Salt is one of those ubiquitous ingredients that not only makes food taste better, but is a necessary part of the human diet. Chemically speaking, it's a compound formed by sodium and chloride ions arranged in a lattice structure which is why it forms crystals.
While many take it for granted these days, there was a time when salt was more valuable than gold, influencing the growth and migration of civilizations and inciting wars. A recent tome to Salt recounts the epic history of this every-day ingredient revealing that it's anything but mundane.
Common table salt is typically purified then enriched with iodine (to prevent Goiter), but this process strips any additional minerals and organic matter that can add flavour and character to the salt. The purification also makes it intensely salty since there are no impurities to soften the salinity. I don't actually have any regular table salt, preferring to cook with either kosher (Diamond Crystal brand) or Maldon sea salt which are both mild without much flavour of their own. They both have a flaky texture that makes them easy to pinch between your fingers.
Below are 5 other salts I've picked up for various uses. Some are more exotic looking than tasting, while others pack an incredible dose of flavour that can compliment many dishes.
Region: Oga Penninsula, Japan.
Method: Water collected from deep waters and crystallized in stainless steel. Smoked over cherry wood for flavour.
Colour: Light greyish tan.
Texture: Small irregular crystals looks like damp sand.
Aroma: Strong smoky scent with notes of tar and a bit of red fruit.
Flavour: Perfect salinity, minerally but not too harsh, warm earth flavor with a ton of meaty umami.
Uses: Awesome smokey flavor goes well on meats, fish, salad dressing, or even caramels. This can be used either to cook with or as a finishing salt. Gives non bbqed meats a bbqed flavour without using "liquid smoke". Delicious on sashimi.
Name: Flor de Sal (Portuguese Fleur de Sel)
Region: Algarve, Portugal
Method: Flor de Sal or flower of salt is hand skimmed from the surface of evaporation ponds in the warmer months of the year.
Colour: Almost pure white
Texture: Medium to small irregular crystals
Flavour: Strong salinity, mineraly, briny, full of umami
Uses: This is one of my favourite salts. Used as a finishing salt, it adds intense bursts of salt with loads of umami. Used for cooking it adds some great flavor to all dishes.
Name: Hiwa Kai
Region: Molokai, Hawaii
Method: Harvested from Pacific Ocean waters then solar evaporated with black lava rocks. To finish the crystals are dusted with activated charcoal.
Colour: Charcoal black
Texture: Medium uniform crystals
Aroma: Neutral (not surprising since charcoal filters are used to rid air and water of ordors)
Flavour: Well balanced, mild, very neutral flavor, this one is more for looks and purported health benefits.
Uses: Awesome smokey flavor goes well on meats, fish, salad dressing, or even caramels. This can be used either to cook with or as a finishing salt.
Uses: Since the charm is all in the color, I would use this exclusively as a finishing salt. It doesn't really add any flavour though so aside from the novelty and purported health benefits, I don't really see any reason to use it.
Name: Alaea salt
Method: Locally harvested sea salt combined with Alaea, a volcanic clay that's full of iron oxide (rust) which gives it its unique colour.
Colour: Deep reddish pink
Texture: Medium uniform crystals
Aroma: Like mineral water
Flavour: Low salinity, mellow earthy flavour. Despite the medium sized crystals, the high mineral content keeps it from being too salty even if sprinkled directly on food.
Uses: I'm actually pleasantly surprised by this salt. Clay and salt sound so unappealing, but it's so mellow and the color is very cool. This is the salt you're supposed to use in dishes like Kalua Pork and Tuna Poke.
Name: Sel Gris (grey salt)
Region: Brittany, France.
Method: Solar evaporated in clay pools, then hand collected using wooden rakes.
Colour: Greyish green color.
Texture: Large to small irregular crystals.
Aroma: Minerally, smells a bit like uncooked rice.
Flavour:High salinity, strong mineral flavor.
Uses: This one's a bit on the harsh side. Honestly I'm not a big fan. I'm not really sure what I'd use it for. Might be good to use when pickling vegetables.
What's your favourite kind of salt?