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The Schmaltz Over Salts

By John DiGilio in Food on Apr 20, 2011 8:40PM


When the Morton Salt company tagged its best-selling table salt with the line “when it rains it pours”, few could have imagined that phrase would be prophetic of a growing gourmet industry. Simple iodized salt, though still a staple on most tables, has lately been eclipsed by the culinary juggernaut that is sea salt. From entrees to desserts, the use of sea salts by chefs and confectioners has become both an enticement and a mark of excellence. But what is the big deal? How is sea salt different from what mom and dad used to fill the shakers we did not want to put down as kids? The industry is booming, Luckily it does not take much for one to become a sea salt connoisseur.

The most salient (Perhaps we should say saline? No? Ok then.) difference between sea salt and standard table salt is their origins. The stuff you find in most table top shakers is mined from within the earth. Producers dig it out, break it up, and process it into the little crystals with which many of us are so familiar. Sea salt, as its name suggests, is harvested from the sea. Usually this involves some sort of evaporation process that is either natural (solar, for example) or mechanical. Chemically, they are essentially the same in their make-up with only the most minor deviations. Gourmet salt naysayers are not actually that far off when they say that salt is salt.

Beyond where they come from, the other differences between sea salts and table salt have more to do with their processing than anything else. It is all about taste, texture, and the extra stuff that we allow in them. Table salt, for example, usually comes in one common, granular texture. The fancy sea salts you see in stores, however, come in fine grains, course grinds, dusts, and even flakes. This makes them far more flexible in both the kitchen and at the table. Table salt is always some sort of grayish-white color and usually free of additional minerals or botanicals. Sea salts, on the other hand, are colored and flavored by the minerals left behind during the evaporation process. Some of you by now have probably seen pink, red, and even black (volcanic) salts on restaurant tables and gourmet store shelves. These additional, natural additives can affect not just the look, but also the taste, of sea salts. Some are mild and others are fairly intense on the tongue. Lighter colors usually indicate a more mild flavor. The darker salts tend to be more earthy and even slightly sulfuric tasting.

The affects of salts on our health is where the real controversy rests. As we said, the chemical make up of salt tends to be the same regardless of origin, processing, color, or taste. Advocates of more natural diets, however, argue that sea salt is more pure and healthful due to its lack of heavy processing. The extra minerals that are found in these salts are trace amounts at best, however, and thus the evidence is essentially anecdotal. When it comes to table salts, most are iodized for health purposes. The extra iodine has been shown to help reduce instances of goiter and cretinism, for example.

Regardless, doctors and nutritionists caution everyone that any salt should be enjoyed in strict moderation. Getting too much — and most of us do — can exacerbate unpleasant things like high blood pressure and excess water retention. We all know what they say about too much of a good thing. Whether from the earth or from the sea, the same is especially true of salt.

Luckily, for those who can control themselves, there are almost endless ways to enjoy your sodium. Try adding a little "finishing" salt to your chocolate milk or hot cocoa for a nice, extra kick. Local chocolatier Vosges' Organic Peanut Butter Bonbons with pink Himalayan salt are exceptional. Tried a little salt on watermelon? We recommend it for a refreshing summer treat. Sprinkle coarser grinds on rolls and breads during baking for some added flavor. And let's not forget margaritas! Salting the rim of your glass with different salts cannot only change the taste but provide for a fun aesthetic when entertaining. We could go on and on. They don't say "take it with a grain of salt" for nothing!

Photo by Christian Mertes.