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Exploring salt: Which ones are 'must trys' beyond simple 'sea salt'?

c
Cinnamon May 2, 2009 11:10 AM

I like salt. Which fancy ones are yummiest to buy and try first? And what are your favorite ways to use them?

At moment we've got Celtic Sea Salt in the go-to grinder.

If I want to expand my horizons, should I be after fleur de sel, or some greyish smoked salt or what? And has anyone seen a good salt sampler, so that you're not buying 6 months worth of whatever gourmet salt at once?

Chow has a great article about some varieties here:
http://www.chow.com/stories/11246

I eat a lot of Southeast Asian foods, plenty of fresh produce, and while baking is more occasional, I'm curious about the effect of interesting salts there too, as well as what gourmet salts are good on homemade potato chips and fries. I've had smoked salt and fleur de sel dining out, probably some other varieties.

In this thread, I want to look beyond things like rock salt, popcorn salt, Lawry's blends etc. to salts sourced from a specific geography, or prepared in a unique way like smoked. And also beyond the basic chemistry-class concept of salt as just sodium chloride. Here I'm asking for your favorites, if you personally notice a difference between essentially Morton's and anything else - whether that's due to trace mineral content, flake shape, processing/flavoring or what have you as the reason.

Chow has a good extended definition of salt as an ingredient here:
http://www.chow.com/ingredients/301

And a good piece on use of exotic salts in baking here:
http://www.chow.com/stories/10502

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  1. todao RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 11:35 AM

    Before we get too excited about fancy salts, we need to run back to the chemistry book they handed us in high school.
    Salt (sodium chloride) comes from the ground (mines) or the water (natural evaporation). One rock of sodium chloride is essentially the same as another. Even the mined salts were, at one point in time, sea salt. It's just that the "sea" disappeared and left it behind.
    That said, salt differs primarily in the grind. Pickling salt, coarse salt, table salt, etc. But it's all just sodium chloride. Some salts contain additives (table salt often contains iodine - iodized salt). Some salts do contain other minerals which make them colorful. They're still plain old sodium chloride; just with a few additional minerals mixed in. Frankly, I'm not convinced the microscopic amounts of stray minerals that color salt can be detected by the taste buds of a human but perhaps my palate isn't sophisticated enough so I'll not venture into that spectrum.
    Look at the ingredient label on the salt you buy. No matter what fancy claims the advertising company makes, I doubt you'll find any ingredients (except for additives) other than "salt". Salt substitutes, most of which contain some salt, differ from regular salt primarily by virtue of the additives that are included . Even "salt free" preparations typically contain potassium chloride - that's "salt".

    10 Replies
    1. re: todao
      c
      Cinnamon RE: todao May 2, 2009 11:49 AM

      As mentioned, I'm looking for people's favorites in this thread.

      1. re: todao
        alanbarnes RE: todao May 2, 2009 07:32 PM

        It's true that pure salt is pure salt. But the texture changes the rate at which it dissolves on the tongue, and therefore changes the flavor somewhat. So long as the crystals are distinct when you put them in your mouth, very fine salt provides an intense hit of saltiness that fades quickly, while coarse salt provides a subtler but more sustained salty note.

        But the real difference is in the impurities. Most salt isn't just NaCl; it's got trace minerals that change the flavor depending on how and where it was gathered. Throw in various sizes and shapes of crystals and you have some serious variations in taste.

        My staples are non-iodized table salt and kosher salt; the exotics are smoked salt, Maldon salt, and Hawai'ian red salt. Seriously, you can taste a significant difference. Try it some time.

        1. re: alanbarnes
          paulj RE: alanbarnes May 3, 2009 10:07 AM

          The differences that texture makes are obvious. I can add kosher salt to a dish by the pinch, and shake the fine stuff. I can detect the crunch of large crystals that have been freshly applied to a salad. And I can serve vegetables on my block of pink salt.

          But I have doubts about the significance of the impurities. I haven't noticed a difference in taste. Is it because I don't use enough salt in most dishes, or is because my sense of taste is impaired? I prefer to think it is the former.

          The smoked salt may have a distinctive taste. Do you think I could duplicate that by adding a pinch of mild pimenton to some kosher?

          1. re: paulj
            alanbarnes RE: paulj May 3, 2009 11:18 AM

            It's difficult to impossible to taste the differences between salts when they're incorporated into prepared foods. That's why I use cheapo non-iodized table salt most of the time. But the differences in flavor are most apparent when a comparatively large amount of salt is added at the last second. A sprinkle of Maldon salt on a piece of buttered bread, a pinch of 'alaea salt on a slice of sashimi, etc.

            Also, some "premium" salts are pretty pure. Nothing wrong with that, but they're not going to bring much extra flavor to the party. The dirtier the salt looks, the more unique it's likely to taste.

            As far as smoked salt goes, it's pretty interesting stuff. Fairly cheap, too. But it's just salt and smoke, so if you're planning to make your own, I'd think liquid smoke would work better than pimenton, which is sweet, smoky, and spicy.

            1. re: alanbarnes
              kchurchill5 RE: alanbarnes May 3, 2009 12:21 PM

              Sorry I disagree, I can certainly taste the difference in MOST foods not all. Dishes where the salt is more of an accent or a garnish or a main ingredient you can easily tell. A garnish on a vegetable or salad or on top of a steak or lamb, definitely. You don't need a large amount of salt just a drizzle of a good salt on the right item can make all the difference.

              Try some of the unique pink and grey salts and hawaiian salts, you will see the flavor if the food is prepared correctly with the salt. But the salts are expensive and I don't use them often. But cooked correctly, they are definitely unique and you can tell the difference. Sorry to disagree

              1. re: kchurchill5
                b
                bigfellow RE: kchurchill5 May 3, 2009 12:25 PM

                I agree with Kim. I can tell the difference in most dishes.

                1. re: kchurchill5
                  alanbarnes RE: kchurchill5 May 3, 2009 12:31 PM

                  I guess it depends on how much salt is in the dish and what competing flavors are going on. I personally can't distinguish between sea salt and table salt when baking bread, or between red Hawai'ian salt and plain kosher salt in a pot of beans.

                  I do keep various salts around, and have tried them in a number of different applications. For my tastes, I'll stick with table and kosher salt for cooking, and save the exotic stuff for finishing a dish.

                  1. re: alanbarnes
                    kchurchill5 RE: alanbarnes May 3, 2009 03:33 PM

                    Your very right, some of the different more exotic salts are for finishing or are for a finishing touch to a seafood dish or veggie dish. Some stews do benefit from a certain salt but not too often. some dishes do but more so finishing dishes.

                  2. re: kchurchill5
                    paulj RE: kchurchill5 May 3, 2009 12:34 PM

                    Besides sprinkling on a red tomato slices, what is a proper use of the black Hawaiian salt?

                    I have some (white) sea salt that's about the same size as the red Hawaiian. If cost is not an issue, when should I use white v red v black?

                    1. re: paulj
                      Fritter RE: paulj May 9, 2009 06:43 AM

                      "what is a proper use of the black Hawaiian salt?"

                      Proper might be subject to interpretation but you can find recipes for poi that utilize the pink Hawaiian salt and many for Kalua pig that include the black. I've seen the black Hawaiian on many variations of poke and I use it to finish a roasted beet mock poke.
                      I prefer Fleur de sel to most other specialty salts and I'm solidly in the camp that believes these products are best for finishing unless you are trying to be very true and authentic to a particular dish.
                      I also find specialty salts a very interesting conversation piece at dinner parties. You can get some salts like the Peruvian pink cut in tiles that make killer presentation pieces.

          2. kchurchill5 RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 11:45 AM

            Yes Todao, great explanation. My only difference is I can definitely tell the difference in the flavors, however you need to have a dish where salt is a key flavor component to really tell the subtle flavors. Maybe on a nice steak, piece of fish or on some grilled vegetables or in a great stew where where good herbs and a good salt and pepper are key to the flavoring.

            Table salt, kosher and sea are the three primary types. Kosher being like table without added iodine or any chemicals as well as a coarse texture.

            Sea salt obviously comes from the sea. It can be more bitter, tangy, sweet and has many different flavors. See the below link if you thought there were only a few ...

            http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main...

            Everything you ever wanted to know about salt ...I couldn't believe how many there were.

            5 Replies
            1. re: kchurchill5
              c
              Cinnamon RE: kchurchill5 May 2, 2009 12:05 PM

              That's a terrific glossary of varieties, thanks.

              1. re: Cinnamon
                kchurchill5 RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 12:11 PM

                welcome, have, they can be expensive, but some fun things to try

              2. re: kchurchill5
                todao RE: kchurchill5 May 3, 2009 10:31 AM

                Well, my friend, I do understand the romance of salt and the variety of ways in which salt can affect the palette based on the shape and size of the crystals. And I certainly would not criticize those who believe in the romantic notions about salt. I have noticed that most of the information about exotic salts is published by people who sell exotic salts. Kinda like the bottled water phenomenon. My purpose for offering scientific facts about salt, rather than romantic theory, personal speculation or sales hype, is to raise the awareness of those who are easily parted from their money by advertising and who might be persuaded to expect more from exotic salt than the mineral can truly offer. My recommendation to those who have questions about salt is to focus on the purity of the mineral and the size of the crystals (pickling, kosher, table, etc.) when making a selection for a specific recipe. If they like pretty colors and have a palette for trace minerals in the salt, perhaps their investment in exotic salt will bear them fruit.

                1. re: todao
                  kchurchill5 RE: todao May 3, 2009 12:25 PM

                  I do agree, I use kosher 99%, I have some grey I purchased and like it for veggies. My others I got as a sampler and did notice some differences in dishes that were suggested for that salt. They were good. Worth the money to purchase more of the salt NO. I got the salt as a sampler so it was fun but I probably wouldn't buy more than 1 the grey or 2 the black. Other than that it was fun to try. But for me kosher almost always.

                  1. re: kchurchill5
                    b
                    bigfellow RE: kchurchill5 May 3, 2009 12:26 PM

                    I use kosher in place of ordinary table salt. But I use a lot of specialty salts in different dishes. I changes the hue of the dishes nicely.

              3. kchurchill5 RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 12:11 PM

                Kosher I use for most cooking, grey salt also, a bit milder for me. I have tried certain salts for certain dishes but costly. I found a great site last year but has since just vanished and I got for 39 dollars a mix of salts. Just small packets to try and was well worth it and I tried quite a few but they vanished from the internet. SeaSalt and More, Inc. No trace of them. A chef I know mentioned it and it was fun, probably over a year or more now. Anyways, I love many of the salts for certain foods, but overall, grey is a nice mild flavor, but kosher is my go to. Inexpensive and practical for most anything. I may purchase something a bit more unique for a special dish for a party but not in large quantities. There are many web sites where you can purchase some. The site I listed below gives you great descriptions of the salt but also what it is good with which I liked. I printed this out and put it in my binder.

                1. DanaB RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 12:47 PM

                  At a dinner party last year, a friend served hard-boiled quail eggs with danish smoked sea salt to sprinkle on top, and it made for a fantastic little mouthful! It was simple, yet novel, and a great way to show off the unique flavor of the salt.

                  1. b
                    bigfellow RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 01:12 PM

                    I aways have Diamond Crystal Kosher, Maldon, smoked salt and Fluer de sel in my kitchen. I buy and use others as needed.
                    The issue of Saveur with their 100 best a couple of months ago mentioned 4 or 5 salts in the list.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: bigfellow
                      b
                      bigfellow RE: bigfellow May 2, 2009 04:00 PM

                      http://www.saveur.com/article/Our%20F...

                    2. c
                      club mataba RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 05:42 PM

                      Maldon flaked salt is the best on fresh summer tomatoes.
                      I love the flavour of smoked chardonnay salt (even though I'm not a chardonnay fan) And pink Hawaiian is great on steamed veggies.

                      A couple of years ago, Costco had a salt sampler with 8 varieties (+/-100g) from Be Gastronome out of Quebec. (They also had a vinegar assortment) Fantastic deal, and made a great hostess gift around Christmas time. I wish they'd bring them back.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: club mataba
                        kchurchill5 RE: club mataba May 2, 2009 06:48 PM

                        Sams Club also had a similar thing with salt but 3-4 years ago. I wish I could find that again as well. Fun to try.

                      2. David A. Goldfarb RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 08:07 PM

                        Fleur de sel from Guérande is really worth trying. It should be grey and somewhat damp. Just add it at the end to fish or vegetables or knead in into butter, so you can feel the flaky texture and smell the scent of the sea. It's also a nice salt to put out at the table with pot au feu or a potée Normande or any dish that you might salt at the table, like egg dishes. There is also a less expensive drier (it has more moisture than ordinary table salt, so it still doesn't work well in a shaker usually) form of sel gris that can be used more liberally.

                        Hawai'ian salt with red 'alea--red Hawai'ian clay--is also a nice thing with a bit of a different flavor from regular salt. I also like it on fish and vegetables.

                        There is a black Hawai'ian salt, but it just has activated charcoal in it. I don't find it that interesting.

                        My everyday all purpose salt is Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. I also use white Hawai'ian salt for some things. Hawai'ian salts are made by evaporation, so they have other trace minerals from seawater.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: David A. Goldfarb
                          alanbarnes RE: David A. Goldfarb May 3, 2009 07:33 AM

                          It seems there are different recipes for black Hawa'ian salt. The one I tried was, if anything, too "interesting" - it was pretty intensely sulfurous.

                          While the Hawai'ians have been making 'alaea salt with red clay for centuries (Captain Cook thought it was appalling that they preferred "dirty" salt to the clean white stuff), I'm not sure that black salt is anything other than a recent innovation.

                          1. re: alanbarnes
                            Caitlin McGrath RE: alanbarnes May 3, 2009 09:31 PM

                            What color is that black Hawaiian salt? I ask because the Indian black salt, also sulfurous, is actually pink in color. The sulfur is a factor of where it is mined.

                            1. re: Caitlin McGrath
                              alanbarnes RE: Caitlin McGrath May 4, 2009 07:55 AM

                              Hawai'ian black salt is shiny black. Although now I'm thinking - maybe it was Indian black salt that I noticed being so sulfurous.

                              1. re: alanbarnes
                                Caitlin McGrath RE: alanbarnes May 4, 2009 05:57 PM

                                The salt glossary kchurchill5 linked above describes Hawaiian black lava salt this way: "This salt is created with purified sea water that is evaporated in pools with purified black lava rock to add minerals. It is then dried in a greenhouse."

                                Indian black salt is surely an acquired taste.

                        2. DiningDiva RE: Cinnamon May 2, 2009 11:27 PM

                          I travel frequently in Mexico and make it a point to visit local markets and tianguis. Almost all of them have local sal de grano, which is usually a coarse grain sea salt. I've probably tried 3 or 4 different one so far and each one has been different. The best has been the Espuma del Mar de Colima (sea foam salt from Colima) which isn't really very coarse but has a very soft, gentle and round flavor. It is much more of a finishing salt and very good on raw fruits and vegetables as the delicateness of the flavor seemed to get lost when used in cooking.
                          '
                          Because sal de grano can be, well, granular, I usually will put a couple handfuls in a clean spice grinder, give it a whirl to pulverize and use this for shaker or table salt. I also use it for baking. While I can detect subtlies using this salt with food, so far it makes virtually no difference in finished baked goods. The sal de grano from Michoacan was fairly damp once ground and did not dry out much even with exposure to air. This salt was much more robust than the Colima salt and better used in general cooking than as a finishing salt.

                          Sal de grano may be available in Mexican markets in the U.S., tho' I haven't seent it locally and we've got quite a few Mexican markets. It's dirt cheap in Mexico and makes a good and unusual food related item to bring back.

                          1. luckyfatima RE: Cinnamon May 3, 2009 01:55 AM

                            Lift the flavor of your fruit salad by sprinkling on it some red chile powder and "black salt" (kala namak from the Indo-Pak grocery) on your fruit.

                            1. flylice2x RE: Cinnamon May 3, 2009 02:34 AM

                              Here's a website I buy my Hawaiian Salt from... www.4jshawaii.com/

                              1. l
                                LisaN RE: Cinnamon May 3, 2009 06:48 PM

                                I received some of these fusion salts as a gift and I'm liking them quite a bit. Good on popcorn, on salads with just a little olive oil

                                http://www.saltworks.us/shop/product....

                                1. bayoucook RE: Cinnamon May 4, 2009 08:01 AM

                                  Here's a good, less expensive way to try them: Dave's Gourmet Salts - they come 6 to a jar each with their out spout. The one I have has these salts: Himalayan Pink Salt, Eurasion Black Salt, Pure Ocean Salt, Sel de Guerande, Smoked Salt (black), and Hawaiian Red Salt. Cost about 6.00 and it's a fun toy. I think I ordered it from igourmet.com.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: bayoucook
                                    kchurchill5 RE: bayoucook May 4, 2009 05:30 PM

                                    Very cool, that is similar to what I got, wish the place still existed. Got 8 small bags of gourmet salts, pink, grey, black, red, etc. Loved it, but they or the web site no longer around. It was fun to try, but definitely interesting putting pink salt on something. Just fun I guess.

                                  2. cgfan RE: Cinnamon May 4, 2009 10:01 AM

                                    I use various salts both for their taste, texture, and their physical properties. By physical properties (too dry a word, but it'll do for now!) I am partly thinking texture, but also a lot of other characteristics that affects the entire experience. And I do mean experience, as I do consider how if the particular salt will dissolve or not by the time it is consumed and what texture will remain at the time that it is consumed. It's almost like pre-programming in your dish a little piece of performance art. Crunch crunch crunch!

                                    For instance how dense and coarse salts crunch in the mouth when you bite them, how moister salts somehow presents a more gentle experience whereas dry salts tends to be very harsh. Of course I'm assuming that these salts are used in a way where they do not mix with the ingredients but rather stay distinct.

                                    I personally would never use the "culinary salts" in an application where they will dissolve - the whole idea for their use, except for the flavored ones such as the smoked, truffled, or otherwise ammended salts, is to use them in ways where they stay distinct. For all other purposes I keep a large lidded salt safe right by the stove filled with kosher salt.

                                    The danger of discussing their use is that most of the times when I use a culinary salt I am using it only for a subset of its characteristics. For instance I will use a medium Sel Gris (grey salt) even in instances where I might not taste the difference as I can get it in a texture that I like the most for its "just right" crunch amongst all of the salts that I keep around the kitchen. Other times I just need a moist salt for its more gentle taste but almost any moist artisanal salt will do.

                                    Of course it is with the simplest of dishes where I will typically be using the culinary salts for all of their characteristics. One such example is at the sushi bar (I actually carry with me on my key chain at all times various salts in small, O-ring-sealed aluminum capsules bought at REI...) for those rare occasions where my Itamae would forget to salt a shiromi (white flesh fish) that was not otherwise intended to be consumed with soy.

                                    For Shiromi as Nigiri or Sashimi, two salts stand supreme - a Himalayan pink rock salt, or Japan's Yuki Shio (snow salt). They both carry a similar palate, one of a broad alkaline taste but very subdued as regards to its "saltiness". I suspect that the Himalayan pink and the Yuki Shio both contain much less Sodium Chloride and in its place contains many other evaporites, which would explain its broad alkaline taste.

                                    Their effect on Shiromi must be experienced to be believed... It does not add much of an obvious saltiness - not very salty at all - but does wonders to amplify and integrate the subtle flavors of the Tane. Of all the Shiromi, it probably does best on a Hirame. (BTW if the Hirame is consumed w/soy instead, I'd recommend the use of Yuasa's Ki-Ippon - it particularly shines on Hirame and Maguro, and Shiromi in general, and does better than any other soy on Sushi overall...)

                                    I love to use a medium Sel Gris when I enjoy a good sourdough baugette. I simply tear a piece off, dip it in olive oil, and sprinkle each torn piece with the medium Sel Gris - the texture is perfect, and the Sel Gris picks up a lot of the subtle flavors in the bread. (The use of basalmic vinegar on bread makes me cringe!)

                                    So here are the salts that I personally use and enjoy for various reasons, in descending order:

                                    * Yuki Shio (a fine, opaque white powder) - the best choice on Shiromi (Nigiri or Sashimi)
                                    * Himalayan pink salt (in rock form and ground to an opaque white powder for use) - incredible on Shiromi (Nigiri or Sashimi)
                                    * Sel Gris, medium grind - great sprinkled on torn sourdough bread dipped in olive oil
                                    * Fleur de Sel
                                    - Ama Shio (an inexpensive moist Japanese sea salt used for pickling, I find it great to use when you want a moist, flaky salt but not for a specific flavor; actually has a somewhat similar texture to Fleur de Sel [but not as light] and so it gets a lot of use even more so than the Fleur de Sel
                                    * Wa no Moshio (a Japanese smoked salt, I find that it is much more subtle than most smoked salts [I find them usually too strong for most purposes] and therefore very adaptable for more frequent use)
                                    * Truffle salt (I find it too overpowering for most use)
                                    * various smoked salts (I find them too overpowering for most uses)

                                    * Kosher salt (for all cooking and general purpose use)

                                    1. c
                                      CocoaNut RE: Cinnamon May 9, 2009 10:38 AM

                                      When used as an “ingredient”, I don’t detect any differences among salts. So while not exotic, my primary salt for cooking on the stove-top (sauces and "wet" foods) is pickling salt bought several years ago. It’s basic table salt without iodine (turns pickles dark) or the agent to prevent "clumping" (makes the liquid cloudy). Therefore, while not good for the salt shaker, it may actually be a bit healthier by eliminating one more unnecessary additive from the diet.

                                      I also have Kosher salt for use with meats to be grilled. I can't really tell a taste difference from table/pickling, but as I distribute it using my fingers, the coarser texture allows a more controlled, even distribution.

                                      As to sea salt, I find its taste more mellow as opposed to the harsher bite of table varieties. I have Alessi, a product of Italy labeled as a Mediterranean salt. It is a flake variety which I use for finishing, as needed at the table. However, as a “flake”, it will dissolve with contact to warm/hot moisture.

                                      My most interesting sea salt, a gift sent from Maine, is a small rock crystal which does NOT melt/dissolve easily. Even after several minutes in a bowl of hot soup, it offers a pleasant, salty crunch from a chance found crystal. I use it scantily, as a flavor garnish of sorts for savory baked items – added and gently pressed in prior to baking – or on anything where I want to add a nice flavor surprise to random bites. This “brand” does contain trace minerals of: Sulfur, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron, and Zinc.
                                      http://www.stonewallkitchen.com/prdse...

                                      A favorite web-site is Cook’s Thesaurus. Concerning salt, here’s what they offer:
                                      http://www.foodsubs.com/Salt.html

                                      1. tracylee RE: Cinnamon May 9, 2009 05:15 PM

                                        You asked about a salt sampler, and I really thought this one was a great one for the price:
                                        http://www.atthemeadow.com/shop/index...

                                        I've used many of them sprinkled over the top of various dishes, where you can get that spark of salt at just the right moment.

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