On last week's edition of Salt Mining we took a look at the chemical and biological underpinnings of food's favorite spice. Now it's time to consider the glitz and glam of boutique salts, harvested from the sea and mined from the Earth's depths. These are fine finishing ingredients, rich with complex but subtle mineral flavors as diverse as the sea itself.
If some are to be believed, any cook worth his or her ... well ... salt has at least one or two specialty sea salts in the cupboard. Others will tell you this is all balderdash, that salt is salt, and the difference in flavor between specialty salts is too subtle for us to taste. So what's a cook to believe?
Sensory scientists have run studies to test the perceptible flavor differences between salts. To remove the confound of different textures, the salts are usually diluted to fixed concentrations in distilled water, but are sometimes added to food directly.* To my satisfaction, the results are inconclusive: Some specialty salts do taste distinct from table salt, others don't; some people detect no differences, others do. Plus these studies tend to ignore the most important factor of all: how the salt crystals taste and feel in the mouth when added as a last-minute flourish to a dish. With science on the fence, I took matters into my own hands.
* For a more detailed account of these studies, check out Harold McGee's article in the New York Times or the amusingly opinionated essay "Salt Chic" by Jeffrey Steingarten in his book It Must Have Been Something I Ate.
To do your own palate justice, visit a shop where you can taste a wide range of salts. I visited The Meadow, a specialty shop devoted to salt owned by Mark Bitterman, the man who literally wrote the book on salt (well, one of them anyway). The Meadow's floor-to-ceiling shelves are stacked with crunchy flakes of fleur de sel and delicate sel gris. Crystals come in pink, blue, and brown: You'll dream in saline technicolor.
Ask if your salt vendor will let you taste samples. You can try blind tastings with a friend if you like, or just reach for a few that catch your eye. Try a crystal at a time, and pay attention to the flavor progression as it dissolves. Some sea salts taste plain salty, and I couldn't pick them out in a lineup with Morton's and Diamond Crystal. But others have distinct flavors easy to identify. Some salts are briny, others earthy, or mineral, or even meaty. Sea salts can taste more or less salty than table salt. Their flavors can be pungent and sharp or evenly rounded.
There's real, tangible diversity here, and without speaking for or judging any palates I can say across the board that no matter what the studies say, there's something worth exploring here for the intrepid cook. And if you taste no difference between the $5 jar and $20 jar of salt? So much the better for your budget!
Specialty salts are about more than just taste: Their texture and appearance on the plate are just as important. Specialty sea salts—harvested from shallow evaporation pools, often by hand—form complex flaky structures. On the tongue, it's like the difference between snowflakes and shards of crushed ice. Some grey salts form larger, clumpy crystals with a sublime crunchiness. But my favorites are the pyramid-shaped crystals that break apart in the mouth and spread an even saltiness across the palate, sparked with jolts of extra salinity. It's a texture/flavor combination that's become indispensable to my Sunday brunch chicken salad.
These salts are also dramatic accents on composed dishes. Sure, home cooking usually isn't about the theater of fine dining. But we eat to indulge and impress as well as nourish, and there's nothing wrong with eating with our eyes before digging in to our meal. A flourish of specialty salt tailored to your dish is as easy as it is impressive. It'll also get you the most intense flavor from your salt even in small quantities.
Do you need specialty salts to be a cultured cook? Are you a bad person if the salt from Normandy tastes the same as the salt from Il de Ré? Of course not. And I'll be the first to admit the salt market is full of markups that aren't worth the flavor subtleties. But it's a big salty world out there with plenty of ripe, gorgeously flavored samples waiting for a taste. If you're on the fence about specialty salt, take the plunge. There's room for everyone—every palate and budget.