An Easy Way to Take Your Food to the Next Level: Good Salt


Holly A. Heyser

Salt is salt, right? Well, yes and no—especially when it comes to finishing a dish.

For most of my cooking life, I was of the opinion that all salt was the same. Then I began pickling things and making charcuterie, and I learned that most table salt contains iodide and anti-caking agents that will impart an off taste to preserved food. So I switched to kosher salt and left it at that.

He describes the smoked Chardonnay salt as having a flavor that is "oak with grass and spice." Uh, not so sure about that. But it is a wonderfully subtle smoked salt.

All this talk about flavors in salt, the idea that one is so much better than the next, left a bad taste in my mouth. The descriptions of these Gucci salts sounded like parodies of bad wine reviews. "Delicately fun, sprightly and reminiscent of candy corn and hay." Fer chrissake people, salt is sodium chloride! Do you really mean to tell me that your sodium chloride tastes better than mine? Sheesh.

Then, one day, my friends began giving me fancy salts—probably as a joke. The first one I received was salish, a smoked salt from the Pacific Northwest that was so strong even a few grains would add smoke flavor to a dish. More than a few grains will make food taste like the inside of a barbecue. I reckon it will take me a lifetime to go through my nine-ounce jar. But still, I was intrigued by what those few grains could do. I could now add smoke flavor to otherwise delicate foods, without having to fire up my smoker.

My next salts were Hawaiian, a black lava salt and one mixed with an orangey-red clay called alaea. These salts don't taste much different from regular salt, but I like their ability to add interest and color to a plate: Both salts look great on contrasting food, especially white food. A little bright red alaea or black salt on a white cream sauce looks very cool.

I also noticed something else about these Hawaiian salts: They were harder than regular salt, so they stayed crunchy longer.


Holly A. Heyser

I was perfectly happy with my little salt collection until I opened a book by Mark Bitterman called Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral. I'd met Mark before, in Portland, where he runs a remarkable shop called The Meadow. The Meadow is home to perhaps the world's greatest collection of salts, and Bitterman's book is both a walk through these salts and is a call to arms for cooks to take this element more seriously in the kitchen.

Apparently what I did not know about salt could indeed fill a book, and I read Bitterman's tome from cover to cover. Afterwards, I immediately bought several more salts to play with:

    • A French fleur de sel de Camargue, which was wet and coarse
    • Sel gris, which is another French coarse sea salt that is slightly gray from clay deposits
    • An Italian fiore di sale from Cervia, which is a fine-grained fancy finishing salt
    • A salt lightly smoked with wood from Chardonnay wine barrels
    • A pink flake salt, whose crystals looked like little pyramids
    • And a large container of fine-grain sea salt from Trapani, in southern Italy. Bitterman said this is a good everyday salt to replace kosher.

I messed around with all these salts for several months. Having done so, I have become a convert to Bitterman's way of thinking. Salt matters. A lot.

Yes, it is true that sodium chloride is roughly 98 percent of all salts. But that other 2 percent can create discernible differences in flavor. Bitterman does get carried away with his descriptions of the various salts—he describes the smoked Chardonnay salt as having a flavor that is "oak with grass and spice." Uh, not so sure about that. But it is a wonderfully subtle smoked salt that I find far more useful tool than the salish, which is a sledgehammer.


Holly A. Heyser

I used the smoked Chardonnay salt recently for a dish I am really proud of, a dinner-party main course of seared Canada goose breast, sous-vide butternut squash, pureed sunchokes, and pomegranate seeds. I used the smoked Chardonnay salt to bring it all together. The gentle smoke flavor from the salt really made the dish.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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