In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether they’re really worth all the hype.
Fancy salts—some volcanic, some purple, some with rocks big enough for Beyoncé—seem to be coveted more than ever these days. Specialty shops and gourmet markets line their shelves with hundreds of varieties of the stuff, many boasting mind-boggling provenance, including the highest peaks of the Himalayas, the depths of the Dead Sea, and even real human tears.
That’s all pretty cool, but does the stuff you flavor your pasta water with, or sprinkle on a rib-eye, really make a discernible difference in how it tastes? As with our quest to uncover the truth about olive oil, we wanted to find out whether a utility player in the kitchen deserves to be thought of as a luxury item. Here’s what we learned.
Mark Bitterman is the author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral and the owner of The Meadow (Portland, OR; New York, NY), a gourmet food shop specializing in salts from around the world.
Salt can be broken down into two very basic categories: rock and sea. Rock salt comes from mines within the earth, while sea salt is taken from the ocean or salt springs. Rock salts are mined into large chunks which are broken apart and then ground up; sea salt becomes consumable through the process of evaporation that leaves behind piles of flakes. The rock form of salt can be thought of as a single large block, but the product from the sea is a more complex jumbling of crystals, similar to a snowflake.
It’s the purity of the salt that defines quality. All good salts, sea or rock, should be as natural and unrefined as possible to ensure that it’s free of impurities and pollution. Most big mine salts, even those culled from the Himalayas, are extracted using dynamite, exposing them to chemicals. Bitterman explains that, “The claim that [a salt] comes from an era prior to any industrialization or a time [un]tainted by man is only so true because [the producers have to get into] the mountain [to get it].” For that reason, he prefers sea salts: “Himalayan salts, salts from Utah, all these rock salts, they’re cool, they’re fine, but they don’t have anywhere near the crystalline complexities of the naturally evaporated salt.”
Never buy Kosher salt. Kosher salt is one of the most intensely refined salts and is 100% artificial. It is a refined sodium chloride chemical with artificially made flakes, a “lifeless zombie substitute of a salt,” says Bitterman. He goes so far as to say that Kosher salt “tastes like hell,” and that “it is actually designed to desiccate food. It is a koshering agent [something that helps remove surface blood from meat], so you’re using the cheapest most refined artificial representation you can find.” A high percentage of sodium chloride (usually achieved through refinement or artificial means) is something you should watch for in any large-format salt, especially those made in America. Take the time to turn that big ass blue tube around to check the ingredients on the back. That’s the easiest way to avoid something that has been overly manufactured.
Change your perspective on salt. Bitterman asserts that salt is the most powerful ingredient you have in your kitchen arsenal. A simple sprinkle of great flake salt to finish a dish will vastly improve the intensity of its flavors. And as for cost, by spending a third of a penny to a penny more, you can make your salt “go totally fricking badass on people,” says Bitterman. Even the best salts in the world are quite affordable, adding aesthetic beauty, texture, and a natural flavor enhancement to plates. So while you might not be able to afford the most expensive steaks or truffles, you can probably get top-shelf salt, because it is the cheapest ingredient in the kitchen.
Salt is generally pretty reasonably priced, even at the high end, and connoisseurs like Bitterman think that upgrading to the good stuff is a power play when it comes to seasoning your food. Using higher quality salt can also help you eat less, since the body registers dishes that are more flavorful as being more satisfying.
So what should you buy? Bitterman suggests stocking a few different salts in your kitchen, including at least one top-shelf flake option for finishing, as well as a great fleur de sel for seasoning. As for all the pretty colors, Bitterman says go for it: “The fact that salt is or can be really fun colors is kind of neat in a way because it makes you more mindful of the ingredient. Since when has being delighted with the quality of your food been pretentious? It’s beautiful to be in love with those things.”