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The Salt of the Matter

Goya2 Comments
The Salt of the Matter

A walk down the supermarket aisle will confirm that we have as many salt varieties as there are Marvel comic heroes. Aysha Tanya puts together a cheat sheet to using different kinds of salt in your kitchen, and what kind of salt is worth spending a little extra on.

I’m a food writer with tunnel vision. Predictably, the only Shakespeare quote I can remember is the exchange between Cordelia and her father, King Lear, where he asks her, “How much do you love me?” And she replies: “Like fresh meat loves salt.”

Meat does love salt. As do chocolate chip cookies, and fruit. Salt is a mineral, sodium chloride, and one of the cornerstones of building flavour in food. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat writes that salt has a greater impact on flavour than any other ingredient. One of the unique properties of salt is that it is both an ingredient and a flavour. The meeting point of aroma (picked up by our olfactory senses) and taste (salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami are the five tastes that our taste buds can perceive) is what is referred to as flavour. As Harold McGee, author of the seminal book, On Food and Cooking explains, salt helps in releasing aroma compounds from the surface of foods, and plays an important role in heightening flavour. As an ingredient, salt finds use in curing and tenderising meats. It also acts as a preservative – your grandmother’s pickle stays fungus-free for months in part due to the salt content, helped along by the oil.

Types of Salt
All types of salts are derived from saltwater that has been evaporated. That could be either by evaporating sea water, or from salt deposits that are essentially ancient seas or oceans that have dried up.

Common Salt
Common salt can come from either of two sources. The first is by evaporating sea water rapidly in a vacuum, and the second is by flooding salt deposits (remnants of ancient seas and lakes that dried up a long time ago) with water and then rapidly evaporating the resulting brine in a vacuum. In both cases, the resulting salt granules are dense and compact. In the West, the most commonly used type of salt, table salt, comes from salt deposits. In India, however, our common salt is generally made from sea water. Minerals are then removed from the salt, which gives table salt its characteristic pure white colour. To this, anti-caking agents like calcium silicate are added so that the salt doesn’t form clumps. Iodine is also added to most kinds of common salt, although iodine-free and low-iodine versions are now available in the market. The salt iodisation programme that started in India in the late 1950s was conceived to prevent the onset of goitre, which arises from lack of iodine. However, a balanced and varied diet, that includes seafood, dairy and eggs, provides the required iodine, and iodized salt will no longer necessary. Iodised salt tends to have a metallic aftertaste, and is now being replaced where possible, in restaurants and by enthusiastic home cooks. It remains however, the most common type of salt found in most Indian kitchens.

Sea Salt
Sea water is made to evaporate gently under the sun, and the salt crystals that form on the surface are collected manually. This is a process that takes several years – salts like Fleur de Sel and Maldon are harvested in this manner. The long production period, and the labour intensiveness is what makes these salts so expensive.

Sea Salt. Photo by  Conscious Food .

Sea Salt. Photo by Conscious Food.

Fleur de Sel and Maldon
Fleur de Sel, which translates to flower of salt, is traditionally harvested in Brittany, Western France. Maldon, on the other hand, is a British product, harvested off the coast of Maldon. Both salts are hollow, delicate flakes, that are best used in dishes where their texture is allowed to stand out. So don’t use it to season a gravy or in a dough, instead use it as a final flourish on a salad, or to season a soft boiled egg or even just to elevate your raw mango and chilli experience in the summer.

Sel Gris
Sel Gris, another French salt, is harvested from the same waters as Fleur de Sel. However, these crystals fall below the surface of the water and  pick up minerals like magnesium chloride and calcium chloride which give the salt its characteristic grey colour. Sel Gris is also known as Celtic salt, and is best used in the same way as Fleur de Sel and Maldon, as a finishing salt.  

Rock Salt
These salts are made from salt deposits that are washed with water to dissolved the salt, and the resulting brine undergoes evaporation, leaving behind rock salt.  

Rock Salt. Photo by  Conscious Food.

Rock Salt. Photo by Conscious Food.

Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan pink salt is harvested from the Khewra salt mine, located in the Pakistan region of Punjab.This is the second largest salt mine in the world, and the salt obtained from here comes in shades of pink, orange and even red, depending on the amount of iron oxide dust present in it, amongst other minerals. Himalayan pink salt is believed to have healing properties, and is now popular the world over, not just in salt form, but as lamps, and even as salt spas to spend a day of rest and relaxation, as you re-align your chakras as sip on some Evian. Finely ground granules of pink salt can be used much like common salt. However, the coarser grind is best used as a finishing salt. But be warned – unlike Maldon and Fleur de Sel, pink salt is dense, so a little bit goes a long way!

Black Salt
Black salt is made from a halite that is heated in a furnace for 24 hours. When it is powdered, it becomes a light pink colour. Black salt contains hydrogen sulphide which gives it a peculiar smell, but it has a pungency and savouriness that cannot be substituted. It is an ingredient in chaat masala, and lends a complex savouriness to dishes like paav bhaaji. It is also gaining popularity in vegan dishes to provide ‘egginess’. Sold as fine granules, it dissolves easily and is a delicious addition to dishes that require a pungent kick. Roohafza and blacksalt popsicles, anyone?

Salt has gotten a bad rep of late, but as James Beard famously said: Where would we be without salt? I wouldn’t want to find out.

This post was facilitated by Conscious Food. You can shop their products here.