As I mentioned in my post about the London food bloggers’ butter tasting, a few weekends ago a couple of the London bloggers got together at Passionate Cook Johanna‘s place for an afternoon of training our tastebuds to seek out the great and the good in the worlds of butter and salt. The butter tasting went very well, with the Bridel salted butter coming out tops in everyone’s scoring. And after a brief break to clear the table and bring the next lot of tasting dishes, we were ready to immerse ourselves in the world of salt. (Just a small technicality to start with: “salt” in the sense that we are discussing here refers to the chemical combination of NaCl (sodium chloride). I point this out because many other elements and compounds can also occur in a crystalline state and be referred to quite correctly as a salt – magnesium salts or Condy’s Crystals (potassium permanganate) being two common examples. But I can bet neither of these would have fared very well at our tasting!!)
Salt has been a part of man’s (and prehistoric man’s) life for thousands of years. Like other mammals that are attracted to salt licks, man cannot do entirely without salt – it is essential for the functioning of our muscles and nerves and a deficiency can have very serious consequences. The reason is that over half our body consists of fluids which contain appreciable amounts of salt. Each day the body loses a quantity of salt in perspiration, urine excreted by the kidneys, and tears. This must be replaced in order to maintain the balance and therefore salt forms an essential part of a healthy balanced diet. What a bonus, then, that it also improves the taste of most food!! [In the interests of health & safety, we should point out that, for those suffering from kidney problems or high blood pressure, a low salt diet is recommended – Ed.]
For centuries, salt was difficult to obtain and therefore highly prized – in fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium which (depending on which theory you believe) was either an allowance paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, or payment in the form of salt. Either way, the importance of salt is reflected in sayings like “he is worth his salt” or “she is the salt of the Earth”. As with any other highly prized substance, salt also attracted the attention of the governments of the day – as a potential source of revenue. Salt taxes were levied in countries such as France, England, China and India. In fact, the British salt tax in India (which included the restriction that only those licensed to do so were allowed, upon payment of the proper fee, to make salt) led to one of Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi‘s most famous campaigns of civil disobedience. In 1930, Gandhiji spent 23 days marching to Dandi, collecting supporters along the way. Once he arrived on the shore, he symbolically boiled up some mud in seawater to make salt and urged his countrymen to do the same – to manufacture salt rather than be forced to buy it at greatly inflated prices. The effects of the salt march were felt across India as thousands of people made salt, or bought illegal salt. The extensive publicity that the march received brought India to the world’s attention and marked both the apex of Gandhiji’s political appeal and a turning point in India’s struggle for independence.
Today, there is a bewildering array of salt available at both supermarkets and speciality stores. Although (almost) all salt is obtained by evaporation, there are different processes, depending on whether it is rock salt or sea salt. The finished product may be fine crystals, larger crystals, or flakes. And whereas some salts are suitable for cooking, others are classified as “finishing salts” which should only be used on prepared food lest the subtleties of their texture and flavour be lost. Confused? Well, for your edification and before we get into the tasting notes, here’s a quick rundown (by no means exhaustive) of some of the better-known salts available out there:
1. Table salt or iodized salt (refined)
This is the most readily available and cheapest form of salt. It is obtained either by driving water into a salt deposit, formed by seawater millions of years ago, in an underground mine. This process forms a brine which is then evaporated leaving dried salt crystal. The salt consists of about 99% sodium cholride and is then refined to make it very fine-grained and pure white. Anti-caking agents and iodine are added – the iodine is added to prevent goitre (swelling of the thyroid) which may be a problem in areas where the soil is deficient in iodine. This type of salt often has a bitter, acrid aftertaste, may smell “chemically” and some say it “sears” the tip of the tongue.
2. Kosher salt (refined, not iodized)
This has nothing to do with the salt actually being kosher (i.e. conforming to the Kashrut Jewish dietary laws). However, kosher meat needs to have the blood drained from it and as kosher salt has larger crystals than table salt, which remain on the surface rather than dissolving, it is ideal for coating the meat in order to draw out the moisture. Kosher salt is made as described above, but the brine is continually raked, resulting in larger crystals. It can be used for most of the same applications as ordinary table salt, but is not recommended in baking or recipes where there will not be enough moisture to dissolve the large granules. When using kosher salt in a recipe, replace 1tsp salt with 2tsp kosher salt (or replace 1tsp kosher salt with 1/2 tsp salt). Chefs often prefer to use kosher salt as its larger crystals are easier to handle for even sprinkling on food.
3. Rock salt (refined/unrefined)
Rock salt is mined from large underground deposits called beds or domes, as opposed to being extracted by evaporation. It is crushed into manageable chunks and hauled to the surface, where it is screened, bagged, and shipped for further processing into commercial products and food-grade salt. Much rock salt ends up as non-edible large crystals used in applications like de-icing roads and to soften hard water (e.g. in dishwashers). But some particularly fine examples (like Himalayan crystal salt) are broken into manageable-sized crystals and sold to be freshly grated onto food at the table.
4. Sea salt (refined/unrefined – fine-grained varieties may be iodized)
Some table salt is not derived from salt mines, but rather from seawater which is heated in order to evaporate the water and leave the salt. Because this process is more expensive than salt produced from mines, you will usually pay a premium for sea salt. Sea salt can either be sold as a fine-grained product, as larger crystals, or as flakes. Many of these salts are refined and use some of the same additives as table salt, particularly the fine-grained varieties. If you are going to put sea salt in your grinder, make sure it is the dry crystals, not the moist flakes! The moisture combined with the salt can have a devastating and permanent effect on the metal grinding mechanism!
The most famous English example is Maldon sea salt which is made along the East coast of England. Water is drawn from the ocean during twice-monthly spring tides (when the salinity is at its peak) and pumped into stainless steel holding tanks. From there it is pumped as needed into shallow stainless steel evaporating pans constructed over an intricate system of brick flues which contain heating ducts. The temperature is carefully regulated in order to encourage evaporation and the formation of salt crystals. These crystals eventually sink to the bottom of the evaporating pans and from there they are “drawn” – raked out by hand using traditional wooden rakes.
5. Fleur de sel – literally “flower of salt” (unrefined)
This is definitely a premium salt and is regarded as a finishing salt – once it has dissolved and mixed with other ingredients much of its characteristic crunchiness and subtle marine flavour will have been lost. Fleur de sel from Brittany in France is the best known, but versions of varying quality are also produced in the Camargue region of France, along the Algarve coast of Portugal (where it it called flor de sal) and St Helena Bay in South Africa.
Obtaining fleur de sel is a complicated business. Seawater is guided from the ocean along a system of channels, during which time all its fishy occupants are removed and natural evaporation increases the salt concentration in the water from 27 g/l to 300 g/l. This concentrated brine is finally flooded into shallow coastal pools (œillets) where it is left to evaporate naturally. During the process of evaporation, salt crystals slowly form in a thin layer on the surface, particularly on still days. The task of harvesting this delicate layer of salt is done entirely by hand using traditional wooden rakes called lousses à de fleur. The rakes are delicately wielded by specialists known as paludiers who know how to rake only the fine layer of salt off the surface of the pond, producing flaky, off-white and slightly moist salt. No mechanical machinery is ever used and no metal ever touches the salt; nothing is added and nothing is removed. Because conditions must be just right for fleur de sel to form (it can only be harvested from May to September, on windless days) , the yield is only about one pound for every 80 pounds of sel gris, making this an expensive but worthwhile commodity. Sprinkle on roast vegetables, baked potatoes or green salads to enjoy the full, delicious effect
6. Sel gris – literally “grey salt” (unrefined)
This salt is moist and unrefined and is closely related to, but more robust than, fleur de sel. It is produced in the same shallow coastal pools as fleur de sel described above, but is raked up from the from the bottom of the pool rather than skimmed off the top. This salt once again is not collected by machine but by hand using traditional methods – although this time the paludiers rake the bottom rather more vigorously than when harvesting fleur de sel! The salt flakes have a very definite green/purple/gray color and distinct flavor, both obtained from its contact with the minerals in the pool’s clay bottom. Like fleur de sel, sel gris is only harvested between May and September, making it expensive but less so than fleur de sel.
7. Hawaiian Alea red salt (unrefined)
This salt is produced from Hawaiian waters. A natural mineral called Alaea (a red clay from Kauai of volcanic origins, rich in iron oxide) is mixed in with the salt crystals during evaporation under the sun, which imparts the red colour. The salt is said to have a pleasant taste of toasted hazelnuts and it is exceptionally high in iron.
8. Hawaiian black lava salt (refined)
This salt is evaporated in pools above ground that formed naturally from lava flows. The color is created by bonding high quality, activated charcoal to pure Pacific Ocean sea salt. Hawaiian Black Salt excels as a finishing salt and has a deep black colour.
9. Indian black salt (unrefined)
Nirav Black Salt, Sanchal or Kala Namak is actually a volcanic, rock salt or “saindhav”. It is an earth salt, not a sea salt, that is mined in central India. This salt is not really black at all but rather a burgundy-pink. These colors come from the presence of trace minerals and iron. This salt has a strong sulfur taste and smell that somewhat dissipates upon cooking. It is also used in Ayurvedic medicine.
10. Australian Murray River pink salt (unrefined)
The Murray River is the source of this salt and its water source is the snowy Australian Alps. The Murray-Darling Basin’s low rainfall and high evaporation have combined to concentrate salt in the groundwater. This salt is produced by evaporating water from an ancient inland sea underground at the Mourquong Basin, 13km from Mildurain in the Murray Darling Basin. A red pigment, carotene, is secreted from the salt-tolerant algae in the water, giving the salt flakes their peachy colour.
And lastly, here are my tasting notes, in no particular order. Once again, I was a little at a loss for characteristics to examine, but in the end we settled for colour, texture and taste. To accompany our salts, we had some vegetable crudites, French fries, boiled noew potatoes and (my personal favourite) hard-boiled quail eggs. We had by this stage abandoned the idea of rating the salts on a 10-point scale, but at the end I will tell you what my favourites were. The order of tasting was pretty random and has no bearing on anything whatsoever!
Fleur de sel de Camargue (France) Beautifully, sparkly white crystals the same size as granulated sugar crystals. Smaller than the Guerande Fleur de Sel crystals. A very pure salty taste.
Anglesey sea salt (UK) pure white and very large flakes. Rather overwhelming – I found the flakes too big! It is extremely salty – in fact too much so for my taste. This is made worse by the size of the flakes which take ages to melt in the mouth.
Sel Gris de Guerande (France) Definitely the most moist of the salts we tasted. Also the deepest colour – pale greenish grey. Medium size flakes, crunchy texture, melts easily. Very minerally taste – like swallowing a mouthful of seawater. The most complex flavours of the unflavoured salts we tasted.
Bad Ischler Kristallsalz (Austria – Salzburg) refined mountain salt (Salzburg means “salt town”) Pure white, tiny crystals – looks like any other table salt. Melts fast in the mouth, very salty, but a completely neutral taste. (Bad Ischl is in Salzkammergut – literally “property of the Imperial Salt Chamber”, referring to the authority charged with running the Hapsburg empire’s salt mines. Nearly 30% of Austrian production comes form here.)
Diamant de sel de Cachemire (Kashmir rock salt from Pakistan)Large pinkish white crystals about the size of a golfball but square. The crystals have to be freshly grated resulting in very very fine crystals – more of a powder. It tastes almost as if it is flavoured with herbs – delicious!Because the grains are powdery it melts almost instantly giving a short and intense burst of flavour. (Interestingly, this salt is said to contains an almost identical set of elements to those found inside the human body – 84 of the possible 92 trace minerals, in the same proportion as naturally exists in our blood.)
Saxa fine sea salt (UK) small, pure white crystals, but slightly bigger than the Austrian salt. Very clean, neutral taste but not as overtly salty as the Austrian salt.
Maldon sea salt (UK) Very pale grey, almost white. Flakes as opposed to crystals – but dry, unlike the Fleur de Sel. Far less overtly salty than the Anglesey salt, tasty with a flavour of the sea. Delicious and crunchy.
Fleur de Sel with Wasabi (South Africa – St Helena Bay) Bright green from the wasabi. Fine crystals but slightly larger than ordinary table salt. Really delicious taste – not much like wasabi but definitely a smoky, spicy taste. Delicious – and absolutely fabulous with quail’s eggs.
Alaea sea salt (Hawaii) Beautiful amber/terracotta colour. HUGE square crystals, like the decorative coloured sugar crystals you can get for coffee. Quite an earthy, minerally taste and very salty. Crystals are too big and very hard to get to melt, due to size and shape, so they hang around in your mouth for an alarmingly long time.
Overall (in my humble opinion!) the top prize was a tie between the Maldon sea sale and the Fleur de Sel from the Camargue. Honourable mentions go to the Kashmir rock salt and the St Helena Bay wasabi Fleur de Sel. The one I liked least was the Anglesey sea salt – it was just totally overwhelming in terms of size and sheer, erm, saltiness!
After all that salt, we needed something sweet as a counterpoint, so we settled down to some restorative coffee and some delicious sweet treats courtesy of the group. Pictured are Johanna’s chocolate brownies and Moira‘s super-duper oat and choc-chip cookies. I also recall a sponge from Xochitl and a couple of other sweet treats that have now escaped my recollection (any reminders welcome!)
If I’ve just piqued your interest, or you’re inspired to organise a salt tasting of your own, here are some suggestions for further reading and places to buy some of the salts mentioned:
The Salt Institute – US salt producers’ organisation – includes an excellent history section
Columbia University News Service article on the recent popularity of various “designer” salts
Scholarly article on the history of Austria’s Salzkammergut region and salt production
BBC Food article on the benefits and dangers of salt
There was also an article by Jeffrey Steingarten in Vogue in early 2002 (which I can’t lay my hands on – but I’d be hugely grateful if anybody wants to send me a scan…) describing how he bought up all the exotic salts he could lay his hands on, then commissioned minute chemical analysis reports, and finally hopped on a plane for Scicily where he asked scientists attending a conference on molecular gastronomy to serve as salt tasters, in order to determine whether expensive premium seasalts are at all distinguishable from table salt.
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