All salts are not created equal, and given the sudden popularity of “artisanal” salts (which you can now find even at Safeway), home cooks are catching on. But what kind of fancy salt should you buy, and when should you use it?
Here are the basics:
All salt comes from the sea—either from our modern, liquid seas or ancient seas long ago evaporated and buried by tectonic plate shifts. The salt generally label sea salt has been evaporated slowly, either in shallow pools along sunny coastlines, or over a heat source, ranging from wood fires to thermal hot springs. Sea salt is light and fluffy in its unrefined state, and comes in a variety of crystal shapes, sizes, and colors. The flavor and texture vary depending on the local marine flora and fauna, shore or pool mineral contents, and the method of evaporation.
Rock salt, mountain salt, marine fossil salt, and salt block are all terms for inland mined salt. Buried in mountains under enormous pressure for millennia, rock salt is harder and often saltier than sea salt. Its color is determined by age, pressure, adjoining minerals, and method of extraction. It comes in large blocks that can be used to serve on or cook on, as well as in varying degrees of grind.
My suggestion (and the thing I subject all guests in my home to) is a salt tasting. Buy 2 or 3 different salts, and try them side by side on a neutral food, like a cucumber slice, or bread and (unsalted) butter. You will be astonished at the complexity of each. If you find that exciting, graduate to a full-on salt-tasting party. Offer several different salts, and offer lots of salt-friendly foods—plain grilled steak, melon, boiled new potatoes, mild cheese, dark chocolate, vanilla ice cream. (Don’t forget big pitchers of water!). You can even provide your guests with a score sheet to record their thoughts and preferences. (I have provided an example for this in my book!)
Any fancy salt you come across is ripe for a tasting, but here is my favorite tasting assortment:
Black Diamond Sea Salt, Cyprus
The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages. Salt was harvested from the lakebeds that dried up in the summer. After World War II the island became a hub for travel between the Middle East and Europe, and an airport long-term parking lot replaced much of the lakebed. Today, seawater is pumped into industrial facilities that use the sun to gradually evaporate the water over a 2-year period, creating the trademark pyramidal crystals. This black version is infused with charcoal, and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Black Diamond’s huge crystals are very crunchy, but dissolve quickly. The flavor is more mild than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. Try it on vanilla ice cream, or better yet, forego the cherry and sprinkle it over your whipped-cream-topped sundae.
Murray River Salt, Australia
This salt comes from an underground briny spring in New South Wales. Water flows down from the Australian Alps into the Murray-Darling Basin, where low rainfall and high heat combine to concentrate the groundwater into an underground brine. The salt water is pumped and channeled into solar evaporation pools where it sits throughout the summer. It has an apricot color that comes from a specific carotene-rich, salt-tolerant river algea. It is extremely light and fluffy, and dissolves fast, but it still has a nice crunch. I love it as a finishing salt on simple vegetables and salads.
Arabian Fleur de Sel, Pakistan
Harvested from the Arabian Seas (not by Arabian Salt makers), it is named fleur de sel because it is made using the same method as the more famous French fleur de sel. Seawater is channeled from the sea into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand with traditional wooden tools. But unlike the French version, this salt more closely resembles Bali pyramid salt. In the hot, windy desert the water evaporates quick to form large pyramid crystals that are crunchy, but light. It is my preferred salt for avocado toast.
Maldon, Essex, England
Salt was made in Essex well before the Romans arrived in 300 BC. We know this because archeologists have identified the historic Red Hills of Essex, which contain red clay vessels used to evaporate seawater during the Iron Age. The Maldon Company was established in the late 1800’s at the head of the Blackwater Estuary. Water is gathered during spring tides, when low rainfall means high salinity. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. It compliments everything, and is beautiful to boot. I love it best on a well-grilled, very rare New York Strip.
Sal de Maras, Peru
This pink hued salt has been extracted from underground saline springs of the Andes since the time of the Incas. The spring is nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Water trickles thru channels into thousands of terraced pools. (I highly recommend a Google image search—it is impressive.) Because the site is far away from civilization, there is little pollution, adding to the purity of this salt. It is also sometimes called Peruvian Pink and Incan Sun Salt. Try it on roasted or fried potatoes.