A pinch of salt

Published 31 May 2016   

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Many of the world’s top chefs, including the likes of Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain are all in agreement when it comes to the best salt; it’s called Maldon. The pyramid–shaped flakes, have been hand harvested on the southeast coast of England for over 130 years in massive drying sheds, sell for ten times the price of regular salt, yet tastes so good you can sprinkle it on anything your like without ever overpowering the taste. Even the British Royal Family has given their seal of approval to this most basic of condiments. But what’s the difference between that and regular old table salt?

Chemically speaking, all salt is exactly the same, regardless of the colour or shape or size. Whether you are paying $30 for Himalayan pink salt, $10 for Maldon, or a few cents for regular run of the salt-mill table salt, it’s all the same old sodium chloride, with a few trace minerals added or missing depending upon how it’s processed, each affecting subtle variations in flavour, texture, and intensity of the saltiness you get in each pinch. It’s just the processing that’s different, with regular salt being mass produced, and the fancy stuff having a more artisnal method of production.

Table salt crystals are tiny, and pack much more salty power as a result. They’re made by pumping water into man-made salt deposits and evaporating it with a vacuum to get those uniform, white specks. Anti-caking chemicals are typically added in the process to keep the salt from clumping, and it’s often fortified with iodine — an important micronutrient that helps keep our thyroids healthy. Because the salt is smaller, it’s better for baking, and when you need to melt salt quickly into a liquid, like when you are cooking vegetables, or making a brine, then table salt is your thing. That also goes for any kind of stewing, braising, or marinating.

Facny sea salt is made from evaporated ocean water, usually with minimal processing. The water source can alter the texture and shape of the sea-salt crystals, and depending on the speed or the processing involved when they form and the trace elements they contain, this can alter their shape, texture and colour, and ultimately how ‘salty’ they taste. In the drying process, minerals — calcium, magnesium, potassium — from the sea water can attach to the sodium chloride. They can add flavour, though they occur in such small amounts, they don’t alter the nutritional profile of the salt.

In the cooking process, a lot of these subtle differences that sea salts have are lost, making their use in cooking redundant. This is why experts agree that using the fancy sea salt for finishing a dish is the time for Maldon.[FRV]

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