Most people are familiar with basic table salt, the type of salt that is most common in the U.S. It is white, has small granules, and seasons almost every kind of food we can think of when we sit down in a restaurant, too often before we even taste what the chef or cook has prepared.
However, that basic table salt is only one of many options available to us today and is generally among the worst for us.
Starting with the basic chemistry, salt is chemically defined as sodium chloride or NaCl in chemistry lingo. It is produced for commercial purposes through a variety of processes, including evaporation and underground mining, and the resulting product may range from a quality cooking salt to rock salt, a lower end commodity that gets spread out on icy roads.
For cooking purposes, there is a wide variety of salts you can use and the differences are almost like the differences between wines, with different chemical compositions, flavors, and uses.
Beginning with that basic table salt, we are using a product that is mostly harvested underground and then highly refined and finely ground. A variety of trace minerals and impurities are removed through processes that include other chemicals, bleaching, and heat so that the resulting product is pure sodium chloride. The salt is then treated with an anti-caking agent to prevent clumping, dextrose (!) and potassium iodine. Keep in mind that dextrose is sugar derived from corn and is used to prevent the added potassium iodide from oxidizing and breaking down into iodine. Standard table salt like Morton’s will have approximately 0.04% dextrose, or 40 milligrams per 100 grams of salt.
As a manufactured product it serves its purpose, but is not an option for those who want the best flavor and nutritional seasoning in their food.
Sea salt is a pretty broad term and actually defines in part some of the salts that we will discuss later. It is harvested through the evaporation of sea water and contains a variety of other minerals like iron, potassium, and zinc.
These additional elements give sea salt a more complex flavor and actually a different feeling as you eat it since the grains can be less refined and coarser grained. The downside is that our seas are no longer as pristine as they were in the past and we are learning more about the micro-plastics and other heavy metal pollutants that will inevitably be found in sea salt harvested from the seas today.
Pink Himalayan Salt
Harvested by hand from a salt mine in the Himalayan Mountains, Himalayan salt is the purest form of salt. Around 250 million years ago the Himalayan Mountains were formed and ancient seas were broken up and some evaporated, leaving salt deposits deep beneath the surface. It is a true sea salt, but with a few important differences.
While table salt is highly refined to eliminate all minerals other than the sodium chloride, Himalayan salt contains the 84 minerals that are naturally found in the human body, so it is also commonly used in spa treatments as well as for cooking.
Due to its ancient sea origins, before the mass pollution of the modern era, it is not only richer in minerals than modern day sea salt, but also purer. It has none of the micro-plastic elements we are hearing more about these days.
Also, because it already contains iodine in addition to all the trace minerals a human body has and needs, it is highly regarded as a more healthy option because that multi-mineral composition means that the human body more readily recognizes it, accepts it and absorbs it.
Because of the chemical composition and minerals in this salt, it has a range of colors, usually dependent on the amount of iron in it. It provides both flavor and texture and is the preferred salt for serious home cooks and professional chefs.
Celtic Sea Salt
Sorry, it doesn’t come from Ireland.
It is actually harvested from tidal ponds off the coast of France and is also known as sel gris, which is French for “grey salt”. The grey color comes from the rich variety of minerals and clay found in the salt flats where it is harvested.
While the production and harvesting processes are highly controlled for quality and purity, the fact that today’s waters are not as clean as they were 250 million years ago means that it is not as pure as Himalayan Salt. Microplastics, lead, and other heavy metal pollutants are possible additions to even the cleanest sea salts.
Essentially, kosher salt is the same as standard table salt.
The difference is that the flakes are larger and flakier, making it appealing to some chefs because of the feel; it is easier to pick up with your fingers and spread over food. Chemically, the biggest difference from standard table salt is the lower levels or absence of anti-caking additives and iodine.
Also, because of the larger crystal structure it is not as dense as regular table salt, so you might want to use more than is called for in a recipe that calls for regular salt. And, because of the different size of grains and flakes, it has a different taste profile because the larger flakes take longer to dissolve on your tongue.
There are a number of specialty salts available to you, depending on how good the shopping is in your area and your budget.
Black lava salt comes from the volcanic Hawaiian waters and includes activated charcoal.
Red Hawaiian salt comes from different island waters and the reddish color comes from the local iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea.
Smoked salts are made by actually smoking the salt like you would meat or other foods and the results depend on the type of wood used and the length of time in the smoker.
Other than the different flavors, whether naturally occurring and subtle mineral flavors or heavily smoked and infused, the chemical composition of any gourmet salt is still basically sodium chloride, or salt.