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May 2, 2009 11:10 AM

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

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:

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:

And a good piece on use of exotic salts in baking here:

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  1. 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

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

      1. re: todao

        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

          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

            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

              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

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

                1. re: kchurchill5

                  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

                    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

                    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

                      "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. 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 ...


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

            5 Replies
            1. re: kchurchill5

              That's a terrific glossary of varieties, thanks.

              1. re: Cinnamon

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

              2. re: kchurchill5

                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

                  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

                    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. 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. 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. 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.

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