On Gourmet Salts

On something of a side note, reader Jaye wants to know if gourmet salts are worthwhile, in baking or otherwise. Jaye, I’m something of a contrarian here, as I believe that all the fuss over salt these past few years, well…it’s just a lot of hooey. 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 another gourmet salt 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.

16 thoughts on “On Gourmet Salts”

  1. What about smoked salts?

    This is purely curiosity on my part, I use little to no salt in my baking or cooking.

    1. Hey Katherine!

      Smoked salts are definitely an exception. They pack quite a bit of flavor. I do keep that in the cupboard!

      – Joe

  2. Neighbors gave my beau an assortment of salts for his birthday one year. I must say I enjoy the smoked one, especially on fish, and the one with black truffles on eggs – oh la la!

    My question: is there a big difference in vanillas? I just went over to the beanilla site and they got every type listed, writing about smokey and caramelly and chocolatey and who knew vanilla had such variety. Or does it?

  3. Not to mention that ‘land salt’, mined from deposits, was originally sea salt. That’s how it got deposited in sedimentary beds.

  4. It would be so trivially simple to conduct a double-blind taste test, you would think someone might already have done so. I can’t find any evidence. Do you know of anything?

    1. I don’t Jeremy, probably because gourmet salt makers would be terrified by the prospect! 😉

      But I’d happily publish anything you might want to try yourself! Game?

      – Joe

  5. Those double-blind studies have apparently been done, according to food science guru Harold McGee, who covered this issue in the New York Times and reached essentially the same conclusions as Joe.
    Data notwithstanding, I still like a pinch of pretentious salt on top of a steak, salad or plate of pasta right as it’s served. I swear I can taste the ocean!

    1. Hey, don’t let me spoil your dinner, home boy. If you tell me you taste the ocean, then I believe you do, you supertaster, you.

      – Joe

  6. What about iodized vs. non-iodized salt? I can taste a difference when they are dissolved in water, but I’m not sure I could when they are sprinkled on food.

  7. Joe, I m surprised u made that comment about Kala Namak. Before u bite into that ripe tomato the smell of sulphur will tell u its black salt..kala means black in hindi.

    1. You know Kamal, you’re right. It does have a stronger taste. My mistake!

      – Joe

  8. I’m currently buying gourmet salts from the Mediterranean area and they do give a different taste to many of my dishes.
    I usually buy directly in http://www.gourmetsalts.eu/en/
    These salts are obtained in natural salt lakes that I had the chance to visit during my last holidays, I recommend you to try specially the spiced ones! 🙂

  9. In regards to “pink salt,” you mentioned the “natural impurities” comes from salt resistant bacteria.

    I thought most of the impurities in pink salt comes from minerals, and the color comes from iron oxide? But the only pink salt I’ve used is Himalayan (which is mined). I know there’s also pink sea salt (like Alae), but salt resistant bacterial impurities would be present in *any* sea salt, and the pink color in Alae is also due to iron oxide.

    Would iron oxide have any chemical detriment to the baking process (like in proofing/rising/exposed to heat)?

    I’m going to go off on a rant, here. I think it’s partially because I have problems with people who buy salt-grinders. I mean: why?!? It dissolves in moisture, there are no oils to be released like pepper, texture comes pre-made in a shaker, arrrgh…

    I know there are more than a few people who can tell differences between salts by flavor, but you’re right Joe! Salinity is so strong of a flavor that the subtle differences are lost in a recipe.

    The chemical properties (kitchen science!), texture (blending/dissolving, crunch, grit used to grind garlic), and salinity (the main flavor) of any salt is more important than the “gourmet” origins of an overpriced mineral (smoked and Kala notwithstanding: smoked salt has had flavor added and shouldn’t count, and Kala is an outlier in the natural salt spectrum).

    Using high-quality ingredients does have a huge role in making food. But salt isn’t one of more quality-variable ones. I often use kosher or sea salt because it makes me *feel better* doing it. “Feeling better doing it” seems to have a bigger effect on how my food turns out than fancy, fiddly ingredients do.

    If it positively affects how someone feels about their “process,” they should do it if it works for them, but they should also go into it with their eyes open: that $10 snuff-tin of moist French sea salt affects their attitude more than their recipe.

    1. Great comment, Walt! Nice to meet you. Indeed there are so many more important things to spend money on. Like butter, no? As for the trace amounts of iron oxide I seriously doubt it would have any effect on a baking formula, but it’s an interesting thought. Thanks and come back often!

      – Joe

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