Salt is a magical mineral. No other seasoning matches its ability to bolster the flavor of meats, seafood, produce - even sweets.
Yet, like vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate M&M's, this quintessential flavoring agent often gets undeservedly labeled as "plain." But make no mistake about it. Salt is anything but plain. In all its many forms, it is extraordinary and the best friend of gourmet chefs and home cooks alike.
Here, we scrape the surface of the salt bed and delve into this densely-layered universe of flavor.
Unfortunately, it's the first thing most people envision when they think of salt. Table salt is best utilized outside of the cooking process. But that's not to say it doesn't have a place in the kitchen. It is the ideal salt for baking due to the fact that it is easy to accurately measure, it dissolves quickly and uniformly into batters, and it possesses a neutral flavor.
Coarsely ground with a clean, untainted flavor profile, kosher salt is the everyday go-to salt in the kitchen. Because its crystals are bulkier, the salt is easier to handle and gauge by feel versus instruments of exact measurement such as teaspoons and tablespoons. Keep this one by the stove for general use. "It's very important to season in layers," said executive chef William Bradley from Addison at The Grande Del Mar. "At the restaurant, we season lightly at each and every step in the cooking process." Doing so enhances all of the ingredients in a recipe and produces a final dish that, rather than tasting salty, exhibits rounded, balanced flavors.
As its name implies, this variety of salt is made by evaporating seawater. It is available in two basic varieties – refined and unrefined. The former is dry and possesses a taste similar to that of table salt and is good for all-purpose cooking while unrefined sea salts carry with them flavors of the waters from which they were harvested. It is these inherent flavor notes that make certain unrefined sea salts so coveted by chefs and home cooks. "I always use sea salt and have it on hand at the stove in a salt grinder," said Maryellen McLaughlin, a home cook who lives in San Diego. "To me, it is like having fresh ground coffee versus pre-ground from a package."
FLEUR DE SEL:
The undisputed champion of salts is hand harvested from the tops of French salt beds off the coasts of Brittany, Camargue and Noirmoutier. Translating literally to "flower of salt," this prized mineral has its own distinct flavor and is best when sprinkled on top of finished dishes. This technique allows the subtle tastes of both the salt and the item it has been applied to to shine through. Bernard Guillas, the executive chef of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, and a native of the island of Jersey (also off the coast of Brittany), says the taste of fleur de sel is like, "the essence of the ocean meeting on your palate," and uses it to enhance the natural flavors of uncooked offerings such as carpaccio, salads and tomatoes.