Salt, that essential flavor

Special to The Times

IN 20-some years of professionally obsessing on food, I’ve come to realize some innovations in ingredients hit like a thunderclap (panko -- where had that been all my life?) and others are more like a steady rain. One day you open a kitchen cabinet and the single round carton of salt you have known since childhood is surrounded by jars and bags of other white stuff, each as essential as the first.

Without thinking about it, I managed to accumulate no fewer than nine kinds of salt, all of which I actually use, and often. That seemed out of control until I started looking around to see what my kitchen might be missing and realized I could be diagnosed as borderline abstemious. Any good specialty market, or website, now carries as many as two dozen types of salt, from as far away as Bali or as close as the beaches of California, and that’s without counting all the smoked and flavored salts on offer.

The one seasoning that came in exactly one style for much of my lifetime is now more like shoes: You can never have enough, in every shape and color. The Manolo of salt is delicate fleur de sel, grayish-white with almost lacy little flakes, priced like caviar. La Baleine, also from France, is the sturdy, everyday, affordable salt, ground fine or coarse. Maldon, from England, with flat, light flakes, is both gorgeous and indispensable. Hawaiian salts can be the color of clay or whiter than Morton’s.


All these “new” salts are among the many that have joined the familiar kosher salt and such esoteric varieties as black salt, from India, with its haunting taste and almost sulfurous aroma.


Vital ingredient

Sodium may be under renewed siege by the food police, with the headline-grabbing Center for Science in the Public Interest suing the Food and Drug Administration to have it classified as a food additive. But salt has never seemed more essential in home cooking.

It’s the vital ingredient in the brines that makes meats juicy, it’s as crucial as yeast in bread, it’s what gives brownies an edge and sauces intensity. Salt is not only the underpinning for any good vinaigrette and hollandaise, it is also the root of the words salad and sauce.

This is simply the one seasoning that makes just about everything taste better (I even salt my cantaloupe, not to mention my buttered toast). Beyond all that, you literally cannot live without salt.

Nutrition experts, such as Dr. Charles C. McCormick at Cornell University, say salt from a shaker is no big threat for most people. Studies have shown that about 85% of sodium consumed in this country comes from processed food, he says. That includes everything from canned soup to nutty cereal.

The USDA’s new dietary guidelines recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, or about a teaspoon, which does not sound like much in the kitchen but is probably no more than you’d use each day if you’re cooking meals at home, without resorting to packaged foods. Compared with the 730 milligrams of sodium in a 12-ounce can of V-8 juice (about one-third of a teaspoon), a dusting of Maldon flakes over a platter of steamed asparagus looks downright restrained.

Much of the reason the “new” salts have taken off so aggressively in this country is that they impart so much with so few grains. These are more seasoning salts than cooking salts, best added when a dish is finished rather than earlier on, although they do work wonders in pastry. The old “When it rains, it pours” is nothing like a sprinkling of Halen Mon from Wales, let alone fleur de sel. These salts taste of the sea, which of course is where they originate.

The best of them are crystals harvested by hand from shallow pools of seawater that is allowed to evaporate. The texture is much more idiosyncratic than typical table salt as a result, and the flavor is more perceptible because mineral deposits (and sometimes even algae residue) are not refined out. Table salt, by contrast, is mined and stripped clean, and has additives to keep the grains from clumping and iodine to prevent goiter, a thyroid condition.

To get a sense of how different these specialty salts are from workaday free-flowing salt, braise a batch of fresh asparagus or bundle of green beans in a skillet full of water with just half a teaspoon or less of a good salt. The vegetable will have a deeper flavor than you could have achieved by using table salt.

If you read Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating “Salt: A World History” (2002), you’ll understand that everything new in salt is really ancient. The most artisanal types have been made the same way for centuries. And as Elizabeth David pointed out, Maldon salt, from Essex, England, was included in Hannah Glasse’s cookbook in 1747 (although the current incarnation has been around only since 1882).

I first learned there was salt and then there was sea salt when I was in restaurant school, where tall, thin canisters of La Baleine outnumbered squat boxes of table salt. It’s still my staple salt, although it no longer has such cachet that restaurants set it out with the pepper grinder to let you know they buy only the best.

The coarse salt in particular is superb for cooking -- we keep a small bowlful by the stove to throw by the tablespoonful into water for pasta and by the teaspoonful over chopped garlic, onions or peppers to be sauteed. The coarse edges seem to help soften the vegetables, almost like stone washing, so that they cook to tenderness faster and more evenly.

But my biggest investments in salt have been made while traveling, before the Internets and websites such as put Bali within reach of every American. (Salt has the ultimate advantage over olive oil and other edible souvenirs: It never goes bad.)

I first found Halen Mon while wandering around North Wales (it comes from the Isle of Anglesey), and now I see it in markets everywhere. And I have brought back bags from the Caribbean, Sicily and Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. While coarse sea salts from those places may not be radically different from the others I can buy anywhere, I like to imagine I can taste the island air. Because they are not processed in large quantity, though, they tend to be rougher, with grains that clump especially aggressively in humid weather.

The black salt I bought in Bangalore, India, has stayed pushed to the back of my cabinet, although it is one fascinating product. The color is actually more pink and the content is more minerals than straight-ahead sodium. As for the flavor, deviled eggs is the best description. That whiff of sulfur is considered a good thing in India, where I first tasted it in a cold yogurt side dish but did not have the digestive nerve to try it on fresh fruit or in fruit juice as everyone else did.

My consort’s travels have kept us supplied with Hawaiian sea salt, both the pure white kind with fine granules and the chunkier type with an almost coral color from baked clay blended with it. Both are harder and not quite as strong as other sea salts and take longer to dissolve on your tongue. The clay salt was originally used in rituals and as medicine but now does near miracles for fresh, sliced tomatoes at the height of the season, or as a condiment on a slab of good bread rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil.

I may be the only salt freak in America who still has a hard time plunking down at least $10 for a Lilliputian container of fleur de sel (literally “flower of salt”), but even I can’t deny how pretty it looks or how concentrated the flavor is. The flakes are very tiny and clump easily, and the taste is particularly appealing in combination with anything sweet.

This time of year the French notion of buttering radishes and sprinkling them with fleur de sel is worth stealing, as is a technique a friend tipped me off to: Smear a hunk of baguette with sweet butter, top it with raw favas and dust it with fleur de sel. (If you don’t want to seem so effete with the butter, just set out a little shallow bowlful of fleur de sel alongside a bunch of trimmed radishes and see if anyone can resist double-dipping. Or try it on plain, hard-cooked eggs.)

Fleur de sel is harvested by hand, skimmed off the surface of salt ponds where it “blooms,” while sel gris contains gray particles of clay and other natural impurities from deeper down and thus is more affordable. The coarse crystals can be used like La Baleine, with a free hand in cooking. It is the one salt that most evokes its origins, because it stays moist, as if it had just come from the sea.

Since sel gris is more affordable and still full of oceanic flavor, it makes an excellent addition to any liquid for poaching fish or meat. Or it can be added at the end of a pot-au-feu, when it will really make its presence known. Maldon, by comparison, is a salt apart, and less than half the price of fleur de sel. Made from a distinctive process that produces very thin flakes more than grains, it almost shatters on contact, which makes it dissolve better, especially in a vinai- grette.

But Maldon also looks and tastes superb sprinkled over just about anything, whether seared salmon or a buttered bran muffin but especially fried food. Since I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, a little of this salt makes a chocolate or cream cheese frosting seem less cloying and more nuanced.


California exotic

One California sea salt I’ve tried is Cerulean Seas, which has very hard, coarse crystals that are not white but almost translucent. It’s so exotic that a 7.5-ounce container costs more than 26.5 ounces of La Baleine from the land of the euro. But it would be good anywhere you want a seriously upfront salt flavor and texture, whether on the crust of a bread to be baked or sprinkled over a grilled steak or piece of fish.

Because these “new” salts are not iodized, they work much better in a brine for pickling, producing a clearer liquid. And because the crystals are so much coarser than regular salt, they don’t seem to overwhelm cucumbers with crude salt flavor.

I should be embarrassed to admit this, but the first Morton’s alternative I invested in was popcorn salt, the kind that is ground superfine so that it lodges in every greasy crevice. It’s what movie theaters still chain to the counter, but I would never have it in the house today, not since I showered a big bowl of freshly popped corn with a couple of pinches of crumbled sea salt and was amazed at how so little added so much. (Crunchy Maldon is particularly great here.)

The second alternative salt that crossed my kitchen doorstep looks more valuable with every passing year. I first bought kosher salt to make gravlax but wound up using it by the box to line roasting pans when I wanted to cook a chicken or turkey at 500 degrees very fast (the salt soaks up the fat to keep it from splattering). It’s also the key ingredient in a good brine or in a dry cure for turkey, duck or pork.

But my biggest breakthrough came when I started baking from a cookbook by Tom Douglas of Seattle: He prescribed a teaspoon or so of kosher salt in an angel food cake, which should have tasted duller than a Twinkie but had an underlying edge that was undeniably appealing. Because kosher salt contains no iodine, a trait it shares with sea salts, it too has a cleaner flavor than table salt.

Now that I realize the cornucopia of choices I have, I would substitute any of the sea salts in baking, whether in chocolate chip cookies or in an apple crisp or especially a pie crust.

As for the salt I grew up with, there will always be one familiar round carton in my kitchen. Mixed with lemon juice, nothing cleans copper better.



From seven seas

Black salt: A novelty from India. More pink than black, with the taste of minerals. Dust over fresh fruit and into juices.

California sea salt: An exotic California native sold under the brand name Cerulean Seas. Hard, coarse crystals. Sprinkle on anything that needs an assertive salt flavor and texture.

Fleur de sel: Comes in fine grains and coarse crystals. The best (and priciest) are harvested by hand from the sea. Concentrated flavor and moisture evokes its origins. Used more for finishing dishes than cooking. Lovely sprinkled on buttered radishes or grilled fish.

Halen Mon: A coarse but flaky Welsh sea salt from the Isle of Anglesey. May clump in humid weather. Perfect for seasoning grilled lamb or as a finishing touch on a cold soup such as vichyssoise.

Hawaiian salts: Chunky, coral-colored grains or fine white granules. Very hard, but milder than other sea salts. A few grains elevate fresh tomatoes or good bread rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil.

Kosher salt: Medium-coarse grains with multiple uses. Indispensable for brining and dry-curing.

La Baleine: A French sea salt ground fine or coarse. It’s affordable enough for everyday cooking.

Maldon: An English sea salt. Thin flakes dissolve quickly, especially in a vinaigrette. Sprinkle over just about anything, but especially fried food.

Sel gris: Coarse sea salt from France. Owes its gray color to particles of clay. Less expensive than fleur de sel because it’s easier to harvest. Use with a free hand in cooking.

-- Regina Schrambling