On Salt Obsession: Isn’t It All Salty?


I’ve heard that, when asked what kind of salt to use for a dish, Julia Child once replied, “salt is salt”. Even though I’m not sure if she really said this or if it’s a Julia legend, it certainly sounds like something she’d say. I can relate. Sometimes, when faced with the nearly obscene numbers of salt choices on the shelves of a typical gourmet grocery store – everything from truffle salt to pink Himalayan sea salt – I become inclined to embrace Julia’s essential approach to cooking: you can’t hide poor execution under fancy ingredients. In other words, “salt is salt”.

But if I did I’d be a bit of a hypocrite. The fact is I have a small collection of special salts that make their way into my cooking on a regular basis. I have a weakness for sprinkling crackly shards of Maldon on my salads and meats, because I love the texture. Both avocados and tomatoes are greatly enhanced with a dash of Butterfly Salt, a blend of black trumpet mushrooms, pepper and two salts made by Aaron French, eco-chef, and colleague. I have less use for salts blended with too many acrid herbs and overpowering flavors like lavender, but then, I’m a rabid purist. Still, I urge you to cook out of the box (I mean the round Morton’s box) and go beyond plain old iodized table salt, and at least use kosher salt or natural sea salt. How far beyond is up to you.

Why? Even though salt tastes like salt, the texture matters, as do the additives.

Texture: Iodized table salt is very fine so when you put it on your tongue it tastes almost unbearably salty and it tends to just sit on one part of your tongue. In contrast, if you put a flakier sea salt or kosher salt on your tongue, you will perceive a more gentle saltiness that spreads slowly among your taste buds. The same thing happens when you add it to food.

And don’t forget, in cooking, it is easier to salt to taste with a flakier or coarser salt because you can actually “pinch” it between your index finger and thumb, giving you more control than you would have if you were pouring fine salt from a box or shaker.

Additives: Iodized table salt has iodine added to it because, at one time, humans who did not live near the sea suffered from iodine deficiency (iodine occurs in the soil and is taken up by vegetables and also exists seafood and natural sea salt). Today, because we get our food from a variety of areas, this is not a problem. Iodized salt should not be used for pickling because it will darken their color. In addition, fine table salt has anti-caking agents added to it to keep it flowing freely. Sea salt has nothing added but contains beneficial trace minerals.

As for the fancier salts and flavored salts, I’ll leave that up to you. Salt Works is a good place to begin your explorations.

As for me, I use kosher salt for everyday cooking, baking, and even pickling because I like the texture. I also keep a flaky salt on hand for finishing salads and crusting meats, and then maybe a smoked salt, or mushroom salt, just for fun. What type of salts do you keep in your kitchen, and why?

Image: D Sharon Pruitt

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.