5 surprising facts about salt

brittany sea salt

Salt is the world’s oldest flavoring – the first written reference is from the Book of Job, dated 2,250 BC. The history of salt is surprisingly rich and in fact so many words in our language are derived by salt – in ancient times the guards that protected the salt road, Via Salaria, thus the word “salary” was born. Salad is called as such because the Romans also seasoned green vegetables with salt. And you may not remember from grade school, but Christopher Columbus’ explorations were to locate salt, not the new lands in and of themselves. It may not be surprising that with such a rich history, salt is still a rich topic among foodies and chefs worldwide.

In fact, today there are over 40 types of edible salt, and how and where to use them can be a little confusing. Here are 5 surprising facts and tips about salt.

1) Is there a “healthy” salt?
Himalayan salts, hand-mined from ancient sea salt deposits from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan, is abundant in trace mineral content (+80 minerals) as well as electrolytes and is one of the purest salts available. Its more delicate flavour makes it perfect as a finishing / table salt to be sprinkled on dishes after cooking. As a result, Himalayan salt is the “go to” salt of health advocates and nutritionists. 

2) Technically all salts are “kosher”
This is because there are no animal products involved in salt manufacture. However, the term kosher salt comes from the salt used to kosher meat, whose purpose is to remove the blood from meat. Because of kosher salt’s large size and crystal structure, it is the best salt to use when roasting meats and because of its quick dissolving properties, it’s a favorite all-purpose cooking salt of chefs worldwide.

3) Iodized table salt was introduced to lower the incidence of goiter
Introduced in the US in the early 1920’s to prevent goiter which can be caused by a deficiency of iodine in the diet. Salt is iodized by adding an iodine rich mineral, usually potassium iodide. Realistically, with today’s more varied diets, the iodized salt is no longer a necessity. Table salt also contains additives such as sodium silicoaluminate or magnesium carbonate to improve the pour-ability. These additives are not required to be listed as ingredients on the label. It also often contains sugar – listed as dextrose on the label. A lot of experts agree that iodized table salt is like the white bread of salts – chemically stripped nutrients and then “enhanced” by synthetic vitamins and minerals.

4) Is fleur de sel worth the price?
Considered the caviar of sea salt, fleur de sel is hand-harvested. It is called fleur de sel, or “flower of the sea” because the conditions have to be just right (abundant sun and wind) for it to “bloom” like a flower on the surface of the water. Don’t be surprised if it is slightly damp – it is supposed to be this way. It dissolves slowly and because of its earthy, briny yet delicate flavor it is best used as a finishing salt on things like tomato, avocado and melon. If you use it in cooking its delicate flavors will be lost and it’s like using an aged Bordeaux as a cooking wine. So it’s worth its price as a finishing salt but completely wasted as a cooking salt.

5) The size and shape of salt crystals impacts the taste
Flake salt, like sea salt, is best as a finishing salt because of the flat nature of the crystals and its slow dissolving properties – also, some enjoy the crunch it provides. Large triangular shaped salt, like kosher salt for example, dissolves differently, meaning that you can actually use less salt to get the same flavor. In fact, food manufacturers like Frito-Lay, are working on reshaping the salt crystals used to that they can reduce the sodium but yet preserve the taste.

So, which salt do I use? you may wonder. I cook with Kosher salt, for example in pasta water, in roasting meats or vegetables. And for table salt, I prefer Swedish flake salt or French fleur del sel and keep them in small salt cellars on the table. And with the exception of some desserts, I find that no food cannot be improved by a little sprinkle of salt.

About Joanna Hutchins

Joanna Hutchins is a culinary travel blogger based in Shanghai, China.. In 2009, Joanna founded Accidental Epicurean, a culinary travel blog focused on Asia. Joanna is also a contributor to CNNGo, Look East magazine, SE Asia Globe and Two magazine.