Salt is an essential seasoning that has been treasured throughout culinary history. In recent generations, salt was a seasoning that came in a shaker, and most folks never gave it a second thought. Today, there are myriad types of salts, each with its own unique characteristics and specific culinary applications.
Here's a guide to the various types of salts a home cook should know about.
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Table salt is your standard salt, with small crystals designed to fit through the tiny holes in salt shakers. In addition to those cylindrical boxes on grocery shelves, you'll also find it in foodservice packets and on restaurant tables. Iodized salt is a form of table salt that has had iodine added to it to prevent a disease called goiter.
From a culinary standpoint, a cook's goal should be to season a dish properly so that it isn't necessary (or desirable) to add salt to a dish at the table. For that reason, and to the extent that modern home cooks have adopted this approach, the use of table salt for seasoning is much diminished.
Despite this, table salt is still widely used in baking. Besides contributing flavor, salt reacts with the glutens in wheat to make the dough more elastic. Moreover, its small crystals help it to dissolve in the dough, making it the preferred form of salt to use in making bread and other baked goods.
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Kosher salt is a coarse-grained salt that has a cleaner, lighter taste than ordinary table salt, and whose larger crystals make it better at adhering to foods and for making spice rubs and seasoning blends.
Whereas the iodine that's added to table salt imparts a slightly metallic flavor, kosher salt is free of additives.
Recipes increasingly specify Kosher salt over ordinary table salt, but if a recipe simply says "salt," it means table salt. And while Kosher and table salts are equivalent by weight, Kosher salt's larger crystals make it half as salty by volume compared with table salt. Thus, if you're substituting Kosher salt in a recipe that calls for ordinary table salt, you should use twice the amount of Kosher salt as the recipe calls for.
But note that you only need to do this conversion with recipes that call for salt using volume measurements like teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups. Certain baking formulas already specify ingredients in weights, in which case you needn't make a conversion. But as already mentioned, table salt works better in baking anyway because it dissolves more easily.
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The sea is the main source of the world's salt, of course, but there are also underground salt deposits that are mined to produce salt for food. These underground deposits, however, were created millennia ago by seas that aren't there anymore. Even salt deposits in the Himalayan mountain range date from a time when those lands were underwater—millions of years before the mountains themselves were formed.
In any case, products labeled "sea salt" are produced by evaporating seawater. Different varieties are labeled according to where they are produced, each with its own characteristics and flavors from trace elements. Depending on these components, as well as how it's produced, sea salts can take the form of flakes, fine crystals, or coarse crystals, and exhibit a range of colors from local minerals and even algae.
Because of these variances in flavor, as well as texture, converting between sea salt and other salts in recipes can be unreliable. Sea salt, therefore, is generally better used as a garnish or condiment than as the main source of seasoning in a dish.
One particular type of sea salt, known as fleur de sel, is worth noting. Harvested from shallow pools in the French coastal region of Brittany, fleur de sel only forms in specific weather conditions and must be harvested by hand. Consequently, it is rare and expensive, costing upwards of $30 per pound, and used exclusively as a garnish or condiment.
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Because of its preservative properties stemming from its ability to draw water out of foods, salt is a key component in cures for drying and preserving meats, and also brines for pickling vegetables and curing poultry and meats (think pastrami and corned beef). Smoking meats, itself a form of preservation, is often done in conjunction with some sort of curing or brining.
And while any salt has these preservative properties, special curing salts and brining salts are available which have been formulated specifically for its intended task. Curing salt, for instance, is ordinary salt to which is added a small amount of sodium nitrate, which happens to be effective at combating the microbes that cause botulism. Curing salts also add the pinkish color to cured meats like bacon, ham and corned beef.
Brining and pickling salts generally consist of salt combined with sugar and are dissolved in water to produce a flavored liquid into which foods like meats and vegetables are immersed.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Specialty salts like Himalayan pink salt (see above) and Hawaiian black salt (which gets its coloring from the black lava in the soil where it's harvested) abound, and what they lack in universal applicability (in other words, using Himalayan pink salt for salting your pasta water wouldn't be a sound economic choice), they make up for in their subtle variations in flavor and textures. Note that many of these salts will dissolve quickly, so if you're adding it as a garnish, do so immediately before serving.