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Getting Serious About Salt

by Zrinka Peters

IT USED TO BE SO SIMPLE—salt was always just, well, salt. But in recent times things have gotten much more complicated. Sea salt, table salt, organic salt, Celtic salt—we find all these and more available to the average consumer, thanks largely to an abundance of gourmet food shops and health food stores. Here's how to distinguish between a few of the more commonly available ones:

Table Salt

This is the one most of us sprinkled on our food growing up and probably still have a shaker-full of now. It comes from salt mines, from where it's been dug up, refined, and had all of its minerals removed, leaving pure white sodium chloride. It is fine-grained and has anti-caking agents mixed in to keep it free-flowing. It’s available either iodized or non-iodized (iodine is added to salt to help prevent hypothyroidism, goitre and other iodine deficiency disorders), and is the cheapest and most widely used salt, available everywhere at around 50¢ per pound.

Sea Salt

As the name indicates, this is salt which has been collected as a result of ocean or sea water which has been either boiled or evaporated by the sun and wind. It is usually not as refined as table salt and often still has some trace minerals intact, including iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc and iodine. It is usually available in a coarse, fine or extra-fine grind. Sea salt devotees rave about its bright, clean flavor, which is enhanced by its mineral components. Sea salt is usually more expensive than common table salt because its manufacturing process is more labor-intensive.

There are many different varieties of sea salt, ranging from highly-refined, free-flowing sea salt that is almost indistinguishable from ordinary table salt, to unique and rare gourmet artisan salts. The differences between these salts depend on the region from which they are collected, and the processes used to harvest them. There are major differences in flavor, color, texture and, of course, price.

Kosher Salt

This may or may not be sea salt. It usually comes in flakes, instead of granules, and the larger surface area makes it especially suitable for sticking to pretzels and the rims of margarita glasses. It is free of additives and has a saltier – some say "brighter"- taste than regular table salt. The large flakes dissolve fast and the flavor disperses quickly, making it a favorite staple of many chefs. Gourmet kosher salt runs around $7 per pound.

Organic Salt

Salt is a mineral, not a plant, so it cannot be "organically grown." However, certified organic salt is guaranteed to be harvested from a protected, pollution-free environment and to be unrefined. For those who are concerned about pollutants in their food, this may be a good choice. Expect to pay around $9 per pound.

Celtic Sea Salt

An unrefined sea salt harvested by hand in Brittany, France. It has a grayish color that is the result of the clay-lined salt ponds that the water is evaporated in. It is slightly moist and very rich in trace mineral content. Celtic salt is available in coarse, stone-ground fine and extra fine grind. It retails at approximately $10 per pound.

Fleur de Sel

Known as ‘the caviar of sea salts,’ these precious crystals are skimmed from the very top of salt ponds in the coastal areas of western France where sun and wind conditions are ideal. It is harvested by hand-raking, and the crystals are small and flaky with a creamy white or pale grayish tinge. Fleur de Sel is considered more a condiment than a spice, with just a touch needed to transform a dish with its delicate flavor and moist texture. It sells for between $20-$30 per pound and up.

Rock Salt

This is the chunky salt used in ice cream machines, and, mainly, to de-ice roads in winter road maintenance. It is cheap, and mostly non-food grade. In fact, according to the Salt Institute, nearly 70% of the salt produced in the United States is designated ‘highway salt.’ Some rock salt can be used in food preparation methods such as for encrusting meat (not as an edible condiment), but in this case be sure that the salt used is food-grade.

Pickling Salt

This is fine-grained salt, like table salt, except without the iodine and anti-caking additives which can cause the pickling brine to become cloudy and the pickles to turn a darker (and less-appetizing) color. •

from the May-June 2007 issue

SALTS OF THE EARTH

type ................................ from ........... price
Fleur de Sel ....................
France ........ $26
Murray River Pink ............ Australia ..... $24
Anglesey ........................ Wales ......... $22
Maldon ........................... England ...... $20
Okinawa ......................... Japan ......... $14
Maine ............................. Maine ......... $10
Celtic .............................. France ........ $10
Mediterranean ................. Cyprus ......... $9
Fleur de Sel Marocaine .... Morocco ....... $8
Italian ............................. Sicily ............. $8
Hawaiin Red .................... Hawaii .......... $7
Himalayan Mountain Red .. Tibet ........... $6
Spanish .......................... Spain ........... $5
Dead Sea ........................ Israel ........... $4

approximate price per pound
on various websites