For years now, the government has conducted a war on salt in the United States. Salt was bad for you, so bad that myriad regulations were enacted to curtail salt in food and campaigns run to scare people into cutting back the amount of salt in their diet. That war has been called into question, as a growing body of evidence shows that lack of salt causes more problems, and that curbing salt intake to reduce blood pressure doesn’t really work. A very good overview article can be found at Scientific American.
However, I want to declare a new and different war on salt. The enemy is not salt per-se, but rather the flavorless and nutritionally null thing known as pure table salt. It may meet the body’s need for salt, but that is at best all it can do.
As a cook-in-progress, I want things that add flavor and nutrition to what I cook. Why cook in just water when you can cook in stocks, broths, ales, or other liquids that can add flavor and more to the mix? The idea is to create layers of flavor so that food tastes good and has as many nutrients as possible, no?
Then why would you want to cook with pure NaCl?
In the days before supplements, getting all the trace minerals, vitamins, and other things we need to be healthy required was a bit of a challenge. Believe it or not, salt provided a number of those trace minerals and compounds that helped ensure health. Today, processing table salt can remove as many as 82 different minerals and nutrients.
Sea salt is rich in minerals and compounds that the body needs. In addition to the salt, you have magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, iron, and other trace elements. The amounts are not enough to meet nutritional minimums on their own, but in conjunction with other dietary intake they can be an important part of a balanced diet.
Rock salt is also rich in minerals and compounds the body needs. Of the 92 trace minerals known to be needed by the body, Himalayan rock salt contains 84 of those compounds. Other rock salts have differing amounts and concentrations, just as do sea salts from various areas.
Want to know what else they have? Different flavors. Yes, real natural salt has flavor and that flavor varies based on its composition and processing. Yes, processing though not in the way table salt is processed. Different drying methods can leave their mark on flavor, and in many cases add to it. Have you ever tried a smoked salt?
As a cook, I collect salts and am always looking to try new ones. That said, I do have some favorites that I will share with you.
Himalayan. Yes, it is trendy but there is some good reason for it to be so. It is mineral rich, grinds well, and has a flavor that can and does make many positive contributions to a wide variety of food and preparation styles. I actually carry a shaker of it with me (seen above) for use in cooking and if needed for some of the more, er, interesting meals that come my way. If you get slabs, you too can be hipster and cook on it, serve on it, and more. For me, the main use is ground so as to get the most I can out of the flavor.
Fleur de Sel. For years, the flowers of the sea have been used by top chefs to finish dishes. It is very mineral rich, and has a distinctive flavor that adds a small touch of richness along with the boost salt brings to a dish. Good Fleur de Sel is expensive enough that most will only use it for the final touch of salt, and it is something I do recommend keeping on hand for those special dishes and meals.
Maldon. An English sea salt, it has been considered a rival to fleur-de-sel and Portuguese cream salt/sal-de-mar. Mineral rich with a good and “clean” flavor (no bitterness), it makes both a good base and finishing salt. Be sure to try some of the smoked Maldon salt.
Truffle salt. What happens if you mix good rock or sea salt with flavorful things like saffron, or truffles? You get a wonderful way to add flavor and trace nutrients to a meal. In fact, it usually doesn’t take much to add a huge amount of flavor.
Want to have some fun? There are a number of stores that will hold events where you can taste a variety of salts, or let you sample some of what they sell. Find one, or find a friend who shares my hobby of collecting salts from around the world, and sample. I’m willing to bet that you will find some that taste absolutely horrible (I remember one a salesman talked chef into buying for the restaurant, that got used one time and one time only…) and others that will taste amazing.
Real food has flavor, and your salt should too. It is a key food ingredient and a necessary nutrient. Explore it, and add some richness to your culinary world.