin, mint, and lemons. Chowhounds also like it sprinkled on fresh fruit (such as watermelon) or mixed into raita. Its flavor has a sort of boiled-egg note, which comes from sulfurous compounds—and makes it a nice secret ingredient for vegan tofu scrambles and other vegan “egg” dishes!Buy Now
Unlike kala namak, Hawaiian black salt is truly black. It’s made by mixing sea salt with activated volcanic charcoal. Some claim it has detoxifying properties, and though we can’t vouch for that, we can say that it creates a dramatic effect when sprinkled over foods as a finishing salt. Incorporate it into a Halloween menu, or just stock it in your standard goth kitchen. Cyprus black lava salt is made in the same way, only with Mediterranean sea salt.Buy Now
There are many varieties of smoked salts out there, but this one is smoked over oak chips, resulting in a bonfire-like aroma and naturally smoky taste, not to mention a toasty golden-brown color. Try using it as a dry rub on meat, but be careful, because a little goes a long way.Buy Now
Popular in Korea, this salt might be sold as jukyom, jook yeom, or Korean bamboo salt. It’s made by packing salt into a piece of bamboo, sealing the ends with mud, and heating the stalk in an extremely hot kiln. The salt’s then transferred into a new bamboo sheath and the process is repeated multiple times (usually either three or nine), supposedly to purify and enhance the product. You can buy it in large crystals, or finely ground. There are a lot of claims made about this salt—it’s an ancient Taoist cure-all; it inhibits the growth of cancer cells—but all we can say for sure is that it can be used as a standard table salt, albeit with a kala namak-like sulfurous nuance that gets stronger the more times it’s roasted. After nine roastings, it also takes on a purple tint. If it ends up having magical healing properties too, count that as a bonus.Buy Now
While this may not have the same elusive allure or ancient pedigree of some of the other salts on this list, chicken salt is pretty magical stuff, and beloved in its native Australia, where it’s a popular fry seasoning, though they call those chips, of course. You can get chicken salt that actually contains chicken, but this particular brand is actually vegan (and gluten-free). It’s technically a seasoning blend, made from sea salt, turmeric, onion powder, and garlic powder, so you could easily make your own and adjust to your specific palate.Buy Now
This brand of Swedish sea salt is actually harvested in Cyprus, and has some of the larger flakes around, which can be used sparingly to add a nice crunch and pop of flavor to food just before serving. It comes in a variety of infused flavors like garlic, rosemary, and citron, but wild mushroom is a favorite for the big umami boost it can lend to foods.Buy Now
Famously expensive saffron infuses this flaky sea salt with its bright golden-yellow color and fragrant flavor. The manufacturer suggests using it as a rub for chicken or to enhance paella or seafood dishes; we think a tiny sprinkle on a vanilla or honey panna cotta would be pretty great too.Buy Now
If you want to delve even farther into the sea of flavored salt, this sampler highlights a variety of single ingredients, including lemon zest, pinot noir, and ghost pepper among them. Again, the salt flakes themselves are on the large side for a nice crunch and a bigger hit of flavor. Sprinkle them on dishes to finish with a flourish. You can also easily make your own infused salt, but this sampler is a great gift, whether to yourself or someone else. Maybe with a copy of that famous cookbook along with it…you know the one. It name-checks this essential ingredient in the very first word of its title, and that’s only as it should be.Buy Now
“Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking” by Samin Nosrat, $20.98 on Amazon
Learn more about the fundamentals of flavor.
An earlier version of this post was published in 2008.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.