Thursday, March 7, 2013

Please Pass the Salt...

by Ann

The salt-keeper gift I received and the finishing salt purchased to fill it.

I love salt.  When given the choice between a sweet or salty snack, I’d usually choose salty (although it certainly would be dependent upon the treats being offered!).  Fortunately my blood pressure has always been low, so I’ve never been advised to cut down on my salt intake.  If that happens in the future, I’ll be in trouble!

In the meantime, let’s “talk salt”!  The inspiration for this post came from a handcrafted olive wood “salt keeper” vessel;  a recent hostess gift from our friends Jan and Mike.  I share my passion for salt with my dear friend Teri, who is the best home-cook I know.  On many occasions over the years she and I have exchanged gifts of fancy salts, but upon the arrival of my new container, sea salt was the most interesting option in my cupboard, so it was time to go salt shopping!

The chefs teaching classes as Sur la Table (where I am a kitchen assistant) have mentioned using “finishing salt” prior to serving a variety of dishes.  So…. I went straight to the expert available to me, Chef Frank, the resident chef at the store.  To educate me, he grabbed five or six exotic salts from the shelves and explained the source and virtues of each.

The salt that we buy at grocery stores, table and kosher, are generally used as ingredients in recipes, while the fancy salts are used for flavoring just prior to serving (hence “finishing salts”).  The differences between table and kosher salt are that the table variety typically has iodine and anti-caking additives, while kosher salt, the option with a coarser grain was engineered to draw blood out of and cure meats in order to make them kosher.   I’m sure there are other requirements for meats to become kosher, but that’s the reason the coarse salt is so named.  Table salt is the best choice for baking in that it dissolves better than the larger kosher crystals; kosher being  the chef’s choice because the coarser grains are easier to “pinch” to add to recipes and yield a saltier flavor.

Back to fancy salt – There are lots of varieties, both those mined from deposits underground, but more commonly sea salts, as was the variety I purchased of Fleur de Sel de Camargue from France, which sells for $12.00 for a 4.4 ounce container.  Yikes!  That’s about $45.00 a pound.  For SALT?  It had better be good!  The way Frank explained it to me, finishing salt will retain the salty flavor because it won’t diffuse into the food.  It is the best choice for sweet/salty combos like a salted caramel or salted brownie (see photo below).

The variety of designer salts include grey, pink, black, flavored, and salts of different degrees of coarseness.  Some are processed in a way that smoke or another flavor is infused, which would make them great for some recipes, but definitely not appropriate for others.  That’s too complicated for me to keep track of!  Salt, the most commonly used seasoning is critical to many recipes – even those that don’t have a salty taste.  Cookies and other baked goods are flat with no salt added, salt brings out the flavor of proteins, and I hate to think of eating a French fry or bowl of popcorn with no salt!

To be “worth your salt” comes from the Latin word “salarium,” the name for salary; the pay that soldiers got for their work in ancient Rome.   Hmmm...  $45 a pound for salt... those ancient Roman’s would never have guessed...


  1. Wow that's neat information. I know that there are many different salts available today for cooking but Ididn't know some of the reasons for them. Sounds like working at Sur La Table has a lot of perks!

  2. This was a really interesting post. I had no idea there were so many varieties of salt let alone finishing salts. Working at Sur La Table must be tons of fun.