Which Salt Is Best?
The salt that we consume is mostly composed of sodium chloride, and any other color or flavor that you get from it, other than saltiness, comes from either impurities or additives. That's salt, in summary.
Salt is a necessary part of our diet, so important that it has been used as pay (the word "salary" may come from the Latin word for salt), and wars have been fought over access to salt mines. Whether harvested from the ocean or underground mines, we can't live without salt.
The taste of salt is one of five tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami) that the human tongue can identify without the help of the olfactory system. But salt does more than simply make our food taste salty; salt enhances the flavors of the various ingredients in our food. When you add salt to, say, a pot of chicken curry, it not only tastes saltier, it reacts with the curry powder to make the curry taste different. Salt can even temper spicy food. Don't believe me? Sprinkle some table salt on a slice of fresh jalapeno and notice how easy it is to eat without your mouth busrting into flames. (See also: 8 Natural Ways to Make Water More Flavorful)
What Kinds of Salt Are There?
Until recently, most Americans lived rather contentedly with the idea that there was one kind of salt — table salt. It's easy to use, cheap to buy, and always on the tabletop at Denny's. Of course, if you peruse the salt section of any grocery store, you'll see more and more salt choices added to the shelf every day. What are all of these salts good for? And what is the difference between them?
Table salt is the cheapest and most readily available type of cooking salt. No matter what tiny podunk town you live in, your corner gas station probably sells cardboard containers of Morton's salt. Table salt is highly refined, with very few impurities, and as such, is the saltiest tasting of all culinary salts. It often has added anti-clumping chemicals, like sodium aluminosilicate. Table salt's small granules are easily dispensed through a salt shaker and dissolve quickly in water.
Table salt is also generally iodized, meaning that it has had iodine added to it. Iodine is a necessary chemical that our bodies use to process nutrients. An iodine deficiency can lead to goiters, which occur when the thyroid gland swells up. It's a problem that has been largely eliminated in the United States since iodine was introduced to table salt. Although the processing of salt removes minerals and other impurities, it does not make the salt "unnatural" or dangerous, the way that, say, heavily processing corn and soy to remove all of the fiber makes them less healthy for human consumption.
Table salt is nice and cheap, as low as $0.40 per pound.
Kosher salt is referred to as kosher not because it is processed in accordance with Jewish law (although there really isn't a way to process salt that is offensive to Jewish law), but because it is used in the koshering process. In the koshering process, kosher salt is sprinkled on meat to draw out the blood, blood being considered an impurity. The shape of kosher salt crystals allows a more efficient dehydrating of surrounding materials. Kosher salt is sometimes (correctly) referred to as "koshering salt."
Kosher salt is often favored by chefs because of its shape — it is composed of flakes, rather than the very small granules that you will see in table salt. This makes it easy to pinch, if you are the type of cook (like my husband) who likes to keep a small bowl of salt by the stove. If you add kosher salt right before eating, the flakes don't dissolve quickly enough, and you will find a slight crunchiness followed by an explosion of salty flavor when you bite down on the salt flakes.
Kosher salt is more expensive than table salt, but still relatively inexpensive compared with sea salt. Kosher salt is approximately twice the cost of table salt, occasionally more.
Sea salt is, once again, sodium chloride, but instead of being harvested in underground mines, it is harvested from evaporating pools, either in salt lakes or from the ocean, hence the name. Sea salt frequently contains minerals and other impurities that give it a grayish color and flavor distinct to its region. Fleur de sel is a variety of sea salt that is harvested during the peak of summer and often has a higher mineral-to-salt content, and a briny, ocean-like flavor/scent. Sea salt's shape can vary from fine powder to large chunks to shavings.
Because so much sea salt is harvested by hand, it is more expensive than kosher and table salt, although the price varies dramatically, depending on the source, brand, packaging, and market audience.
The cost of sea salt varies quite a bit. I've seen it for as cheap as $1.30 per pound and as much as $17 per pound, depending on the source, packaging, and intended audience.
Himalayan Pink Salt
There are a number of things to keep in mind about Himalayan pink salt, and the most important is that the hype surrounding it is just that — hype. The way that Himalayan pink salt is sold, you would think it was harvested by meditating Buddhist monks in the purest, most untouched areas of Nepal, but most pink salt actually comes from Pakistan, a decent distance from the Himalayas. Food writers and "alternative" medical practitioners love to wax rhapsodic about pink salt, its "curative" properties, and its use in traditional "healing." Mind you, none of the medical claims about pink salt have any non-biased published data to back them up. For example, you might hear that the salt was "crystallized miles below the surface of the Earth, protected from modern day polution." Well, yes, but most mined salt is. You might read that it is the "purest salt on Earth" — if it were pure, it wouldn't be pink. You might read claims that the people of the Himalayas have prized this salt for thousands of years, and that it is known for its healing properties. I defy you to find anyone who lives in the Himalyas who has heard of pink salt.
It's salt. Mined salt. And it's pink because it has iron oxide in it. Not enough iron to keep you from being anemic, but enough to make the salt pink. That's it — iron. So it's not really pure — the whole reason that table salt is so salty is because table salt is the purest salt you can find; the purer the salt, the sharper the taste. Table salt has had impurities and minerals removed from it, which is why it is so white and lacks any additional flavor other than saltiness.
Other writers are prone to saying things like this: "Himalayan salt can be a natural and chemical-free alternative to traditional table salt." Never mind that salt IS a chemical, statements like this are simply idiotic.
Himalayan salt prices aren't as high as some of the more gourmet sea salt costs. You can buy 12 oz. of Himalayan salt in a mill for $6, which is a little over $7 per pound.
Smoked and flavored salts are popular gifts for foodies — very few things seem to make a man with a BBQ happier than a jar of specially smoked salts. Smoked and flavored salts can really enhance the flavor of meat and vegetables, especially if applied right before eating.
There isn't anything terribly special about the chemical composition of a flavored salt granule. It's just sodium chloride that has been coated with flavor or mixed with other ingredients to provide a flavor other than saltiness. You can save yourself a pretty penny by making your own flavored salts, but there are lots of interesting versions out there to try. At my local grocery store, I counted 15 different flavored salts, everything from green tea salt and smoked salts to lemon salt and even merlot-flavored salt (an intriguing purple color).
Of course, one of the cheapest and most delicious flavored salts has been around for a while — garlic salt. Garlic salt is made of salt, powdered garlic, and other herbs. It's a real life-saver in a pinch when the homemade marinara you made from hot house tomatoes tastes a little bland.
The cost of flavored salts varies widely — garlic salt is among the cheapest (you can even make your own garlic salt if you are feeling industrious), but I saw flavored salts selling for as much as $10 an ounce at my local store.
There are a number of salt replacement mixes available on the market, many of which contain potassium chloride, which is meant to mimic the flavor of salt without actually providing an increase in sodium consumption. However, potassium chloride is hard on the kidneys and isn't always a great substitute. Salt substitutes perform poorly in taste tests, although reviewers on Amazon seem to appreciate NoSalt.
Which Salt Is Healthiest?
Salt is something we need in our diets. Of course, many of us get too much salt, which can lead to hypertension and other health problems, so it never hurts to cut back a little. But if you are going to choose a salt, is there a type of salt that is better for you than any other? That depends — are you iodine deficient? If you are, then table salt, which has iodine added to it, is your best bet.
There are some who would claim that the minerals that remain in gourmet sea salts are good for you, and while that's technically true, the amount of these minerals found in sea salt is minuscule — not enough to make a difference in the nutritional value of salt. So, when choosing a "healthy" salt, your best bet is to buy the salt that you enjoy the taste of, and use it as sparingly as possible.
Which Salt Is the Most Affordable?
Pound for pound, table salt is still the cheapest salt that you can buy, and it offers a dose of iodine that keeps your thyroid working well. Kosher salt is slightly more expensive, but tends to score very well in taste tests.
The cost of salt can vary from $0.36 per pound to a whopping $36 per pound! That's a 100-fold increase!
Which Salt Tastes Best?
Finding a delicious salt is entirely up to the individual palate. Slate's Dan Crane performed a taste test of various salts on two separate occasions, pitting a salt substitute against table salt and several fancy salts. Although he doesn't say so explicitly, it appears as though the taste testers were aware of which salt they were tasting, and exposed to the salt containers as well (as such, I imagine some of the tasters might have been swayed slightly by the lovely packaging on the more expensive gourmet salts). Despite this, kosher salt tested very highly, especially when taking cost and lack of pretty packaging (compared with much more expensive salt brands) into account.
Cook's Illustrated ran a series of salt taste tests as well, and the results were mixed — table salt did well in baking, sea salt did well when sprinkled on roasted meat, and all salts performed the same in the taste test involving chicken stock. This doesn't suggest that all salts are the same, but as the writers at Cook's Illustrated suggest, it makes sense to keep pricier salts on the table, since their texture and flavor is more easily detected if added right before eating.
Do you have a particular type of salt that you like best? Do you buy salt based on flavor, cost, or some kind of combination?