As I wrote late last week, I’m not a big believer in “gourmet” salts. I don’t set a table with half a dozen different colored salts in little finger bowls. All the fuss over salt these past few years, well…it’s just a lot of hooey in my opinion. All “eating” salts are chemically identical: NaCl, or sodium chloride, a molecule made up of about two-thirds chlorine and one-third sodium. Whether you get it from the sea or from the Earth makes no difference, in the end it’s all the same thing, which makes it impossible for one gourmet salt to really, really taste different from another. Dissolved in water, I’ll defy the most sensitive palate to tell the difference between gourmet salt A and gourmet salt B.
So why are today’s star chefs so adamant that gourmet salts have such different flavors? What gives? The difference, most will argue, is the way these salts are harvested. Most gourmet salts are obtained from the sea, via an extremely long (multi-year) process of slow evaporation. The process results in a variety of non-salt substances being incorporated into the final, unrefined product: minerals, clay and algae in the case of “gray” sea salts, salt-tolerant bacteria in the case of “pink” salts. These are the “natural impurities” that so drastically effect a gourmet salt’s flavor. Or no, wait, they actually don’t. For in all cases the level of the impurity is far less than one percent of the total weight of the salt, impossible for the human tongue to detect.
But let’s say for a moment that I’m wrong, and that there are tongues (supertasters among supertasters) who really can distinguish between a few grains of this kind of salt or that. Those minute flavors would be positively obliterated by the taste of whatever food the salt is spinkled upon. So while I might be willing to concede that a highly schooled nose could detect the subtle aromas given off by an of an open jar of sun-dried Sicilian sea salt, there’s no way anyone could distinguish it from, say, Indian black Kala Namak when they’re both applied to a slice of ripe tomato.
Yet as I mentioned there is one aspect of gourmet salt that does dramatically impact the way we experience it: crystal shape and size. More on that in the next post.