Thursday, March 27, 2008

Salt is salt, or maybe not?

As I walked up and down the aisles at the grocery store yesterday, my eyes suddenly fell on a shelf of salt. As I looked closer, I saw that salt occupied several shelves.

Call me ignorant, but so far my use of salt have gone by "flaky" or "fine".

Those days you can choose between exotic salts like French Fleur de Sel, Himalayan Pink, Hawaiian Red, Blac Coral, California Sea, Cyprus Black, Australian Pink, Danish Viking Smoked and Balinese Coarse, to name a few.

Salt comes in a wide range of colours, from white, pink, red and gray, to golden, brown and black.
I bought a few jars and decided to taste and see if I could tell the difference. Let me tell you, salt tasting is nothing like wine tasting or cheese tasting. Be prepared to drink a lot of water afterwards. (- and to reduce your salt intake for the next few days because salt is hard on the kidneys!)

I have to admit, the designer salts (as some like to label them) do indeed look fancy. But I must say, it was still the texture - size of the salt crystals - and not the type of salt, that tinkered my palate. As fine salt crystals will spread more evenly on the tongue and give you an all over salty taste, the larger crystals salt will act as surprising little salt bombs on the tongue.

Salt is 99 percent sodium chloride. The rest are minerals that will give some salts a hint of pink colour, others turn black. All in all, I think the amount of minerals in salt are in such low numbers that you won't be able to taste the difference when the salt is mixed with other ingredients.

When you use salt in a recipe where the salt is to dissolve, there is no point in using a fancy label, in my humble opinion.
If you are an avid cook, you'll see that many recipes ask for kosher salt. Kosher salt doesn't contain additives like calcium silicate, dextrose or potassium iodide like many other salts do. Also, kosher salt has larger crystals that makes it easier to sprinkle than many other salts.

One question is, can you substitute one for the other?
If used in stews, sauces and cooking in general, I'd say yes. Just be aware of that the large salt crystals take up more volume than finer grind salt, like table salt. If you substitute large crystal salt with finer grind, you can reduce the amount with 50 percent. If you go the other way and use large crystal salt in a recipe that calls for fine grind, then you can double the amount.

But, in baking you should go with the salt the recipe calls for as the ingredients in salt can affect the finished result. Also, when salt is sprinkled over a dish right before it hits the table, nothing beats using the large crystals.

So, do we need designer salt or not?

Probably not. Even though most of the celebrity chefs have their favourites (Jamie's is Maldon salt, Stefano di Pierie uses Murray River salt, for instance), I wasn't able to tell much difference. Also, in the times of environmental awareness, transporting salt all across the world is probably not helping the pollution problem.

Next time I buy salt, I will probably get the same salt as I have used for ages. But I have to admit, the pink Himalayan salt looks indeed fancy on my table.

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