May 18,2007 00:00
The shelves of specialty cooking stores are filled with pepper, pepper mills, salt shakers and salts ... Flavorbank's Brittany Celtic Sea Salts, "harvested from the North Atlantic coast of Europe."
While Tidman's Natural Rock Salt is merely "ideal for salt grinders and cooking."
There's a tall, red, circular box of La Baleine Sea Salt, "from the clear, blue Mediterranean." The boxes next to it are identical, except they're blue and marked "fine," instead of "coarse."
Then there are squat, white square boxes with holly green print, pure flaky crystals of Maldon Sea Salt. Hand-harvested on the southeastern coast of England, "it's pronounced and distinctive 'salty' taste means less is required, an advantage for those who wish to reduce their salt intake ..."
By now you're wondering whatever happened to a plain, old box of Morton's. The blue box of table salt with the little girl in the yellow rain coat. She's probably not going anywhere any time soon, especially when you're baking or making a pot of soup. But gourmet salts, also known as specialty salts, are crowding her space.
"They're extremely popular," says Kathy Wight, owner of the Recipe Box, a specialty cooking store in Peoria, Ill. "I think it's because of the Food Network."
Both on and off the cable television station, chefs trumpet the wonders of an ever-increasing array of exotic salts. Along with fleur de sel, the priciest of salts, (some brands cost over $30 a pound,) there's black sea salt from India, red sea salt from Hawaii, Ksosian sea salt from South Africa, or Danish salt, a sea salt smoked over wood.
Besides the exotic sea salts, there's kosher salts, available at most grocery stores.
"I probably haven't used regular Morton's for 20 years," says Cheryl Bunn, a Peoria cook. She uses kosher salt for regular cooking. Her son introduced her to specialty salts when he began working for Williams-Sonoma about 10 years ago, and more after he switched jobs to work for cooking.com. Her favorite? A fleur de sel.
"You only use it for finishing touches," Bunn says. "But if you put it on a fresh tomato? Oh my God, it just opens up the taste."
Fleur de sel, or flower of salt, is the thin film skimmed from the top of sea salts harvested by hand along the French Atlantic coast. Sea salts, as one might expect, hail from evaporated sea water. Crystals of sodium chloride - salt in its pure form - take on different shapes, colors and tastes depending on the amount and types of minerals in the water from which they're harvested.
In Peoria, the Recipe Box doesn't carry any fleur de sel brands but Wight, the owner, is just as emphatic about the taste difference between table salt and sea salt.
"If you taste a teaspoon of sea salt first, then a teaspoon of table salt, you'd spit the table salt right out," Wight says.
For the record, most table salt is mined from underground deposits then processed and refined into tiny, fine grains. Potassium iodide is usually added to protect against thyroid disease. Other additives are included to prevent drying and caking.
Kosher salt can be mined or harvested from the sea, it's processed in a way that shapes a coarse crystal, capable of withdrawing liquid from meat, the crucial part of koshering.
The taste debate got so widespread that Cook's Illustrated magazine conducted a taste test, "a two-month odyssey," editors called it, involving nine brands of salt in five different kitchen applications.
"We wondered if a pinch here or a smidgen there is really worth $36 a pound. Will your biscuits or steak taste better if you spend more money on salt?"
The results surprised them, but not the expert on the science of taste and smell they interviewed.
The reason for the taste difference is simple, according to Dr. Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Flat crystals or crystals with holes create a different taste sensation than small, evenly shaped granular crystals.
Copley News Service