Thanksgiving is right around the corner. In fact, it’s in 4 days and you should probably be thawing your turkey by now!
The impending holiday got me thinking about cooking which got me thinking about salt because we brine our turkey every year. Most days we don’t give any thought to it, but salt is an essential nutrient for humans and there are a whole bunch of different types out there to choose from, many of which I have never tried before.
We had a canister of La Baleine Fine Sea Salt and a box of Morton’s Kosher Salt in the cabinet but I knew there were more options and I wanted to taste and see them for myself. My first stop was one of my favorite spots, the bulk foods section of my local natural food store. There I found pink Himalayan salt and smoked sea salt. My next stop was Cost Plus where I purchased Fleur de Sel and Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt.
My husband Jacob is a chef by training & trade, so I asked him to join me for this culinary experiment. We lined up all of the salts and tasted a few grains of each and then cleared our palates by drinking water. Our first thought — they’re all salty. For the most part the tastes were the same but there were important differences in each variety’s intensity, size and crystal texture. Some were subtle and others were bold. Some lingered on the tongue while others faded more quickly. We were intrigued to see how one thing could be so similar and so different at once.
Sea Salt: (not pictured) I see sea salt as a replacement for table salt. The iodized table salt that may be in the back of your pantry right now is chemically altered and filled with anti-caking agents. Technically it is salt, but it’s a lot of other things too and if you ask me “tasty” isn’t one of them. If you find you have some lurking in your kitchen, use it for salt paintings, but don’t eat it. Get yourself some fine sea salt instead.
Kosher Salt: This is the workhorse, the salt of chefs at work and at home. Kosher salt has large grains, which lead to even distribution of salt on the food, slower melting and more flavor. Kosher salt does the trick for rimming your margarita glass – no need to buy pricey “margarita salt” when this is what likely rims the glass in your favorite Mexican restaurant.
Himalayan Pink Salt: The most mild of the salts we tasted. I’ve heard that the chemical balance in pink salt is quite close to that within the human body and while I didn’t find any hard data to confirm that in my research for this post, I am inclined to believe it because this salt tastes just like tears.
Fleur de Sel: One of the most famous salts in the world, this large-crystal grey salt is “farmed” from the ocean in France. The grains are enormous, and have a clean salt taste while still being mild. This is a beautiful finishing salt for when you want to see the grains of salt on the plated food. Great for desserts, it would impart a really nice balance sprinkled on cupcakes, caramel or flan. Fleur de Sel was Jacob’s favorite.
Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt: This salt is harvested from the ocean and mixed with the red alaea clay that is only found in Hawaii. The clay brings an earthy taste to balance the sharp saltiness of coarsely ground crystals. Hawaiian Alaea was my favorite of the group and I imagine it would make the best soft pretzels ever. This is another one that would hold up really well as a finishing salt or make a strong impression on the edge of a margarita glass.
Smoked Sea Salt: Jacob and I are calling this one a novelty salt. It would be good shortcut if you’re looking for a smoked flavor but don’t have the time or equipment to actually smoke the meat. The smoke flavor was very strong and, in my view, overshadowed the salt with an almost ashy aftertaste. This one is pretty unpopular in our kitchen and I won’t be buying it again.
A word of advice on seasoning with salt from Chef Jacob:
The first thing they teach you on the first day of culinary school is to wash your hands properly. The second thing they teach you is how to use salt to build flavor. That’s how important it is. If you start a dish with olive oil, onions and garlic in a sauté pan (and you should start many dishes this way) the next thing you reach for should be kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper — not that stale gray pepper dust in the tin, fresh cracked pepper. Next, you add in your other ingredients, tasting and seasoning as you go, building up the flavor layer by layer. Keep tasting and seasoning as you work so you don’t get too much of something. Remember you can always add but you can’t subtract.
Want to learn more? The most helpful guide I found online is this Sea Salt & Gourmet Salts Guide from SaltWorks.us. It’s a breakdown of the major types of salt and what they’re typically used for. Please leave a comment below if you think there’s a salt I missed that I need to try. Happy Thanksgiving!