Home Cook’s Guide to Salt

Home Cook’s Guide to Salt

No phrase so aptly sums up the important (nay, critical!) role of salt in cooking as “salt to taste.” It may seem vague when you encounter it in a recipe, but what it really means is to salt until all the flavors in the dish are singing. Salt’s job, as a seasoning, is to make pretty much everything taste better.

Just a wee sprinkle of salt will help balance the flavors in a dish by reducing bitterness and boosting our ability to taste the more subtle sweet and sour notes. It can add texture and contrast, too. Case in point: the magnificence of a few flakes of salt on a piece of dark chocolate. Of course, there’s also a place for salting with gusto. A generous pinch of salt is good where you want more rich umami, less sweetness — as in the deeply savory dishes, like wild mushroom risotto. And we’ve all seen how a nice, salty brine can make meat juicier and more flavorful and turn veggies into pickles.

It’s easy to obsess about salt, so it’s no wonder our shelves are jam-packed with interesting varieties of the stuff, from the pure white Maldon flake salt to the pink Himalayan salt. Is there really a difference between them? Yes! All of them are a variation on sodium chloride, it’s true, but each has its own distinct shape, flavor, and culinary superpower. With that in mind, here’s a guide to a few of our favorite and most popular salts.

Sel de Gris

Sel de gris comes from the Atlantic coast of France. Like fleur de sel (below), it’s a moist, hand-harvested salt, but it has a chunkier, more crumbly texture — and, of course, it’s gray. It takes its color from trace minerals, and though it’s not a contest, it has more of them than Himalayan salt, including magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc, and iodine. It’s lower in sodium chloride, so it’s less salty, and it has a complex flavor that’s great on food.

Of the fancy-pants salts, sel de gris is probably the most all-around useful and, flake salt aside, it’s the current darling of the culinary world. It comes in a variety of grains from coarse to fine and very fine, which makes it versatile for cooking, finishing, and table salt. On the coarse side, it’s especially nice sprinkled on rich stews and red meat. On the super fine side, it’s our favorite popcorn salt.

Tip: If you want to put coarse sel de gris in your grinder, dry it out first by spreading a thin layer on a baking tray and letting it sit in a warm, dry place overnight. And, depending on the grain you use, sel de gris can be very dense, so watch measurements if you’re using it in place of fine salt.

Flake Salt (Maldon)

Made with sea salt, flake salt comes in a variety of shapes, from wispy, paper-thin flakes to chunkier pyramid-shaped flakes. We love it for its mild flavor, pinchability, and versatility — it adds a crunchy texture to cool foods, but its delicate flakes dissolve into warm dishes instantaneously. It’s our finishing salt of choice, and we always keep a little bowl of it close at hand when we cook.

Sprinkle a pinch of it over salads and fresh heirloom tomatoes, into the pot at the end of cooking pretty much everything, and on sweets, like caramels and chocolate chip cookies. Its snowy flakes look extra gorgeous scattered over the top of chocolate cake, and the contrast of crunchy salt and ganache is heaven.

Smoked Salt

Salt is wood-smoked the same way as meat and fish, usually at lower temperatures. The result is a rich, lightly sweet, very smoky salt that can be used all over the place.

It’s a natural in barbecue rubs and brines, where it’ll make your meat taste like it spent the day in the smoker. But you can use it wherever you want a smoky note, from collard greens to tomato toast and the rim of your margarita glass. Our tip: If you want a more subtle flavor, use a mortar and pestle to blend it with kosher salt.

Fleur de Sel

Fleur de sel might be the most romantic salt. It’s hand-harvested from coastal salt ponds in France, where it rises to the water’s surface in “blooms” on warm, windy days. It has a delicate flavor, a light, moist texture, and a naturally fine grain — it’s not ground or crushed after harvesting. We like it because it has a very pleasing way of lingering on the tongue before it melts.

That makes it a wonderful table salt for special meals, and we’ll generally put it out in a good-looking salt cellar and let our guests sprinkle it on everything from late-morning brunch to late-evening dessert.

Himalayan Salt

Himalayan salt is mined from the Salt Range mountains in the Punjab region of Pakistan. It’s beloved for its lovely pink hue, which comes from trace minerals, like potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium.

Since it is so pretty, and it also has a soft, subtle flavor, we like to use it as a finishing salt. It’s especially nice on delicate vegetables, like a radish with sweet cream butter or a salad of microgreens. And, if you’ve got guests coming, it looks delightful in a salt cellar.

Kosher Salt

If you were only going to have one salt in your pantry, kosher salt would be a good choice. It has a clean flavor, and nice, big crystals, so it’s awesome to cook with — the quintessential pinch of salt. It also sticks to food like a champ, so it’s great for spice rubs and finishing baked goods, like focaccia or pretzels.

Our tip: If a recipe calls for fine salt, you can use kosher salt, but you’ll need to adjust the measurement. Because of its texture, a teaspoon of kosher salt weighs less than a teaspoon of fine salt. To adjust for this, use 2 parts kosher salt to one part fine salt.

Fine Salt (Table Salt)

For many of us, this is the stuff that lives in the center of our dining room table, and that’s because its crystals are so teeny tiny and compact. They flow through shakers like rain! Which is why we don’t recommend fine salt for finishing — it’s much too easy to overdo it.

However, fine salt is great for baking: it’s easy to measure accurately, and it dissolves quickly, so it disperses through doughs and batters nicely. It’s also great for salting pasta water. Tip: Some chefs find that iodized salt has a slightly bitter taste. We carry both iodized and non-iodized fine salt.