Kitchen Basics: Is All Salt Created Equal?

Dean and Deluca in the Napa Valley offers twenty or more varieties of salt

CHOOSING HIGH QUALITY SALT: WHEN IT RAINS, IT DOESN’T POUR

It used to be that salt came in a cylindrical blue box, and that was that.  Like so many things in life, it’s not that simple any more. Salt has become a high-end gourmet specialty, flavored with everything from fennel to curry to sun dried tomatoes, to saffron to apple-wood smoke. All these may be fun and even useful culinary toys, but fundamentally, how are we to judge salt quality?  Is the salt on offer only sodium chloride or does it contain a raft of important trace minerals as well? You’ve probably already done what I’m going to tell you first: throw out that cylindrical blue box, that fine, white powdery stuff. It’s refined, bleached, had anti-caking chemicals added and is almost pure sodium chloride, in fact it’s more of a chemical than a natural food. Look for salt that’s coarser, not so white, made from evaporated sea water, and free of anti-caking ingredients. Quality salt attracts moisture from the air and should feel slightly moist. And while salt labeled “sea salt” and “kosher” may be somewhat better than ordinary table salt, those labels do not necessarily assure high quality.

For years I’ve been using Lima sea salt, distributed by a leading natural foods company in Europe. This salt is claimed to be harvested from a protected natural preserve on the Portuguese coast using only manual labor, sea water, sun and wind.  Meredith McCarty, who has researched salt thoroughly, highly recommends light gray Celtic sea salt hand harvested on the Isle of Noirmoutier, Brittany, France. This salt is harvested according to 1,500-year old Celtic methods and contains a rich variety of trace elements such as silicon, copper, calcium and nickel. These salts and a  variety of other  quality products are available to order on line from the Goldmine catalog. If you wish to read about salt in detail, I know of no better source than pages 46-50 of Meredith’s cookbook, “Sweet and Natural.”

Another controversial question is how much salt we need.  In truth, we do need some to keep the salinity of our body fluids at .85 per cent—so a salt free diet is a terrible idea.  But it’s also possible we are eating more salt than we need.  If we are constantly thirsty, that’s a clue.  U.S. nutritional guidelines suggest a limit of 6 grams or just over one teaspoon per day.  Other sources suggest less than that, perhaps only 3/4 teaspoon daily. Two additional points to remember: 1) a quality salt delivers less sodium than a cheap salt, 2) flavorings such as miso, soy sauce and umeboshi are salty and should be considered when assessing your salt intake.

More quality salts are coming on market all the time and I will attempt to check them out and comment on them.  What is your experience with salt and what salt would you recommend?  Please feel free to comment.

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One response

  1. Not wanting to come back with a traditional culinary “souvenir” of macadamias, coconuts and pineapples; I returned from Hawaii with some Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt. As described it is “the traditional Hawaiian sea salt used to season and preserve. Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt is non-processed and rich in trace minerals, all of which are found in sea water. A small amount of harvested reddish Hawaiian clay (‘Alae) enriches the salt with Iron-Oxide.”

    Traditionally Hawaiians use Alaea salt in ceremonies to cleanse, purify and bless tools and canoes, as well, in healing rituals for medicinal purposes. It is the traditional and authentic seasoning for native Hawaiian dishes such as Kalua Pig, Hawaiian Jerky and Poke.

    I just tried some on sliced strawberries, a wonderful surprise. I always forget a little salt on fruit can bring out a greater dimension of flavors. Can’t wait for melons to come into season. Take care not to be heavy handed, large grain salt can overwhelm flavors rather than enhance.

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