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.
Sel gris is reaped from the lower levels of the same salt beds as fleur de sel. While fleur de sel is light gray in color, sel gris is a much more distinct shade of gray, hence its name, which translates to "gray salt." Its grains are larger in size and it is also best used, just as all other coarse sea salts, as a finishing salt.
The popularity of rare and exotic specialty salts is at an all-time high. Each possesses its own unique flavor, whether a product of environment such as Milduran blue sea salt from Australia, or imparted via a technique such as smoking the salt. Jason Knibb, the executive chef of NINE-TEN at the Grande Colonial, is a fan of smoked sea salt and uses it to enhance the flavor of some of his pork dishes. "It brings a smokiness to the pork and adds some complexity," Chef Knibb said. "Without salt, food would be uninteresting and flat. There are so many different types of salts that can be used and so many different uses for them. I never get bored with using salt."
Many of the salts mentioned in this article can be purchased at your local grocery store or at
Signature specialty salts
With so many interesting salts on the market, it can be hard to choose which will best fit one's needs. These are the chefs' favorites.
- MURRAY RIVER PINK SALT: Farmed from Australia's longest river, this salt exhibits a delicate flavor and a high mineral content (which gives it its color). It is best used on delicate proteins such as white fish, scallops and veal. "It is mild with a hint of sweetness and lets flavors hold their own," Chef Bradley said.
- KUROSHIO DEEP OCEAN SEA SALT: Chef Knibb uses this hard-to-come-by salt, which is harvested from the Kuroshio current off the eastern shore of Japan, to season raw and cooked fish dishes. "It has a nice ocean flavor that goes with the fish."
- HIMALAYAN PINK SALT: Very en vogue at present, this Pakistani salt can be procured in large rectangular blocks. Chef Guillas places thin slices of kampachi and other raw sushi grade fish on the slabs where they instantly cure and take on the flavor of the salt.