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Salt

Tuesday, 3 March 2009 | Tags: ,

The most common food flavouring in the world, every grain of salt comes from the sea, but there are many kinds of salt available on the market. We find out what makes them different, both in taste and in price.

The Basics

  • Nutritionally, all salts are essentially the same, providing sodium and chlorine, which are necessary to the body’s fluid balance, and muscle and nerve activity.

  • Buy premium salts in smaller amounts and reserve them for sprinkling over finished dishes just before serving, rather than for actual cooking.

  • Fine-grained salt (refined table salt or sea salt) is good for baking and everyday cooking.

  • Most people are familiar with common table salt, but there are many more available:

    • Table salt is the most common type and is obtained from rock deposits. Only high-quality fine particles are used for table salt. Because it’s fine-grained, it can clump if there’s moisture, so manufacturers add magnesium carbonate, calcium carbonate, calcium silicate and/or calcium phosphate (all harmless and tasteless) as anti-clumping agents.

    • Kosher salt, originally developed for preparing Kosher meats, comes in larger, flaky grains. Also mined from rock deposits, it contains no additives, dissolves quickly, and is more expensive than table salt.

      • When shopping for certified kosher salt, look for a box marked with a circled K or U on the label. K stands for Kosher, while the circled U represents “Orthodox Union”.

      • Kosher salt is particularly useful in preserving, because its large crystals draw moisture out of meats and other foods more effectively than other salts.

      • Its course texture makes it easier to gauge and control how much you’re using, making it more popular than table salt for many chefs.

      • Because of its large grain, a single teaspoon of kosher salt contains less actual salt than a teaspoon of table salt, in fact, it weighs at least 26% less by volume.

      • When substituting kosher salt for table salt, use an equal but rounded measure to make sure you’re putting enough in your recipe.

    • Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater and contains trace amounts of minerals that add a delicate ocean flavour. It can be bought in fine grains or larger crystals and dissolves quickly. English sea salt (larger crystals) is very flavourful so use sparingly.

    • Grey salt (grey, or sel gris) is moist and mostly unrefined. Its light grey colour (almost light purple) comes from the clay in the salt flats in Brittany, France, where it’s collected by hand using traditional Celtic methods. It’s available in coarse or stone-ground fine grain form.

    • Fleur de sel is the premier quality of grey salt from France. Carefully hand-raked from a thin layer of tiny crystals (or “flowers of salt”) that form on top of ocean ponds, it has a delicate texture and flavour, and is considered rarer than other salts. You can find it at many gourmet stores. Expect an expensive price tag.

    • Maldon salt is a premium, hand-harvested salt from Maldon, England. The salty water is siphoned off the salt marshes (seasonally flooded by the Blackwater river), and then carefully boiled down to produce the characteristc pyramid-shaped flaky crystals.
    • Red Alaea salt is from Hawaii and is a mixture of volcanic clay (rich in iron oxide) and sea salt. It has a russet colour and earthy mineral flavour that is more mellow than regular sea salt, with a sweet finish, unlike table salt. Gourmet chefs use it in meat and seafood rubs. It also adds colour and flavour to finished dishes, such as foie gras. This salt is relatively expensive and harder to find.

    • Black Lava salt is also from Hawaii and is a blend of sea salt, purified black lava, and charcoal.

    • Pickling salt is fine-grained, free of additives, and is used to brine things like pickles and sauerkraut. Unlike table salt, the lack of additives in pickling salt helps keep the pickling liquid from clouding.

    • Rock salt is coarse and mainly used to evenly transfer heat for roasted meats and fish, or sometimes as a bed for serving certain types of shellfish, such as oysters. Rock salt is also used to make ice cream in hand-cranked machines, mixed with cream, sugar, crushed ice, and a touch of vanilla.

    • Seasoned salt is regular table salt combined with other dried flavouring ingredients like onion, garlic, and celery.

  • The average recommended daily maximum for salt intake is 2400mg, though some experts suggest limiting to 1500mg.

  • The additives found in salt are so small, experts say they are perfectly harmless.

Other Considerations

  • Many chefs prefer using kosher salt because it dissolves faster, enabling you to tell more quickly if you need to add more, or if you’ve added too much.

  • You can buy larger granule salt and invest in a salt mill (similar to a pepper mill) for freshly ground salt both for cooking and for your table.

  • All salt should be stored in a dry place to prevent it from solidifying or caking, even ones with anti-caking agents.

  • Do not store salt in silver saltshakers because the chlorine in the salt reacts with the silver, causing a green discolouration. A traditional salt cellar (a small dark container) that keeps out light is the best way to keep salt fresh and dry. Under the proper conditions, salt keeps indefinitely.

  • Although organic salt is not certified by the same standards as botanicals, agriculture or livestock, there are organizations that have set up rigorous guidelines for the production of salt, which include ensuring the purity of the water, cleanliness of the salt beds and strict procedures on how the salt is harvested and packaged

Cooking Tips

  • Salt should be added to enhance flavour of the overall dish, not to create a salty taste.

  • When cooking in a microwave, salt can toughen meat and “burn” vegetables, so add it only after microwaving.

  • If you’ve added too much salt, try some lemon juice to kill the flavour. Or add some slices of potatoes to soak it up. Remove potatoes before serving.

  • If a recipe calls simply for salt, it probably means table salt; most recipes will specify kosher or sea salt if that is what is called for.

TEST CRITERIA

We tested these salts to see if we could really taste a difference:

  • Windsor (iodine added): $0.99/kg
  • Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (no additives): $2.49/kg
  • Maldon (hand-harvested, England): $15.68/kg
  • Fleur de Sel (hand-harvested, France): $21.55/kg

Salted Tomato Taste Test

We asked shoppers at a local grocery store to taste salted fresh tomatoes with our test subjects:

  • The Kosher salt had a light, understated taste.

  • The Maldon was subtle.

  • The Fleur de Sel had a nice salty punch and finished smoothly.

  • The Windsor table salt didn’t stand out among the others.

OUR TOP PICK

Our favourites were the Fleur de Sel and the Maldon. However, salt is really up to personal taste. Keep trying different salts (buy small amounts at first) and you’ll find a favourite for each type of food you eat.

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