A recipe calling for “salt” used to be a no questions kind of deal. Now, though, there are enough types of salts to fill stores, let alone spice cabinets, and shops specializing in the product are slowly appearing across the country. The Meadow in the West Village, for instance, sells more than 110 types of artisan salts. Which can’t help but make one wonder: When a recipe calls for salt — which it almost always will — what the heck does that mean anymore?
Salt production worldwide is half-mined and half from the sea. From there, according to food science expert Harold McGee, the ingredient breaks down into the following categories: granulated table salt, iodized salt, flake salt, kosher salt, unrefined sea salt, fleur de sel, and finally flavored and colored salts.
Flake salts are less processed and frequently used as finishing salts, to sprinkle on a dish right before serving. The delicate and pricey Fleur de Sel (“flower of salt” in French) is also ideal as a finishing salt. Flavored salts, on the other hand, work as a ju ne se qua: an ingredient best for incorporating into recipes.
While many might think that gourmet salt is lavish or even ridiculous, Charmane Skillen founded her company s.a.l.t. sisters largely on the belief that salt can — and should — be a lot more than just something to keep in a shaker on the table. In 2007, she started out by selling unprocessed, unrefined sea salts in farmers markets, where she was hired to teach cooking classes. Today, s.a.l.t. sisters products — gourmet sea salts, as well as herb blends, rubs, and cane sugars — sell in stores across the country.
“I was intrigued by the fact that each salt had their own flavor and taste based on where they were harvested and their trace minerals,” said Skillen. “Another interest: salt, in its natural unrefined state, is healthy for us!”
The brand’s flavored sea salts include Black Truffle and Espresso Brava, and the natural smoked sea salts feature various woods, such as Hickory and Chardonnay. The brand also offers organic French sea salts, Hawaiian sea salts, exotic sea salts, flake sea salts, mineral salts, and traditional sea salts.
So when do you use what?
First, according to Skillen, “Only use unrefined salt in your home.” Second, “Never put salt in a salt shaker or on your table. The cook's job is to season food as it is being prepared.” And third, while you may not want to mix fleur de sel into your meatloaf, don’t think that specialty salts are just for special occasions. Get creative with the flavored salt options available in everyday cooking.
To get started, s.a.l.t. sisters shared some of its own cooking ideas with us: from umami-rich chicken salad made with porcini poultry rub, to a compound butter made with ruby-colored merlot sea salt. Check out these recipes for some salty inspiration, and throw the everyday salt over your shoulder.