Whatever happened to table salt? Here, a selection of gourmet salts; from left to right, top:
kosher salt, black lava salt; middle: vanilla-flavored sea salt, fleur de sel; bottom, pink Himalayan salt.
Mark Kurlansky, who wrote Salt: A World History, was in town a few days ago. He’s a portly guy with a mop of curly white hair that tumbles over his forehead. Florid of face. bearded and bespectacled, he wears an expression that hovers between exasperation and rascally good humor. He looks like a man who might follow Diamond Jim Brady’s gastronomic advice: “Sit four inches from the table and eat until your stomach touches it”—and relish every bite.
Diamond Jim, the famed 19th century New York railroad baron, gourmand, and admirer of Lillian Russell, was talking about oysters, of course, and Kurlanksy was here to read from his more recent epic, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. But I’ve been thinking a lot about salt, so naturally I had to ask what varieties he favors. He grinned broadly, gazed into the distance, then looked back at me: “I have so much salt in my kitchen from writing that book that I’ll never use it up.” He continued: “But I like fleur de sel for sprinkling over salads, and I use fine salt for baking. Some people like finding big pieces of salt in baked goods, but I don’t. And there’s a coarse-grained Basque salt—Ana—which I really like.”
Immediately my mind raced: Basque Ana? How can I get hold of some? Every few days I seem to run across an elusive new salt, one that simply has to be tracked down by mail, internet or phone. But it’s impossible to keep up. The salt world is spinning out of control and the vast array of choices can short out your brain circuitry: fluffy white salt from Cyprus, rose-colored Bolivian salt hand-harvested in the Andes from ancient lava-covered sea beds, and coconut and kaffir lime Balinese smoked salt are just the latest to set my head spinning.
There is already a glut of sodium chloride in my pantry, enough to keep a whole village in well-salted high blood pressure for a decade. Maldon Sea Salt, smoked black Mexican salt, a creamy colored sea salt from the coast of Oaxaca, sel gris from Guerande, Blue and Red Label Salts from Oshima Island, a Japanese salt made from pure seawater infused with seaweed, black lava salt, fleur de sel from Brittany, rosy pink salt from Jurassic sea beds in the Himalayas, red Hawaiian alaea salt, flaky Welsh Halen Mon salt flavored with Tahitian vanilla-- and there’s even more on the next shelf.
The secret to salt sanity is to pare down. Kurlansky quite sensibly has gravitated to three major categories: An elegant finishing salt, a fine salt for baking and a coarse salt for a bit of crunch. I’d add two more: a basic everyday salt and fifth category of fun salts for fooling around.
Here are the five essential salts for your pantry:
1. Basic Everyday Salt: This should be an inexpensive salt that you can keep in a dish by the stove, to sprinkle into pasta water, to mix into marinades, to season scrambled eggs, to whisk into salad dressing and for a thousand other uses.
Kosher salt is my favorite everyday salt, and the choice of many chefs. It’s the little black dress of salts—always appropriate, always in style. As Michele Anna Jordan wrote in Salt & Pepper, it is “…my default salt, the one I carry in my purse or pocket in a discreet little wooden box, just in case…” Besides seasoning, you can use it to make a brine for the Thanksgiving turkey, as a rub for grilled meats, or for rimming margarita glasses.
Chefs like kosher salt because its odd-shaped crystals are larger than those of ordinary table salt. This makes it easier to take a hefty pinch and sprinkle it evenly over a dish; it also affords more control over the saltiness of the dish. When it dissolves, it produces a pleasing burst of salty flavor.
Diamond Crystal, produced by the patented Alberger process, has no additives. It’s just pure salt with large irregularly shaped crystals that make flavors sing. It is available in supermarkets or from amazon.com (3 lbs., $2.09). Morton’s Kosher Salt has flatter crystals, with “yellow prussiate of soda” added to keep it from clumping (3 lbs., $1.59 at most supermarkets).
2. Fine Sea Salt for Baking: Still there's one problem with kosher salt. It doesn’t always dissolve in batter, especially if there’s not much liquid. This can produce brownies booby-trapped with tiny salt bombs--great if you love salt with your chocolate, not so great if you just want a delicious brownie. Instead, choose a fine sea salt that will dissolve more easily in thick batter.
Although many sea salts derive their briny sweet flavor from high levels of potassium and magnesium, a mineral taste is not always desirable in baking. One option is to use a refined sea salt, such as La Baleine Sea Salt Fine Crytals which has been produced in the French Camargue since 1856. It is pure white and tastes simply of salt, though a “magnesia anti-caking agent” has been added. Happily, it does not have the metallic flavor of ordinary table salt. Available at Whole Foods (26.5 oz, $2.99) or from saltworks.us ($3.49)
3. Finishing salt: In this category are the expensive, premium salts which are used almost as condiments. It includes French fleur de sel (literally “flower of salt”) which is the “cream” or “caviar” (Patricia Wells’ words, not mine) of sea salt hand-harvested from salt ponds in Brittany near the town of Guerande. On warm summer afternoons when a dry wind blows from the east, the paludiers (artisan harvesters) skim the finest, whitest, fluffiest crystals that have evaporated around the edge of the salt ponds and place them in a wicker basket to dry. This is the legendary fleur de sel and according to Saltworks, for every 80 pounds of sel gris (grey salt) that is harvested, the paludiers rake only 3 pounds of fleur de sel.
Fleur de sel from M. Gilles Hervey is creamy and slightly moist, with irregularly shaped crystals ranging from very large to very small. When I first tasted it a few years ago, I described its flavor as delicate, with an elusive saltiness that waxes and wanes on the tongue until it dissolves, leaving a lingering sweetness. (For more, see globalprovince.com.) Use fleur de sel sparingly to season fingerling potatoes that have been slowly cooked in butter, on luscious summer tomatoes layered with goat cheese, or on grilled meats and fish. Saltworks suggests dipping radishes in fleur de sel and eating them with sweet butter and pieces of baguette. At saltworks.us, (5.4 oz, $13.50).
A cousin of fleur de sel is made in Portugal, where traditional salt beds in the Algarve have been revived after decades of neglect. Flor de sal, as it is called, has thin, flat, white crystals with an intensely salty flavor that quickly mellows and becomes mildly sweet. At zingermans.com, (250 grams, $10).
Finally, I would put Maldon Sea Salt in the category of finishing salts. Although many people use it as high end, rather expensive table salt. its crumbly, pyramid-shaped white crystals, delicate crunch and light taste of the sea make it an ideal condiment. I happen to like it on oatmeal simmered in milk until creamy, but it can be used exactly as you would any other fleur de sel. Harvested in traditional salt beds in Essex, England; at chefshop.com (8.5 oz., $7.49).
4. Coarse sea salt: An appealing choice when you want a bit of crunch. Sprinkle coarse sea salt over a salad, steamed vegetables or roasted or grilled meats. If the grains are very large, you may need to run them through a salt grinder or crush them in a mortar and pestle.
There are two that I especially like: Sel Gris de Guerande is pale gray sea salt raked from the salt beds in Brittany during the hot summer months (this is the layer below the fleur de sel). It is slightly damp, with wonderfully crunchy, irregularly shaped crystals that have a fleetingly sharp taste that quickly turns full and sweet. Right now I’m using sel gris from L’Epicerie in Paris; other brands can be found at chefshop.com and saltworks.us.
I confess also to an unfashionable fondness for Alaea Lava Red Hawaiian Salt, a coarse sea salt from the island of Kaua’i which is mixed with volcanic red clay. The iron oxide in the clay gives the salt a dusty red-orange hue; it is said to have healthy benefits. Purists object to the clay, but I’ve found that the Alaea salt has a lovely, mellow flavor that makes it great on just about everything from roast pork to steamed vegetables dressed with lemon juice and a little oilve oil. I get mine directly from hawaiisalt.com (16 oz., $7.39)
5. An experimental salt: This is the crazy category, one where you can keep trying all the new salts flooding the market. It includes smoked salts, salts mixed with herbs or spices, and offbeat salts from exotic parts of the world.
Smoked salts from Maine to the Pacific Northwest are big right now. I like the powerful Mexican Black Smoked Salt which gives a delicious smoky undertone to venison or beef chili made with ancho and chipolte peppers. It is available at Christina’s Spice Shop in Cambridge, MA. No website. Telephone: 617-492-7021.
Moving closer to the fringe is Halen Mon Vanilla Sea Salt flavored with ground up Tahitian vanilla beans. The contrast of the large flaky crystals with the sweet, distinctly floral taste of the vanilla is intriguing. Chefshop suggests sprinkling it over scallops or meaty white fish such as halibut—I plan to try it on shrimp cooked in white wine and chicken stock, with a touch of lime. It’s also interesting with chocolate. A keeper? Stay tuned. At chefshop.com (2.1 oz., $10.99)
As for exotic parts of the world, Himalayan pink salt, extracted from Jurassic-era sea beds, has 84 trace minerals and iron; it is said to stimulate the circulation, lower blood pressure, and heal other ailments. Hmmm… It has a powerfully salty taste with a sharp bite than never quite fades. But it’s very pretty, although the chunkiest crystals are too big to use without grinding. At saltworks.com (7 oz., $14.99).