Salt 101: The Best of the Specialty Salts
Cooks at almost any level of experience know the importance of salt — adding layers of depth to your dishes and accentuating existing flavors. But it's not just any salt. Certain ones, and used in specific ways.
Salt aficionado Mark Bitterman's passion for the mineral began after tasting a family-made salt in France sprinkled on a simply grilled steak at age 20. It made him completely change his travel plans to go on a trek to Brittany in order to find the salt maker, telling his friends that he’d have to meet up with them later.
His passion and appreciation for this commonly-used and little-understood seasoning tool also drove him to open up The Meadow — first in Portland, Ore., and more recently in New York’s West Village with his wife — a store centered on what they love: Salt.
Then came his book, “Salted,” a culmination of his cultivated and well-researched knowledge. With recipes, guides, a salt index and history, he shares everything you’d want to know about salt and in the most accessible way possible.
In our interview here, he shares some of his salt knowledge, recipes from his cookbook and The Meadow's 10 Most Expensive Salts.
Three Basic Salts That Everyone Should Have in the Kitchen
1) Sel gris (“gray salt”): These coarse, moist, mineral-rich crystals are great for all-around cooking as a basic cooking salt. Use it in pasta water, seasoning sauces, blanching vegetables, patting on meats or fibrous vegetables, in curing and pickling, etc. Sel gris is also an indispensible salt for finishing moist, hearty foods like steak, roast chicken, and potatoes because it gives a crunchy finish. It’s also a cost-effective salt to replace kosher salt, table salt or mass-produced sea salts. (When finely ground, sel gris is called sea salt and can be classified under the broad category of traditional salts.)
2) Fleur de sel: A granular, moist, and mineral salt like sel gris, but with fine, incredibly varied crystals that give only the most delicate, scintillating saltiness. Fleur de sel is your all-around finishing salt, perfect for toast and butter (buy only unsalted butter!), eggs, cooked vegetables, fish, pork, cheeses and confections, game, and the like.
3) Flake salt: A nice salt to have, whose parchment-fine crystals provide a snap of texture and a brief explosion of pungency to fresh vegetables, green salads, and wherever a more vibrant, salty presence is desired. Unlike sel gris or fleur de sel crystals, that are soft and moist, flake salts have dry, thin and brittle crystals that create bold, sparks of taste when eaten.
Of course there is no one-size-fits-all solution to salt any more than for other foods; some people will need six or sixty salts to bring to life the spirit of their cooking while others will need just one.
So What Is Himalayan Salt?
Himalayan salts have been picked up by some holistic foods groups as being especially beneficial for health because they are unrefined and lack pollution from industrialization. Many artisan salts contain just as many minerals as Himalayan salt, and are similarly devoid of industrial contaminants. Hundreds of natural salts are a good fit for people with even the highest standards for their food.
Throw Out Your Kosher Salt
I'm not a fan of kosher salt. I think it has no place in our markets, our kitchens, and perhaps most important, our restaurants. Kosher salt is one of the few remaining holdouts from a short time in our culinary history when we thought that standardized and refined were GOOD things. Kosher salt is spun out of the industrial raw, entirely fabricated, with dull, lifeless crystals that are stripped of all minerals. It lacks any of the character and identity that we seek in food. And its taste is harsh, abrasive, and flat. In other words, kosher salt is not just soulless, it is inferior.
He suggests opting for sel gris instead.
Rock salts are similar to sea salts from a mineral standpoint (rock salts are the ancient long-ago buried deposits left by evaporated seas), but rather than having the delicately-formed crystals of a natural sea salt, they must be mechanically ground to a size suitable for eating.