Given the bad press around salt and its potential negative health impacts, it’s easy to overlook that it’s an indispensable ingredient in most kitchens. While most of us reach for table salt when cooking and baking, you can also find a range of gourmet salts in supermarket aisles, each with a different mineral make-up, sodium content and taste profile.
Also known as sodium chloride, salt is a crystalline compound made up of two elements: sodium and chlorine. These elements are both vital for us – they help to maintain the correct balance of fluids in the body, to transmit nerve impulses and to prevent low blood pressure, among other things.
Salt is made through the evaporation of seawater or from salt mines in underground deposits. It is used to flavour, pickle and cure foods. While too much salt may ruin an otherwise good dish, salt is used to counteract sweetness and sourness. So if you find that your cookies are a little too sweet, adding a little salt will make it well-balanced.
The problem is that many of us consume too much of it, often without realising. A large part of our salt intake comes from eating out at restaurants or eating processed foods. Health authorities recommend you avoid consuming more than 6 grams of salt a day, so if you are watching your intake try to keep your meals as fresh and unprocessed as possible.
So, with the basics out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the different types out there.
Table salt is the most common variety. Mined from salt deposits, it’s also the most refined at 97 per cent sodium chloride, with about 38 per cent sodium. Table salt’s fine texture means it is easy to dissolve and unlike more naturally processed salts its trace minerals are removed. Iodine is added to table salt in 1924 to address iodine deficiencies, as iodine is needed for basic bodily functions such as the production of hormones in the thyroid.
Because of its tiny grains, table salt is best used for baking. Being quick to dissolve, it can be used in brines and marinades. Other than food preparation, table salt has many household uses, some of which can be extremely useful. For example, sprinkle salt into sneakers and leave them overnight to let the salt absorb odours. Suffering from pesky mouth ulcers? Grandma’s cure of gargling a salt-and-water solution may help relieve irritated gums.
A final cautionary note: those with high blood pressure or on a low sodium diet should use table salt sparingly.
Sea salt is processed from evaporating seawater in large ponds, the same way it has been done for hundreds of years and is typically produced in low rainfall areas such as the Mediterranean and in Australia. The most noticeable thing about sea salt is its coarseness and that it doesn’t contain any added iodine, but it has the same sodium and overall sodium chloride content as table salt.
Sea salt is available in different grain sizes – flaked, crystalline and coarse. Large grains mean it is harder to dissolve, which means it is not as easy to overdo as table salt. It is also available as fleur de sel, which is made from collecting the top layer of a salt pan. The manual processing of the salt makes it more expensive than other types of salt.
Sea salt can be used as an alternative to table salt. Since it is processed naturally, it still has trace elements such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. As such, it retains more of its complex taste profiles when compared with table salt. But because of ocean pollution, it can also contain trace amounts of metals such as lead.
Due to its richness and crunchiness, chefs recommend that you use sea salt only as a finishing touch and not during cooking itself. It would be a waste to use it in a brine, or in sauces, soups and stews. Sprinkle it on your steak or on a salad for the extra burst of flavour.
Himalayan pink salt
This type of salt is mined from the Khewra salt mines, which are underground salt deposits in the Salt Range mountains in Pakistan. Its pink tinge comes from calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium and iron. It is also nutritionally similar to table salt and has 98 percent sodium chloride. It also comes in different grain sizes – in fact, blocks of salt are used as baking stones and griddles. Hollowed out rocks are used as lamps, giving off a pink hue.
Despite having the same chemical composition as regular table salt, pink salt has a more subdued salt flavour. Chefs recommend that you use it in dishes that require a less salty flavour, such as steak, seafood or vegetables.
Kosher salt got its name from the koshering of meat, which is to remove the blood from the meat. While it can be marketed as kosher salt, it does not necessarily mean that it was produced under Jewish dietary guidelines.
Kosher salt is basically a less refined version of table salt and is great for seasoning meats before cooking. Its coarse grains mean you need to use more of it to reach the same level of saltiness. You can sprinkle it on cookies, bagels and pretzels before they go in the oven for an extra crunch and a hit of saltiness on the first bite.