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A Home Cook’s Guide to Salts

November 5, 2021

Any home cook worth their salt knows this ingredient is a non-negotiable kitchen staple. After all, a simple pinch can make everything from mushrooms to meat do one important and profoundly simple thing: taste like the best version of itself. But which salt is best? With myriad options to choose from these days, the basic act of seasoning food is a potentially confusing one. Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about this ancient ingredient, and how to make the most of it in your modern kitchen.

Salt 101

Salt is made from the chemical reaction of sodium and chlorine, two minerals all living organisms need, humans included. Throughout history salt has been used as currency in Africa, given as part of a salary in Roman times, and was once considered a luxury only for the rich. As Time reports, the history of the world is paved in salt: “animals wore paths to salt licks; men followed; trails became roads, and settlements grew beside them.” Today, two types of salt are most prominent. Sea salt is created from the evaporation of seawater, while commercial salt is manufactured from rock salt (mined from quarries) and artificial brines (like pumping water into underground salt beds


What is Kosher Salt?

  • Overview: The first thing to know is not all kosher salt is Certified Kosher. Originally named for its role in preparing meat following Jewish dietary guidelines, kosher salt can refer to both Certified Kosher versions as well as “kosher-style” salt. Either way, it’s coarser than basic table salt and has a milder flavor since it’s made without additives like iodine, and many chefs swear by it.
  • Cooking tips: Kosher salt is uniform in size and dissolves quickly, making it a solid all-purpose salt for daily cooking. You can use it for everything from seasoning pasta water to mixing dry rubs. The larger crystal size also makes it a good choice for drawing out moisture in foods.
  • The chef’s perspective: Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York, note that “probably all the chefs that you talk to will tell you Diamond Kosher salt is the one to have around. We use it as our bulk salt, to salt pasta water or potato water, and when we just really need to throw in a whole quart of salt somewhere.”
  • Bottom line: For its consistent size and versatility, kosher is one worth keeping in your kitchen.

What is Table Salt?

  • Overview: Finer than kosher salt, table salt—also known as iodized salt—is mined from underground deposits and processed to remove essential minerals. Although no trace minerals are left intact (save for added iodine), there are also no impurities. This salt also usually contains anti-clumping agents, giving it a distinctive metallic flavor that’s an acquired taste for some.
  • Cooking tips: There’s more salt in a pinch of table salt than kosher, so watch how much you use—oversalting is common with this type.
  • The chef’s perspective: While Kristen Miglore, creative director at Food52, typically reaches for kosher salt in the kitchen, she also keeps fine sea salt on hand “as a stand-in anytime table salt is called for.”
  • Bottom line: While chefs don’t rely on it for daily cooking, it gives restaurant food a quick flavor boost when you’re eating out, so feel free to reach across the table if you need to (just use it sparingly).

What is Sea Salt?

  • Overview: Made from evaporated seawater that’s dried in the sun, this coarse and flavorful salt is a broad category that encompasses finer granules for everyday meals as well as flakier finishing salts with an extra crunchy texture. Some take on mild hues (see Himalayan and Celtic salt below) due to the various algaes and clays that may be found in the water where the salt is harvested.
  • Cooking tips: Sea salt is versatile for many cooking applications like seasoning proteins, vegetables, soups, and sauces. You can also use it in baking, and its coarser texture adds layers to sweet preparations like caramels. One thing to keep in mind: sea salt granules vary in size, and this inconsistency can make it difficult to measure accurately and may result in inconsistent seasoning in recipes.
  • The chef’s perspective: Dorie Greenspan prefers sea salt in her baking recipes for its cleaner taste, and Bon Appetit recommends fine sea salt for seasoning and coarse sea salt for brining.
  • Bottom line: Kosher is the gold standard for consistency, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make sea salt your kitchen staple. Just be sure to consult a conversion chart to be sure you’re using the right amount. A general gauge is 1 ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt is the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon of sea salt.

What is Himalayan Pink Salt?

  • Overview: As the name suggests, Himalayan salt is mined from deposits in the Himalayan mountains—specifically, the Punjab region of Pakistan. This kind of salt was formed more than 250 million years ago, making it one of the oldest minerals and also one of the healthiest since it’s mined by hand and maintains mineral content, including copper, potassium, and magnesium. This salt’s distinctive pink color comes from the mine where the salt is collected, which contains high amounts of iron oxide, the same chemical found in rust. When the iron oxide reacts with sodium chloride, it turns rosy.
  • Cooking tips: Himalayan salt is ideal for finishing. Its potent flavor adds just the right something to spruce up your dish.
  • The chef’s perspective: In an interview with OpenTable, Justin Cucci from El Five restaurant in Denver is on team Himalayan salt. “Besides enjoying the flavor that sea salt brings, it has a really pretty color and retains some of the minerality of the place it was harvested.”
  • Bottom line: Although you might not reach for it daily, Himalayan salt (or another coarse finishing salt) definitely deserves a slot in the pantry. It can be the final touch that elevates your dish, either sweet or savory.

What is Celtic Sea Salt?

  • Overview: Celtic salt—also commonly known as sel gris (gray salt)—has a chunky texture and darker color stemming from the French tidal ponds where it is harvested.
  • Cooking tips: The briny flavor is a good bet for finishing proteins—try it on seared steak, fish roasted in parchment, roasted vegetables, or even grilled or freshly sliced fruit.
  • The chef’s perspective: If you watched the Food Network in the mid-2000’s, you may have come across Michael Chiarello waxing poetic about gray salt. As he shares with Country Living, “I prefer to use gray sea salt over kosher salt. Sea salt can be used for all recipes calling for kosher salt, and better, more flavorful, and healthier results will be achieved.”
  • Bottom line: Opting to stock kosher salt and sea salt is a good bet, but you don’t necessarily need multiple varieties of sea salt—try Himalayan and Celtic varieties, then decide which one you’ll reach for frequently. Whichever salt you’ll use the most is always the best choice.

What About Specialty Salts?

Not to complicate your salt decisions, but there’s one more category to consider. Once you have kosher and sea salt covered, you might want to consider adding a slightier fancier version for special occasions. From smoked (ideal for the grill) to truffle-infused (try it on popcorn), there are a handful of unique options that can take a dish to new heights. Is it essential? Maybe not. Will it delight your palate? Absolutely.


The Best Salts for Your Pantry

home cooks guide to salts

Stock up on member favorite salts for every cooking occasion.

Thrive Market Mediterranean Sea Salt

This fine sea salt is harvested using solar technology and dissolves easily, making this bag a mineral-rich pick for your daily cooking. Thrive Market member Megan from Missouri says this salt “is a perfect texture and size of grind for cooking or finishing dishes. Its quality is very high as it is uniform and has no powdery wasted salt when you get to the bottom of the bag.”

Maldon Sea Salt Flakes

The king of finishing salts, Maldon flakes are large and flaky, perfect for topping both savory and sweet dishes. Add a pinch to meats just before serving, or cookies right before baking. Bianca from Illinois shares “we love topping our food with some sea salt for extra flavor, and this salt does the job.”

Thrive Market Pink Himalayan Salt

This unprocessed and raw salt comes in an easy-to-use and refillable grinder, and contains more than 80 trace minerals. Brigitte from Oregon likes that you can adjust the texture from fine to coarse, and “the good clean taste.”

Selina Grey Celtic Sea Salt

Selina’s unprocessed gray salt is sourced from pristine coastal waters and Certified Organic by Nature et Progrés, the highest level of certification allowed in Europe. Christy from North Carolina recommends topping off your steak with it, and loves that the texture is “nice and flaky.”

Hepp’s Black Truffle Finishing Salt

Treat yourself to the alluring flavor of black truffle found in Hepp’s carefully crafted bag. Marimonica from Illinois reports it has “great flavor and aroma” and highly recommends adding a pinch to your next baked potato.

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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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