Worth Their Salt
Few dishes would be complete without a sprinkle of salt. A shake or two can bring out the natural flavor of foods during cooking, and a flourish of coarsely ground salt adds a slightly crunchy flair to any meal. But this simple crystalline combination of sodium and chloride can’t get much respect among health experts of late, the unhappy consequence of health problems caused by high-sodium processed foods and a general overuse of cheap table salt. While few would claim salt as a health food, unrefined and additive-free mined or harvested salts actually have nutrient value in the naturally occurring trace minerals, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, they contain. Table salt, on the other hand, is stripped of those minerals as it’s refined and then has iodine and anticaking agents added to it. The iodine supports thyroid function and the anticaking compounds absorb moisture and help the salt flow freely.
The loss of those minerals makes all the difference. “When you eat sodium alone, and it isn’t balanced by other minerals, you’re more likely to experience health problems,” says Shari Lieberman, PhD, co-author of The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book (Avery, 2007). “If you use sodium in a 1-to-1 ratio with potassium, for example—as you would in a balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods—the body will be less likely to retain fluid.” Fluid retention increases the risk of hypertension, which is why people at risk are told to cut back on salt. That becomes easier if you use unrefined salt. Because artisan and sea salts have more dramatic flavor and texture, you can use them in much smaller amounts than white table salt.
These seven salt varieties can enhance your favorite foods without wrecking your healthy-eating habits.
Kala namak. Also called Indian black salt, even though the salt crystals are actually light pink with a grayish tinge, this salt adds a pungent, musky taste that’s reminiscent of cooked eggs. Kala namak is mined in central India as large, reddish-black crystals that are high in sulfur; the crystals are then finely ground into a rosy grey powder. Kala namak plays a key role in Indian cuisine in pickled vegetables, curries, dhal, and savory snacks like pakoras and samosas. Kala namak is also common in vegan cooking, where it adds an egg-like flavor to dishes. It can be used while you cook or as a finishing salt.
Enjoy it: Toss cauliflower florets with coconut oil, cumin, and curry powder, then sprinkle with kala namak and roast until golden; puree cooked parsnips with a small amount of coconut milk, then stir in minced tarragon and kala namak.
Fleur de sel. In French the name means “flower of salt,” and the French considered fleur de sel the caviar of salts. Any fleur de sel is delightful, but the most revered comes from the prized salt marshes of Guérande in Brittany, France, and carries the appellation “de Guérande.” It’s hand-harvested by raking the moist top layers of salt from the surface of evaporating pools in the marshes. Common table salt, on the other hand, is machine-harvested by breaking up thick, hard chunks of salt crystals that have formed over a period of five to seven years. The light, moist crystals of fleur de sel look like tiny snowflakes and have a similar sparkle, complemented by a subtle aroma of violets. Because the flavor and texture are so delicate, fleur de sel is used as a finishing salt, sprinkled lightly on dishes just before serving.
Enjoy it: Toss balls of cucumber, honeydew, and cantaloupe with minced fresh mint, and sprinkle with fleur de sel de Guérande; combine leaves of Belgian endive and mâche with thinly sliced radishes, toss with vinaigrette made with shallots, then sprinkle with fleur de sel.
Fumée de sel. Also a hand-harvested product of the Guérande marshes, fumée de sel is cold-smoked in oak barrels that have been used to age chardonnay, giving it a distinctive smoky aroma and deep tan color. Like fleur de sel, the light, moist crystals melt quickly in cooking; use it like its cousin, as a finishing salt, by sprinkling it lightly over food just before serving.
Enjoy it: Drizzle sliced red and gold beets with olive oil, roast until tender, and sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves and fumée de sel; combine endive, butter lettuce, shaved pecorino Romano, pine nuts, and avocado cubes, and sprinkle with fumée de sel.
Grey salt. Also known as Celtic grey, grey sea salt, or sel gris, this variety also comes from the Guérande marshes. Unlike fleur de sel or fumée, though, it comes from deeper in the marshes, where the salt crystals have taken on a grey tinge and aromatic flavor from the layers of argil, the rich, grey clay that lines the floor of the marshes. It’s harvested by raking the salt vigorously from below the surface of the water. You’ll find both fine and coarse ground versions; both have a softer texture and more rich and concentrated flavor than common salt. Grey salt subs nicely for Kosher salt for cooking, and the finer grinds work well as finishing salts.
Enjoy it: Sauté Swiss chard, kale, and beet greens in olive oil, then sprinkle with Stilton cheese and finely ground grey salt; toss green beans and sliced red onions with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and grey salt, and sauté until just tender.
Cyprus black salt. This salt comes from the Black Sea and is distinguished by the pyramid-shaped crystals that form naturally during the sun-drying process. The color comes from infusing the salt crystals with charcoal, which is thought to have detoxifying properties. The charcoal also naturally enhances the flavor of the salt and gives it a particularly dramatic appearance. Like other flaked salts, Cypress black should be used to finish cooked dishes.
Enjoy it: Sprinkle Cyprus black salt and crushed red pepper flakes over grilled whitefish that’s served on a bed of sautéed chard; combine cubes of mango and jicama with minced cilantro leaves, cayenne pepper, and a squeeze of lime, then sprinkle with Cyprus black salt.
Peruvian pink salt. Pale pink in color, with a high moisture content and shimmering, flaky crystals, Peruvian pink salt is hand-harvested from spring water that seeps into terraced ponds in the Andes Mountains in Maras, Peru. The mineral-rich pond water gives the salt a more pronounced flavor than the fragile varieties from the Guérande salt marshes. The crisp texture and bright flavor of Peruvian pink make it ideal as a finishing salt, but it also stands up well in any cooked dish.
Enjoy it: Lightly brush thin slices of whole-grain baguette with olive oil, crushed garlic, and minced basil, sprinkle with Peruvian pink salt, then grill and top with diced tomatoes and red onions for a twist on traditional bruschetta; toss chunks of sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and parsnips with olive oil, minced fresh rosemary, coarsely ground black pepper, and Peruvian pink salt; roast until tender.
Hawaiian red alaea sea salt. The deep, terra-cotta hue of this salt comes from the red volcanic clay—called alaea—that’s harvested from the mountains in Hawaii and then mixed with sea salt. The abundant clay content gives this salt an earthy flavor and subtly crunchy texture. Red alaea can be used in cooking or as a finishing salt and to seal in moisture when roasting meat.
Enjoy it: Toss cubes of eggplant with olive oil, allspice, cayenne, and smoked paprika, sprinkle with red alaea, and roast until tender; sprinkle the salt on halibut, then poach in white wine with shallots, fennel, and asparagus.
Lisa Turner is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado.