Okay, now that I’ve gotten off my salt soapbox, let’s get down to it: There are so many types of salts, how do you know what to use? Well, for cooking, there are two basic “parent” categories: cooking salts and finishing salts. Some may argue that it’s more complex than that (what about pickling salt or brining salt?), but that’s how I see them and use them in my cooking.
What I’ve termed “cooking” salt is the salt I use during the preparation of a dish. Usually, this is kosher salt for savory cooking and then table salt for baking (But my table salt isn’t Morton’s, it’s a fine sea salt. It still has anticaking agents added, but I feel better using something that says “sea salt” rather than “iodized salt.”). Cooking salt adds flavor to the various elements of your meal as they’re coming together (think using a pinch of kosher salt to season your onions as they’re sautéing, before you start adding other ingredients). I like a finer salt for baking because it dissolves easier and doesn’t leave pockets of salty flavor throughout sweet baked goods, but you should always use the type of salt a recipe calls for. Kosher salt cannot be substituted for the same quantity of table salt.
(Random, kind of unrelated note: I hate it when TV chefs tell you to “season” your food with salt and pepper as you’re cooking, even though I’ve been guilty of adapting their terminology. Salt is a seasoning because it enhances flavor. Pepper is not because it changes flavor. True logic from Marco Pierre White, Devil in the Kitchen.)
Finishing salts are what you add to your food after it’s been prepared, right as it’s going to the table. These salts usually have a delicate, mineral flavor that would be lost if used during cooking. Plus, they are splurge salts, so you don’t want to waste them where you can’t taste them! Finishing salts usually have a larger grain, more like kosher salt, which allows the salt to melt on your tongue when you take a bite, registering more flavor than if it melted on your food.
These are the finishing salts I’m currently using.
- Sicilian sea salt: Take a slice of your favorite crusty bread, smear it with good-quality unsalted butter, and sprinkle a few grains of this salt on top. Mangia! (Mimes kissing her closed fingertips then splaying out her hand like a good Sicilian foodie.)
- Grey salt: This is usually a French sea salt, and it gets its gray color from the clay in the salt ponds, which also adds more of a mineral flavor. Although it can be used on nearly anything, my favorite use is to finish steamed broccoli—drizzle with olive oil then top with grey salt. Somehow, the minerals both mellow and enhance the broccoli flavor. It’s also a great addition to my grandmother’s so-simple pasta with broccoli.
- Truffle salt: Truffles. Salt. No need to say more. Put it on home-popped buttered popcorn or scrambled eggs. Make a busy weekday evening slow down or a brunch seem even more decadent.
- Black Hawaiian sea salt: This is the most recent addition to my collection, so I haven’t found a favorite use for it just yet, but it’s fun trying. The addition of charcoal gives this salt its distinctive color and flavor, and some say gives it detoxification benefits. I think I will try this next on some type of flaky white fish.
For those of you in Pittsburgh, my latest love affair with a local store is the Crested Duck Charcuterie at the Pittsburgh Public Market, which carries many amazing salts at very reasonable prices. Most are about $3 for 4 oz. and $5 for 8 oz.
For more extensive reading on other types of finishing salts, this is a good site: www.saltworks.us/salt_info/si_gourmet_reference.asp.