One of my most persuasive managers gave me puppy eyes last week and I somehow ended up agreeing to an 11-hour shift which involved crawling through attics and basements in search of salt shakers and spending what was supposed to be my break running from shop to shop in search of coarse salt for an evening function. And of course, just when you need it the most, you can’t find it. There did however seem to be a never-ending supply of fine powdery “Table Salt,” the kind that pours right through a shaker like a sieve. Perfect.
It occurred to me later that the topic of salt doesn’t usually come up unless:
you don’t have it, you have too much of it, you’re told by your doctor to cut back on it in your diet, you need something to blame for dry skin on a seaside holiday, you have an ulcer in your mouth, you need to describe the difference between contact lens solution and regular water, you need to describe the difference between freshwater and marine flora and fauna, you want that relaxing tingly sensation in the bath instead of bubbles, you need to soak your feet after a long day at work, you can’t decide what kind of butter to buy, you can’t decide what type of popcorn to buy or you just want to order chips or crisps.
So what’s up with all these different kinds of salt? I mean, they’re all basically sodium chloride or NaCL, but you could give stage names to an entire posh pop boy band with names like Rock, Sea, Celtic, Smoked, Kala Namak, Kosher, Pickling, Hawaiian .. Himalayan Pink? And the choice doesn’t stop there! What grind would you like – fine, medium, flaked, coarse or especially for ‘finishing’ ?
I used to think Rock Salt and Sea Salt were the same thing, not to mention, packaging and advertisements seem to portray Sea Salt as healthier than any refined table salt. And naturally, I am shocked to learn otherwise.
Rock Salt, also called “Halite” is characteristically sold in large crystals, mined from underground deposits formed by dried up lakes or sea water. Many celebrity chefs – including UK favourites such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay – can be seen using Rock Salt, not as a flavoursome additive but as a casing around fish or poultry, for baking in a stone oven, crisping potatoes or as I’ve seen in Thailand, for showcasing the catch-of-the-day.
There are also inedible versions; Ice Cream Salt comes in chunkier crystals which are used for maintaining temperatures in ice cream machines and that crumbly blend of salt and gravel are thrown on pavements for melting snow – now that just gives a whole new meaning to Rock Salt, don’t it?
The head chef where I work described Sea Salt to me as “…fancier, typically flaked and sold in small quantities for an outrageous price.” During my rabid salt search, I did happen to notice that next to empty gaps labelled ‘Temporarily Out of Stock” where the supermarket brand salt should have been, were pretty little green boxes of Italian Sea Salt, almost triple the cost for half the amount. Sea Salt, as its name implies, is the end product of evaporated seawater in natural or man-made salt evaporation ponds. Some of the world’s most studied ponds, also called “Salterns,” can be located in Australia, Greece, Italy, India, France, Israel, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, and the USA (namely San Francisco). Saltwater evaporation, also referred to as ‘Solar Saltworks” involves a combination of heat from the sun and wind to facilitate crystalization. This method is inexpensive compared to Rock Salt’s laboratory-assisted process, and it leaves less of a human impact on the environment.
Well that’s the boring bit over – now for all those kooky names!
Grey Salt (or Celtic Salt) = unrefined Sea Salt, finely ground, used as table salt, kind of grey in colour. Go figure.
Hawaiian Sea Salt (or Alaea, Alae, or Hiwa Kai) = Sea Salt which is characteristically red due to natural additives such as the mineral ‘Alae’ and iron oxide. According to http://www.saltworks.us, this particular salt plays an important role in perfecting local Hawaiian pork dishes!
Kala Namak (or Indian Black Salt or Sanchal) = popularly used in Pakistani and Indian cuisine, this pink-grey salt extracted from the Himalayas has a rather sulphurous odour comparable to the aroma of an old hard-boiled egg
Smoked Sea Salt = bitter tasting cold-smoked Sea Salt crystals, widely used amongst BBQ enthusiasts in the USA. This naturally infused salt is said to leave your meat on the barby tasting deliciously smokey!
Coloured Salt = finely ground novelty salt with food-colouring added for aesthetic appeal, sometimes used on children’s food, for making salt-dough crafts, and bottle art
Citric Salt = a supposed salt alternative flavoured by citric fruits – there is confusion as to whether it should be called ‘salt’ at all!
Seasoned Salt = there is no infusion of the herbs and spices with the rock salt found in seasoned salts, but a simple yet flavourful blend of the contents within the grinder. Some popular examples of seasoned salts that I’ve seen in UK supermarkets are garlic salt, onion salt and celery salt, including herb blends with reduced salt content by much loved brand names like Schwartz.
Popcorn Salt = a super fine grind of salt with yellow-orange colouring, a popular coating on hot cinema popcorn. Kernel Season’s guarantees ‘No More Naked Popcorn!’ with a semi-mock salt series of artificially-flavoured seasonings so that you can make your own quirky popcorn at home!
Kosher Salt = this salt is used in fitting with Jewish dietary guidelines. This granulated salt is commonly found on the rims of Margarita glasses and coating pretzels
Pickling Salt = as the name implies, this salt is used for pickling, however unlike its name implies, it is also used to dry out cheese during the curing process
Italian Sea Salt (Sicilian Sea Salt, Sale Marino) = Found on the shallow Mediterranean coastlines of southern Italy, this salt is crushed in its unrefined form, available in different grinds and boasts to have a higher mineral content than the typical table salt
Fleur de Sel (Flower of Salt, Flower of the Ocean, The Champagne of the Guérande) = an artesanal sea salt cultivated during the summer season from the tops of salt marshes in Guérande, France. These delicate curls, resembling white chocolate shavings you might find on a luxurious teacake, are mostly used for finishing dishes, not cooking them
Himalaya Pink Salt = claimed to be a healthier unrefined salt and jam-packed with natural minerals including the almighty iodine which is often removed from processed table salt. This stone-ground salt is harvested from salt deposits in the Karakoram mountain range (Pakistan, India, China). Himalaya Pink Salt is the only salt my mother insists on using!
Also, I’ve seen in many a marketplace knick-knacks and lamps made of giant salmon-pink-coloured Himalayan rock crystals – they’re said to reduce negative ions within your indoor space, absorb electronically-produced waves and their warm glow is said to have a soothing effect!
Mock Salt = this salt-free salt substitute is made under various brand names but much like the seasoned salts mentioned earlier, mock salt usually takes the form of a blend of herbs, spices, sugars and other artificial additives just to mimic salt’s texture and enhance flavour
Low-Sodium/Sodium Free Salt (or Potassium Salt) = Potassium Salts are said to counteract the health risks of high sodium salts by reducing blood pressure, however they are not said to work for everyone. After reading through the ingredients of some low sodium salts/sodium-free salts, they appear to be a hybrid of seasoned salt and mock salt, concoctions which I personally find unappetizing…
Iodized Salt = I bought this stuff once and absolutely detested the after taste. Apparently a lack on iodine leads to serious health problems like mental retardation, thyroid problems, hormone production failure, inefficient metabolism, skin abnormalities and more. Iodine is available naturally in food like fish, vegetables and some dairy (depending on the cow’s grazing) which is why iodized salt is described as targeted towards consumers who might not have access to iodine rich foods. There is an on-going debate discussing whether integrating iodized salt in order to prevent iodine deficiencies sends the right message about salt consumption altogether
Double-Fortified Salt = An affordable salt which is fortified with both iodine and iron; a nutritional approach to combating iron and iodine deficiencies worldwide, founded in 1969 with the combined academic efforts of the Micronutrient Initiative and The University of Toronto and financial support of the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank.
Do you know of any varieties I’ve missed out? I would love to hear about them! As for now, I don’t know about you but after all my salty research – I’m ready for a tall glass of water!
For more information about Salt varieties and the difference between them: