Salt is one of the most important ingredients in cooking. It’s been used to preserve meats and vegetables for a millennium, enhances the flavor and texture of food, and you’ll find it in pretty much every recipe from savory to sweet. Taking many forms, from tiny crystals of table salt to giant pyramidic flakes of Maldon sea salt, knowing the differences can help you salt your food optimally.
Though all cooking salts have the same chemical makeup (that’s a one-to-one ratio of sodium and chloride, for those of us long past high school chemistry) and contain the same amount of salt per weight, their flavors and textures dramatically change the final outcome of a dish.
What You Should Know About Table Salt
It’s likely you’ll find table salt on the table of your favorite diner, in the paper packets in your bag of fast food French fries, or in your grandma’s kitschy porcelain shakers. The crystals are perfectly uniform in shape and size, and they pour easily from whatever they’re stored in. So what makes them this way?
In Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products, author Steve Ettlinger provides a brief explanation of how table salt comes to be, in a process called solution mining:
“Table salt is actually pumped out of the ground as brine from U-shaped wells (water is pumped way down into deep salt deposits and the resultant brine flows up) and piped over to a processing facility, where the brine is concentrated and dried.”
Once the salt crystals have been extracted from the brine, they’re processed into smaller crystal sizes and are often mixed with additives like iodine (for health reasons, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration), calcium silicate to help it pour more easily, or sodium aluminosilicate to prevent caking.
As Samin Nosrat explains in Salt Fat Acid Heat, manufacturers began adding iodine to salt in the 1920s when iodine deficiency (which causes goiter) was a common health problem. Though these days most people naturally get enough iodine in their diets from seafood and dairy, many companies continue to add it to their products.
The Upside and Downside of Table Salt, According to Chefs
The additives present in table salt have given it a not-so-great reputation with chefs. Nosrat notes that iodine has an unpleasant metallic flavor that will transfer to whatever you’re seasoning and insists that you use kosher or sea salt in her recipes for the best results. Mark Bittman, writer of How To Cook Everything, seconds this notion, noting that “the flavor of table salt is harsh, with iodine the predominant mineral taste.”
It’s not all bad though. Table salt’s small crystals and uniform size makes it ideal for baking projects, where it dissolves quickly and distributes evenly. For this reason, many chefs reach for a box of non-iodized table salt when baking.
Types of Sea Salt and How To Use Them
Sea salts vary quite a bit in size, shape, flavor, and texture, but all of them have one thing in common: they’re what’s left behind when seawater evaporates. How this evaporation occurs dictates these factors, as well as the price of the final product.
Nosrat notes that natural sea salts like Maldon that are harvested “using low-yield, labor-intensive methods” can take up to five years to complete, which is reflected in their higher cost. This process of open-air, slow evaporation results in crunchy, flaky crystals that are perfect for topping chocolate chip cookies, juicy tomato toasts, or just-fried chicken.
Because of the flaky, uneven texture and high price point, it is not ideal for baking, salting pasta water, or any other use that requires the salt to dissolve and integrate evenly into the dish.
Refined granular sea salt is a bit different; it’s produced by rapidly boiling down sea water in a closed vacuum, making it much less expensive than its flaky counterpart. Nosrat recommends using these fine or medium-sized crystals for everyday cooking, like “in water for boiling pasta, on roasts and stew meats, tossed with vegetables, and in doughs or batters.” Personally, I stick to kosher salt for these applications, but that choice is very much dictated by my flavor preferences and my familiarity with kosher salt.
Table salt’s uniformity and ability to dissolve makes it ideal for baking, but it often includes additives like iodine which can affect the flavor (and sometimes texture) of the final dish. If you prefer using table salt, look for brands without iodine and other additives. The very small crystals also make it saltier by volume than most other types of salt. Because of this, Cook’s Illustrated’s Kitchen Smarts recommends using 2 teaspoons of Maldon flaky sea salt or 2 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt for every 1 teaspoon of table salt.
Though sea salts vary widely, many cooks prefer the natural variety for their flavor and texture. Flaky sea salts are particularly popular as finishing salts, thanks to their pleasant crunch.
No matter what kind of salt you keep stocked in your kitchen, the key to mastering salting by taste is consistency. Get to know the salt you’re using by seasoning and tasting your food as you cook, noting the texture, the level of saltiness, and how it affects the flavor of the foods you add it to. The longer you cook with the same type of salt, the more comfortable you’ll add it without measuring.