What Is Salt?

tablespoon of kosher salt close up, on tablespoon set

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Salt is an essential seasoning that has been treasured throughout its history. While you might not think twice about what's in your salt shaker, there are different types of salt. You may cook with one type, finish a dish with a sprinkling of another, and use gourmet salts for special recipes. You will find salt in many seasoning blends and it is used to preserve food as well as bring out the flavor.

What Is Salt?

Salt is a mineral crystal composed of sodium and chloride. Virtually all salt on earth was deposited by ancient seas or is extracted today from the oceans or saline lakes. While your body requires some salt for good health, many processed foods contain more salt than is needed. People with conditions such as high blood pressure try to reduce added salt in their diet.

Varieties of Salt

Table salt comes in iodized and non-iodized versions. It often is harvested from underground deposits left by ancient seas. Iodine is added to salt to prevent iodine deficiency that can lead to poor thyroid function and goiter. Soils inland from the sea are often poor in iodine, so people living inland don't get enough from food. As well, pregnant women, vegans, and vegetarians are also at risk and therefore benefit from iodized salt. Non-iodized salt is often used for purposes such as baking and cooking rather than sprinkling on food.

Kosher salt is a coarse-grained salt that adheres to food products better. Because it doesn't dissolve as easily as table salt, kosher salt isn't the best choice for baking. Stick with table salt for breads, cakes, and other baked goods. Kosher salt is ideal for making spice rubs, marinades, brines, and for canning and pickling. You can even use kosher salt for rimming margarita glasses.

Sea salt is harvested by evaporating sea water. There are many varieties that are labeled according to where they are produced, and they will have different characteristics and flavors from trace elements. Some sea salt is in flakes, while other varieties have fine or coarse crystals, even so large that you need a salt mill to add it to your food.

Rock salt is harvested from underground deposits and can be available in large crystals. It is used for encrusting foods, in ice cream machines, and as a bed for serving food such as oysters.

Pickling salt is a fine-grained salt with no iodine or anti-caking additives. It is used for the brine to pickle foods.

Flavored salts are available that combine an herb or other seasonings with salt for convenience. Examples are garlic salt, celery salt, and onion salt.

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How Does It Taste?

Salt directly stimulates the salt-detecting taste buds, which are on either side of the tongue. The iodine that's added to table salt imparts a slightly metallic flavor. Kosher salt has a cleaner, lighter taste than ordinary table salt, in part because it isn't iodized. The trace minerals in other varieties of salt will give them their own slightly different tastes.

The salty taste will be diminished if the food is either cold or very hot, which is important to consider when tasting food to determine whether to add more salt. Be sure to taste food with your whole tongue and not just the tip, as the tip lacks many salt taste buds.

Cooking With Salt

Salt is needed in baking to ensure that yeast bread rises, but it must be in the correct amount for the recipe. Salt will draw moisture out of vegetables, which is useful in preparing cucumbers and eggplant; for other vegetables, it's preferable to season with salt after they've been cooked.

Salting meat before cooking at high heat helps develop the delicious crust that seals in moisture and flavor. However, shellfish can get tough when salted before cooking.

Salt is added to boiling water for making pasta and cooking potatoes for seasoning. For soups and stews, some salt is added at the beginning, but most recipes call for seasoning with salt to taste once the dish is fully cooked. Finishing salt is added to meat and other dishes immediately before serving.

Recipes With Salt

There is hardly a recipe that doesn't include salt, including baked goods, main courses, meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and desserts. As well, you can make your own seasoning blends that include salt.

Substitutions

If you're substituting table salt in a recipe that calls for kosher salt, use half the amount of table salt as the recipe calls for. For example, if a recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, use 1 tablespoon of table salt instead. If you're converting the other way, use twice as much kosher salt as table salt.

While kosher salt is much more coarse than table salt overall, there is a bit of variation in crystal size among different brands of Kosher salts. If you prefer Morton but can only find Diamond Crystal at the store, that salt has slightly finer grains. You will have to adjust your recipes accordingly.

If you are trying to cut back on salt, using a coarse finishing salt on cooked meats can add more flavor.

Uses of Salt

Besides its use in cooking, salt is used in preserving and canning meat, fish, and vegetables. Because of its crystal form, salt is useful in many types of cleaning and scrubbing around the house. You may also use salt in your water conditioner, where it serves to remove minerals. Rock salt is used to de-ice sidewalks, driveways, and highways. Most of the salt produced is used in manufacturing processes, including making plastic, paper pulp, aluminum, soap, synthetic rubber, caustic soda, and chlorine.

Where to Buy Salt

Table salt and kosher salt are readily available in the spice section and baking section of the grocery store. Specialty salts may be found at gourmet markets or online.

Storage

Table salt and unseasoned salts are shelf-stable indefinitely. You may find your salt caking if stored where there is moisture in the air. To reduce this, add a few grains of uncooked rice to the salt shaker. Don't store salt in a silver container as it will cause a green discoloration. Seasoned salts should be kept in airtight containers and are usually best when used within a year.

Health Benefits of Salt

While salt is often seen as something to be limited, there are healthy uses for salt. One remedy your doctor or dentist may recommend is a salt water gargle for a sore throat or a saltwater rinse to help prevent infection after a dental procedure.