Salt

Published September 1, 2002. From Cook's Illustrated.

Food magazines and celebrity chefs are touting the flavor of gourmet salts that cost up to $36 per pound. Do they really taste better?

Overview:

Step into just about any gourmet shop and you will find sea salts from around the world in a variety of colors and textures. Most are pricey, up to 100 times the cost of table salt. We wondered if a pinch here or a smidgen there is really worth $36 a pound. Will your biscuits or steak taste better if you spend more money on salt?

And what about choosing an everyday salt for adding to pasta water or chicken stock? More home cooks are following the lead of chefs and keeping kosher salt (rather than table salt) next to the stove. Chefs have spread the word that these oversized grains of salt have a pure, clean flavor and that it's much easier to pick up these large crystals with your fingers. While the argument about crystal size is persuasive, we wondered if kosher salt really does taste better than table salt.

Salt is either mined from ancient seas that dried up millions of years ago or obtained by evaporating seawater. In their pure form—sodium chloride—salts from both locations taste the same. What distinguishes one salt from… read more

Step into just about any gourmet shop and you will find sea salts from around the world in a variety of colors and textures. Most are pricey, up to 100 times the cost of table salt. We wondered if a pinch here or a smidgen there is really worth $36 a pound. Will your biscuits or steak taste better if you spend more money on salt?

And what about choosing an everyday salt for adding to pasta water or chicken stock? More home cooks are following the lead of chefs and keeping kosher salt (rather than table salt) next to the stove. Chefs have spread the word that these oversized grains of salt have a pure, clean flavor and that it's much easier to pick up these large crystals with your fingers. While the argument about crystal size is persuasive, we wondered if kosher salt really does taste better than table salt.

Salt is either mined from ancient seas that dried up millions of years ago or obtained by evaporating seawater. In their pure form—sodium chloride—salts from both locations taste the same. What distinguishes one salt from another in color and flavor are the type and amount of minerals (such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium) and/or clays attached to the crystals of sodium chloride. The size and texture of the crystals—whether big flakes, irregularly shaped large grains, or regularly shaped small—are largely determined by the way the salt is processed.

What is referred to as sea salt is obtained from seawater held in large, shallow ponds or large pans. As the water evaporates, coarse crystals of salt fall to the bottom. The crystals are then collected by raking. Some sea salt is made from seawater that is artificially heated. This process produces relatively large flakes. The white fleur de sel, or "flower of salt," is harvested by skimming off the thin film of salt that forms on the surface of the pans. As a result, it is extremely expensive. (The brand we tested costs $36 a pound.)

Table salt is usually obtained by pumping water into an underground salt deposit to dissolve the salt, pumping the brine to the surface, settling impurities, and vacuum—evaporating the clear brine. Rapid vacuum evaporation yields the tiny, regularly shaped grains that fit through the holes in a salt shaker. Some table salt is taken from the sea and then processed by vacuum evaporation to yield small crystals.

Kosher salt can be mined or harvested from the sea. Processing is designed to produce coarse, irregular crystals that will cling to meat for the purpose of koshering, in which the salt is applied to draw blood and juices out of just-butchered meats. Kosher salt is manufactured under rabbinical supervision, which, along with the large size of the crystals, is what distinguishes kosher salt from most other salts, especially table salt.

Unlike kosher salt and sea salt, most table salts contain additives. Iodized table salt contains potassium iodide, which protects against thyroid disease. Dextrose may be added to help stabilize the iodine, and calcium silicate or one of several other drying agents are often added to prevent caking. Many chefs claim these additives can impart an off flavor.

Tasting Results

To make sense of all these claims, we tasted two kinds of table salt (one iodized, one not), two brands of kosher salt, and five widely available sea salts. The price per pound of all the salts ranged from 36 cents to $36. Tests were divided into three categories: salt used at the table (we sprinkled each sample on roast beef), salt used in baking (we used a plain biscuit recipe), and salt dissolved in liquids (we tested each salt in spring water, chicken stock, and pasta cooking water).

Of the five tests run, we uncovered the most profound differences in our beef tenderloin test. Tasters loved the crunch of the large sea salt flakes or crystals when sprinkled over slices of roast tenderloin. Why did the sea salts win this test? Large crystals provided more pleasing sensory stimulation than fine table salt. In fact, tasters really objected to fine salts sprinkled on the beef, calling them "harsh" and "sharp." Tasters did like kosher salt on meat, but not as much as sea salts, which have larger crystals.

Does this mean that our tasters were reacting to the additives in table salt that the chefs had warned us about? It's possible, but given the results in our other tests, we are not convinced. It's hard to sprinkle fine-grained sea or table salt evenly over meat, and we think tasters may have been hitting pockets with a lot of salt and reacting negatively.

In the biscuit tests, table salt was the winner, and most of the sea salts landed at the bottom of the ratings. The explanation here is simple. Small salt crystals are more evenly distributed in baked goods than large crystals, and tasters didn't like getting a big hit of crunchy salt.

In the spring water, chicken stock, and pasta cooking water, tasters felt that all nine salts tasted pretty much the same. Why didn't the fancy sea salts beat the pants off plain table salt in these tests? The main reason is dilution. Yes, sea salts sampled right from the box (or sprinkled on meat at the table) did taste better than table salt. And while crystal size did undoubtedly affect flavor perception in the tenderloin test, we suspect that our tasters were also responding favorably to trace minerals in these salts. But mineral content is so low in sea salt that any effect these minerals might have on flavor was lost when a teaspoon of salt was stirred into a big pot of chicken stock.

One final (and very important) point. Our results should not be taken to mean that all salts behave in the same way in the kitchen. For example, salts with a fine texture may seem saltier than coarse salts because of the way the crystals pack down in a teaspoon when measured.

What, then, can we conclude from the results of these tests? For one, expensive sea salts are best saved for the table, where their delicate flavor and great crunch can be appreciated. Don't waste $36-a-pound sea salt by sprinkling it into a simmering stew. If you like to keep coarse salt in a ramekin next to the stove, choose a kosher salt, which costs just pennies per pound. If you measure salt by the teaspoon when cooking, use table salt, which is also the best choice for baking.

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