Hungry? Try Dave Wendel’s Flank Steak Roulade. Because it’s really fun to say roulade. Rouuulaaaaade.
Guess what? No, really, guess. Give up? The health benefits of sea salt compared to table/iodized salt are….. The same. Sea salt can give you hypertension just as easily as table salt. Table salt lacks mineral value but sea salt doesn’t impart any in a valuable way. Why? you cry, wringing your hands and cradling your jars of artisan salts. Because it’s ALL sodium chloride. Dressing NaCl in a prom dress and taking it to the rodeo doesn’t suddenly make it something different, so whether your salt is mined or evaporated it’s still salt and a moderation-required commodity. So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get on to talking about salt in deep, intellectual tones.
From time to time I get asked about salt and most of my information is rather incomplete so I figured I’d get real with myself about salt. The duh facts are that all salt is a mineral mostly comprised of sodium chloride (NaCl), and if you’re curious about the specifics of rock salt in its crystalline form read up on halite . My curiosity revolves more around the types of commercially available salt, what are the mineral variances between salts, and why would those variances be beneficial.
Salt comes from mines or it comes from salt water. The process of salt mining is actually very interesting, but not terribly relevant to this conversation. The world’s two largest mining salt producers are China and U.S.A, respectively. I’m guessing China is in the lead mostly because they have fewer regulations and a considerably worse human rights record, but I digress. Salt water processing is equally interesting (and actually way more hipstery in some cases) involving evaporation, patience, time, in some cases using only wooden tools, and in others using bamboo and mud. On small scales it’s a beautiful process to watch. On large scales it’s positively remarkable.
There are eight (8) common categories of salt: Fleur De Sel, Sel Gris, Flake Salt, Infused salt, Smoked Salt, Rock Salt, Traditional Salt, Shio Salt. Within these categories there are hundreds of varieties each with distinct uniqueness. Frankly, one’s head could explode trying to comprehend all of this; but, what a diverse and surprisingly deep subject salt can actually be! I’m not going to get hyper sophisticated with my salt conversation, so if you want details I suggest going over to The Meadow. I’m going to stick to the most common salts I use.
It’s not meant to be edible. Also, it’s a laxative. Soooo….
Iodized Table Salt
Table salt is a highly processed mined rock salt purified to remove most of any preexisting trace minerals leaving behind 97-99% sodium chloride. To this they add iodine any one of a variety of non clumping agents, some of which could be argued as being of questionable safety. In essence, table salt is a concentrated version of unprocessed salt.
Everyone knows that the human body requires trace amounts of iodine, but why?
Most of the body’s iodine stores are in the thyroid gland, which requires the mineral for synthesis of the hormones it secretes. An iodine deficiency leads to an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter), slowed metabolism, and weight gain, as well as other symptoms of hypothyroidism such as fatigue and intolerance of cold, as well as neurological, gastrointestinal, and skin abnormalities. – Dr Weil
It’s common knowledge that iodine supplementation can come from non salt sources like salt water fish, kelp, and sea vegetables, but also can be found in meat grazed on plants grown in iodine rich soil, and vegetables grown in similar soils. Iodine is available in a variety of places and, depending on your dietary plan, offers a lot of options for integrating it into your diet without having to resort to common iodized table salt. The bottom line is that even though you’re giving your body the necessary iodine it needs you’re also adding a slew of anti caking agents that your body decidedly doesn’t need. Incidentally, you can achieve clumping prevention by adding a few grains of white rice to your salt shaker and avoid all the man made versions. To be clear, table salt isn’t the devil exactly but, it would seem that other salts might be more beneficial.
Kosher salt is just a coarse table salt that hasn’t been iodized. An interesting distinction actually arises from this type of salt where it distinguishes between “kosher certified salt” and “koshering salt”. “Koshering salt” has the “small, flake-like form” useful in treating meat, whereas “kosher certified salt” is salt that has received its hechsher. In all practicality, though, Kosher salt is really koshering salt, since it’s purpose is to draw blood from the meat in order to make the meat itself kosher. Kosher salt is a good go to when a recipe calls for coarse grain salt. The folks at Cooks Illustrated did a weighing and measuring comparison if you find yourself in need of it.
1 teaspoon table salt (fine salt) =
1 1/2 teaspoons Morton kosher salt =
2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Himalayan Pink Salt
Mined salts include the oh-so-popular Himalayan Pink Salt, but this one gets interesting very quickly. What we call Himalayan Pink Salt is actually mined out of the Punjab region of Pakistan but because the foothills of the salt plain are of sufficient proximity it gets to claim Himalayan status. The Khewra Salt Mine is the world’s second largest and dates back to 320B.C. when the salt mine was discovered by Alexander The Great, and currently it produces 320,000 metric tonnes of 99% pure halite annually. The mine is quarried using the room and pillar process which shoots a gaping hole in naturalists theory that the salt is quietly and peacefully extracted by hand and dynamite isn’t allowed.
Sea salt comes from evaporated sea water. The mineral composition varies based on the location and the method of how the water is evaporated, but just like Himalayan salt, the mineral benefits are minimal and the prime distinctions actually come from flavor and intensity. (Can you tell I’m learning that salt is more about flavor characteristics than about any touted mineral gains?) Here are some of the salts I’ve used.
French Red Sea Salt
I’ve used a lot of French Red Sea Salt with Sea Vegetables in my broths and I’ve always been fond of the flavor it provides. It gets its red color from algea which doesn’t dissipate in the evaporation process. And, what have we learned so far? That the sea vegetables add necessary iodine to the salt, so if I had to pick one salt to use forevermore it would be this one. Now, if you dig under the surface of French Sea Salt you’ll find an increasingly complex variety of salts, including flake versus grain and levels of grain an on and on and on.
Brittany Coast Gray Sea Salt
Also known as Celtic Sea Salt, the one I had was a large, moist grain salt. For this reason, I used this salt exclusively in broth making and felt like it added a nice briny tinge to my products. The bottom of a french salt pan could be composed of clay, basalt, sand, concrete, or even tile, protecting the salt from coming into contact with the silt that develops as part of the evaporation process. Gray salt is allowed to contact the bottom of the salt pan and therefore the silt contained therein. Incidentally, this trick works for other regional sea salts, not just the French ones. More minerals? You ask, excitedly. No, I say.
Atlantic Sea Salt
This is more of a flake salt, but it’s nice enough for all cooking purposes. I love how these folks describe what they do.
“We hand-harvest seawater from the shores off of historic Gloucester, Massachusetts. Between the naturally high salinity of the North Atlantic, the strong tides, and the local shellfish that act as natural filters, we couldn’t have picked a better spot. After harvesting, we further filter the seawater to make sure it’s as clean as can be, and then we apply heat. The water evaporates, and the flakes remain, thanks to this simple, traditional process – magic!”
Seriously, I’m going to start describing washing underpants like this until everyone believes what I do is some sort of artisanal process handed down from the folks singers of antiquity.
We start with only the purest water, heated to the perfect temperature. We add our fine grained cleansing agent when the moment is right to optimize the natural removal of stains, odors, and skid marks. Our process works, and is is aided by combining polyester with the most premium threads derived from the cotton fibers grown in the mineral packed red soils of the humidity rich southern states of America.
Red Clay Hawaiian Sea Salt
This is a deep sea salt that is treated with volcanic clay called ‘Alaea. Yay MINERALS! Calm down. It’s a neat idea and for sure adds a flavor profile that’s unique, but at the end of the day it’s still salt.
Black Hawaiian Sea Salt
Another deep sea salt that is combined with activated coconut shell charcoal called, Uhai. Here we can actually talk about benefits since activated charcoal is known as a digestive aide, but remember it’s coating a salt crystal, so any benefits you might hope to gain will be tempered by the natural consequences of salt ingestion. But, it is awfully dramatic and pretty.
Chihuahuan Smoked Salt
I can’t find out if this is a rock salt or sea salt base so we’ll include it here with the sea salts, but what everyone agrees on is that it is smoked using mesquite wood from the Chihuahua region of Mexico. The salt is smoked for up to 14 days and creates an intensity that has to be used with consideration. Too much and your food tastes like a soggy cigarette. Too little and you don’t taste it (obviously). If you’re going to listen to the World Health Organization this salt will give you cancer because it’s got smoke and smoke is bad, you see?
Did you know….
There is such a thing as blue salt? Persian Blue salt is harvested from Iran, is a natural rock salt and is dotted with blue crystals which are salt crystals that have been highly compressed, causing them to turn blue. I’d totally want to get my hands on some of this to try it if I wasn’t so darn worried about sponsoring terrorism.
Icelandic Lava Flake Sea Salt is considered to be the only salt produced by geothermal power, the evaporation heat coming from natural geysers. The Meadow says,
The salt is produced in a small bay in the peninsula of Reykjanes (an aspiring Geopark applying for membership in the European Geopark network). The peninsula has an incredible diversity of volcanic and geothermal activity and is the only place in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above sea level) and infused with activated charcoal.
We could keep going down the proverbial salt hole, but I think this is where I’m going to stop. I’m as surprised as you to learn that mineral value in salt is overridden by its chief chemical makeup. Even though I now have an intellectually basic understanding I’m still going to vary my salts because I can. Because, ‘MURICA!
Here’s the summary of what we learned:
- All salt is sodium chloride and too much sodium is bad for you even if it’s soaked in algea, activated charcoal, or silt.
- There are a lot of kinds of salts, with varying methods of extraction.
- Deriving mineral benefits from regional salts is most likely in the vein of urban legends: awfully fun to talk about but not entirely true.
- Using a variety of salts CAN be fun, though, so have fun!