Pass the Salt

There’s something powerful in your kitchen. Wars have been waged and peace has been brokered with it. Civilizations have been built on it and cities have been named after it. It is something we deeply crave and is vital to our health. No, I’m not talking about chocolate. I speak of salt.

Salt is found in all our homes, on our restaurant tables, and in every market, but what do you know of its history and potential?

The Latin word for salt, sal, is the root word for salary. Roman legionaries were paid wages to either purchase salt or actually paid in salt for their work. The word salad, a derivative of sal, can even be traced to the Roman practice of salting vegetables. The earliest known salt works, places where salt was purified for consumption, date back to 6000 BCE in Romania and China.

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In modern times we rely on salt for far more than seasoning. In fact, many foods that we cherish need to be made with salt. Cured meats, cheeses, and pickled and fermented vegetables all need salt to be produced. Salt can be used to encase and cook food. It even does a fantastic job at cleaning and conditioning your favorite cast iron cookware.

Nowadays you can find a dizzying array of salts at your local grocer—iodized salt, purified salt, pickling salt, curing salt, several different types of sea salts, kosher salt, and artisan pink, red, purple, and black salt. Oy vey! Where does one begin?

The best place to start is with the two main types of salt we use in our kitchens, which are likely mined salt and panned, or evaporated, salt.

Mined salt is the remnant of ancient seas and oceans that were trapped as the continents shifted and morphed. When these bodies of water were trapped, natural processes and events occurred that caused all the water to evaporate away. What was left was salt. Over the course of eons more tectonic shifting occurred and buried these layers of salt deep into the earth. The salt mine under Lake Erie is a prime example of this.

Mining salt can be left as is, like Himalayan pink salt, or it can be dissolved in water to remove undesired trace minerals, remnant algae, and other fossilized organic matter to purify it. After the impurities are removed, the water is evaporated away and you’re left with purified salt. During this process iodine, nitrites, nitrates, and anti-caking agents can be blended into the salt to produce salts with different culinary applications.

Panned, or evaporated, salt is produced by taking naturally salty water and evaporating the water out until only salt is left. This isn’t limited to seawater. In fact, an ancient salt work in Romania made use of salt water from a natural spring, not seawater.

Beyond these two basic salts, there are artisan salts with fancy names like Red Alaea and Black Cyprus. These garnishing salts are devised in different geographic locales to reflect the gastronomic preferences of a specific area. They add different flavors, textures, and colors to cooked food that help accentuate and or bring cohesion to the composition of a dish.

Red Alaea is a salt from Hawaii that is fortified with a type of red clay that is used to make cookware. It pairs well with clams and duck, foods that are found in clay-rich environments.

Black Cyprus is a salt that is tossed with ashes to give it a charred smoky flavor. It is best used sprinkled on a steak as it comes off the grill.

Sea salts pair well with seafood while kosher salt is an all-purpose go-to.

Keep in mind that the size and shape of the salt crystals also play a role. Large granules are good to use when you want to add a salty crunch that lingers in your mouth. Small and flat granules are good when you want a sharp salty rush at the beginning of a bite.

Explore all that salt can do for you in your kitchen and share your ideas and creations with me, @TMGastronaut, on Twitter and Instagram.

Here are three of my favorite ways to play with salt: