Sorting Out Sea Salt

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2009

Guidelines on how to use the variety of international sea salts available at the supermarket.

Natural sea salt is simply sodium chloride and in its pure form is no different from everyday table salt. However, depending on where the salt is harvested (a terroir can be as exotic as Hawaiian black lava or Australian red algae), trace mineral elements such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium can be found. These elements cause variation in the flavor and color of the salt. And depending on how the salt crystals are harvested, their texture can range from sandlike and powdery to crystalline and flaky.

But can these characteristics be detected when the salts are used for cooking? To find out, we bought an array of salts: Fleur de Sel de Camargue, Esprit du Sel de Ile de Ré, La Baleine, Grey Celtic, Morton’s Coarse Kosher Salt, and Maldon Sea Salt. We used the salts in simple applications, including seasoning chicken stock and salting cooking water for pasta. The results were definitive: Tasters couldn’t tell one salt from another in cooked applications. Only when the salts were sprinkled over slices of beef tenderloin could tasters detect subtle flavor nuances. But it was the texture that really distinguished some salts: Samples with large, flaky crystals such as Maldon Sea Salt had a crunch we particularly enjoyed. Our advice? Save your money and use fancy sea salts only for garnishing.


Use regular table salt for cooking and choose a flaky, coarse sea salt for sprinkling.