Justin asked about the difference between kosher and table salt. I described the flavor difference and uses. He further inquired about what actually makes them different. I wasn’t sure and guessed (openly) that perhaps it had to do with the manufacturing. Maybe one was mined and the other was evaporated from water? w00t! I was basically correct (more details below).

A few days later, I was talking to Louis and his mom about various salt substitutes and how Jessica and I have so many varieties of salts and salt alternatives. And in further coincidence, Laura and David were discussing (in front of me) how the high melting point of salt raises the boiling point of water. All of that adds up to: me writing this blog post.

We have lots of salt at home!

Growing up, we barely used salt. My mom cooks with little, if any salt. Her logic was always that kosher meat (we were raised kosher) has a high sodium level, so additional salt isn’t necessary. She’s half right. The sodium level is high (salt is used in the koshering process, hence the term “Kosher Salt” — that’s the type of salt used during the process). However, not all dishes have meat in them and those other dishes need salt!

Salmon Crudo with Chili Oil 1
Salmon Crudo with Chili Oil and Hawaiian Black Sea Salt
from Justin’s Birthday Dinner: Easy-to-Eat Food

Years after moving out, I started using salt in my cooking, slowly at first. I took the advice from chefs on TV. I don’t use nearly as much as restaurants, but much more than my mom. It takes time to re-tune your palette. If you’re curious about how your sense of taste and smell work, check out this great article on the Physiology of Taste. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Just as many folks start out with 20-20 vision in their youth and wind up wearing tri-focals come retirement, your senses of taste and smell changes over time. The average adult reportedly has approximately 10,000 taste buds, but children have more, including some dotted along the inside of their cheeks. Infants seem to arrive hard-wired to react to bitterness and sweetness, though the ability to detect saltiness takes six months or so to develop. The childish craving for sweets typically declines during adolescence, probably as a way of limiting caloric intake.

salt mixture on salmon
Various salts mixed with brown sugar cure salmon
from Homemade Lox

Salt is one of, if not THE, key tastes chefs rely on. And it seems like a worthwhile discussion. There are three key salts we always have at home.

Kosher Salt (a.k.a. kashering or koshering salt) – This is our “go to” salt. We use it in almost every dish. It is a large-grained, pure (additive-free) salt (Sodium Chloride). The lack of other chemicals allows the salt to adjust flavor without adding other flavors. The large granule size has several benefits. First, it dissolves relatively slowly. So you can still feel the salt as you eat the final product, most people don’t realize how that adds a subtlety to dishes. Second, you don’t need as much of it to equally season the food. Third, the large granules are actually less dense than table salt. So it doesn’t taste as salty if you get a piece of it in your mouth whole. (weird, huh?) By far our favorite brand (after taste testing) is Morton’s.

Table Salt (Iodized, a.k.a. refined salt) – This salt is perfect for the three Bs: baking, boiling, and brining. While any salt should be fine (chemically-speaking) for baking, the ideal salt will have been ground very fine. Salt takes time to dissolve in liquid and even more time to dissolve in baking mixtures (even Morton’s suggests avoiding coarse salts in baking). A coarse grain salt (as is often found with sea and kosher salts) will result in an unevenly seasoned mixture. Of course coarse salts are great for topping baked goods.

Table salt is also our choice when boiling pasta. Salting the water for boiling pasta is critical, as that is the primary point when pasta absorbs liquid and flavor. If the water is not salted, the pasta won’t be either. Further, salted water boils at a higher temperature (how much higher varies based on the amount of dissolved salt), this helps ensure a proper cooking time when you follow box instructions. And, a third reason, table salt is roughly half the price of kosher salt, so I don’t mind using it in larger amounts.

Sea Salt – With it’s wide, flat flaky shape, sea salt is the ideal salt for topping food at the table, or at least after cooking. The flavor of sea salt is very delicate and it will dissipate readily during cooking. Also, it’s a pet peeve of mine when people put sea salt in grinders, such people are wasting the ideal salt shape! Sea salt is vastly more expensive than table and kosher salts, so it’s use should be somewhat sparing. Top your favorite breads or olive oils. Also season high quality meats and poultry at the table with sea salt. And obviously, sea salt is ideal over your favorite fish.

Apple Smoked Salt 2
Another salt we love to keep at home is Applewood-Smoked Salt,
which tasted wonderful in our Spicy White Chocolate.

I should probably answer (officially) Justin’s original question: how are these salts produced. Simply, most food-quality salt is evaporated from water. while industrial-quality salt is often mined from salt mines.

Generally, table salt is evaporated from water that is piped through salt mines. As the water runs through the mines, salt dissolves into the water and is later evaporated. It is processed down to a fine size, in a cubic shape. Iodine and anti-caking agents are added to the salt before boxing for shipping.

Kosher salt is usually evaporated from sea water, but may be mined. Either way it is processed to remove all impurities.
Some companies, such as Morton’s add anti-caking agents. During processing the salt is usually moved to keep the shape irregular and have many facets.

Sea salt is always evaporated from sea water, usually by the sun, in large man-made pools. True sea salt should not be processed. It should contain additional minerals, naturally found in sea water and should not contain an anti-caking agent. Sea salt should taste like the sea, and should be less salty (lighter tasting) than both table and kosher salt.

I’ll briefly mention rock salt. Rock salt, usually used for salting streets and sidewalks, is a mined salt, that is mostly unprocessed. It is much coarser than any of the aforementioned salts, and contains inedible minerals. I mention it here, because it does have a culinary use. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, therefore, mixing rock salt (or any salt) into water will allow the water to stay liquid at a lower temperature. When making ice cream the old fashioned, churn-method, the bucket must be surrounded by freezing water, that is still liquid. Adding rock salt to the water outside the bucket allows this to occur.

While we don’t keep Potassium Chloride at home, it is the main salt substitute. People who have medically-diagnosed, sodium issues may have been advised by their doctor to avoid or reduce sodium intake. Potassium Chloride is the typical way to do it. There are various brands on the market that are completely without sodium (such as No Salt, Nu-Salt, and Morton Salt Substitute), as well as a few with some sodium (such as Morton Lite Salt). First of all, it does taste salty, but also a bit weird. Second, this stuff is not good for you, and there are numerous cases of death due to Potassium Chloride (usually in young children or senior citizens) doses that are not unreasonably large. So, again, speak to your doctor before considering salt substitute.

Well, while not as immediate a threat as salt substitute, eating too much sodium is not good for most people. Humans need several hundred milligrams of sodium per day and can tolerate several thousand. However, most people consume much more than that. It is usually due to eating processed foods. So while salt tastes good, too much of a good thing is bad for you.

If you cook with processed foods, you should consider reducing the salt you add to dishes. For instance, even low sodium chicken broth or bouillion (store bought, obviously) has far more salt than homemade chicken broth. Ketchup has lots of salt, processed meats (most store bought deli meats, sausages, etc.) are high in sodium, etc. So keep your eyes out. Or better yet, avoid processed foods.

Well that wraps it up for my salt article. If you’d like to continue reading on salt here are some great reference pages online:

Jessica started reading the New York Times Bestseller, Salt by Mark Kurlansky, but it’s more about the history of salt then the uses.

Just for fun, check out what else you can do with salt.

posted by Lon at 08:43 AM Filed under Basics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.