Compare 5 salts from around the world, smoked salt, flor de sal, feur de sel, hiwa kai, alaea salt, and sel gris
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 comprehensive tome to Salt recounts the epic history of this everyday 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 flavor 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 flavor 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 interesting-looking than tasting, while others pack an incredible dose of flavor 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 flavor.
Color: Light greyish tan.
Texture: Small irregular crystals look like damp sand.
Aroma: Strong smoky scent with notes of tar and a bit of red fruit.
Flavor: Perfect salinity, minerally but not too harsh, warm earth flavor with a ton of meaty umami.
Uses: Awesome smoky 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 flavor 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.
Color: Almost pure white
Texture: Medium to small irregular crystals
Flavor: Strong salinity, minerally, briny, full of umami
Uses: This is one of my favorite salts. Used as a finishing salt, it adds intense bursts of saltiness 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.
Color: Charcoal black
Texture: Medium uniform crystals
Aroma: Neutral (not surprising since charcoal filters are used to rid air and water of odors)
Flavor: Well-balanced, mild, very neutral flavor. This one is more for looks and purported health benefits.
Uses: Awesome smoky 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 flavor, 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 the salt its unique color.
Color: Deep reddish pink
Texture: Medium uniform crystals
Aroma: Like mineral water
Flavor: Low salinity, mellow, earthy flavor. 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.
Color: Greyish green color.
Texture: Large to small irregular crystals.
Aroma: Minerally, smells a bit like uncooked rice.
Flavor: 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 favorite kind of salt?