Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I know that you’re probably thinking that salt is salt, that salt is white, and that there’s nothing new about salt to learn. But are you sure? Think about the kinds of salt that you already know: there’s the iodized and fine-grained refined salt that you use on your table, there’s the rock salt that you use for melting snow and making ice cream, there’s Kosher salt, there’s the sea salt that you see in the grocery but probably never buy, and if you’re into food, perhaps you’ve heard of fleur de sel.

So you really do know that salt just isn’t one single white, refined, fine-grained seasoning. In fact, salt comes in myriad forms and colors from all over the world. And each salt has different flavors. Years ago, my wife was skeptical that you can really taste the difference, so we set up a tasting of all the salts that we had in the house: Morton’s iodized table salt, Morton’s Kosher salt, La Baleine Fine Sea Salt, and fleur de sel. The very expensive fleur de sel was easily the best with the least salty and the most complex flavor, the sea salt was next, then the kosher, and we figured out that Morton’s iodized is not worth having in the house and it hasn't been in more than 15 years.

Salt has been a prized seasoning since the beginning of time and up until modern times, extraordinarily valuable. From this value derives the word salary and the phrase “worth his salt.” Mark Kurlansky, known for taking esoteric subjects and creating enjoyably readable books from them, has tackled the subject in his book Salt: A World History. Although lacking any real ties to the culinary arena, this world history told from the perspective of salt is an engaging read and I recommend it highly, if you like history.

Here’s an overview of the salts that we use in the restaurant:

Morton’s Kosher Salt. This is our workhorse salt at the restaurant. It looks good on food, it tastes good, it sticks less to our fingers than fine salt, and it is less likely to be sucked up the vent hood than fine salt. And what a battle it is to find it. Fortunately, our grocery store carries it, so we buy it at retail just like you. All our distributors carry other brands and they are awful by comparison. The term kosher is misleading; the salt is not per se kosher, but it is used in the act of koshering meats.

Fleur de Sel. Fleur de sel (salt flowers) is the French name for salt crystals that form on the surface of salt ponds and are skimmed off with a special rake, as has been done for centuries. The crystals have a delicate texture, a pleasant crunch, and are always off-white in color reflecting the mineral content of the salt. Each body of water produces a slightly different taste and color because the mineral content of the water is different. These minerals, missing from refined table salt, are what give fleur de sel its unique flavor. The proper role for fleur de sel is as a finishing salt. Just a little bit sprinkled over a dish right before the table lends a pleasant saltiness and crunch. You may see fleur de sel referred to as sel gris (grey salt, because it is off-white).

Mallorcan Black Olive-Flavored Flor de Sal. We use a black olive-flavored fleur de sel (flor de sal in Spanish) made by mixing the salt with ground black olives. This is an incomparable finishing salt for roasted fish, lending a subtle and delicious Mediterranean flavor.

Smoked Sea Salt. Sometimes, we don’t have the time or the means to smoke something and yet we want a smoky flavor. When chipotle peppers would be too spicy or bacon would destroy a vegetarian dish, we might reach for the jar of smoked sea salt. It is very aggressively flavored, so we use it only in tiny amounts. It’s not for everyone, but we are happy to have it in our arsenal.

Himalayan Pink Salt. We fill the salt mills on our tables with Himalayan pink salt that we get from Pakistan via France. The pink tint indicates that the salt contains iron oxides. We use it for its beautiful color on the table.

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