Mary asked: “What are the differences between various types of salts? Which salts do I need to own?”
Like bottled water, salt is salt—except when it contains tiny traces of other elements that make all the difference.
Everyday salt, or table salt—the kind that comes in the cylindrical container and in shakers— is very convenient. This is sodium chloride in the form of inexpensive, uniform crystals, and it can be as easily sprinkled on a hard-boiled egg as added in quarter-cupfuls to a pot of water for cooking vegetables. Need to own? Yes
Table salt is commonly sold with iodine added—one thousandth of one percent by weight—to prevent the iodine deficiency that can cause developmental delays in children. Some people claim to be able to taste the difference between iodized and non-iodized salt. Not I.
Although it lacks that trace of iodine, the main difference that sets kosher salt apart from table salt is the shape of the crystals. Instead of tiny, evenly cube-shaped grains, kosher salt’s grains are larger and more irregular. The coarser texture makes kosher salt great for sprinkling by the pinch, or rubbing onto foods like meat (which is where kosher salt got its name, from its traditional use in the kosher preparation of meats). Need to own? Recommended
Different brands of kosher salt have different shapes. Morton brand has dense, flat flakes, created with rollers; Diamond Crystal has fragile, concave grains, which stick to foods more readily than Morton. The shape of the grain also influences how readily it dissolves, including how quickly it dissolves on your tongue. The faster that happens, the more salt taste you get. That’s why flaky salt is nice to add to food at serving time. The food industry has put that phenomenon to work as well, engineering saltier-tasting salt so they can use less of it for the same flavor impact.
The difference in the size and shape of salt crystals also affects recipes significantly. A tablespoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt weighs 10 grams; a tablespoon of standard table salt weighs 23 grams. A tablespoon of Morton kosher salt is in between, at 16 grams. So when you substitute kosher for table salt or vice versa, our in-house rule of thumb is 1 part table salt = 1½ parts Morton kosher salt = 2 parts Diamond Crystal kosher salt.
If you want an unambiguous measurement of precisely how much salt you are adding to your food, I recommend using a scale instead of measuring spoons.
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The next section on the salt shelf is sea salts, which are made by evaporating sea water. That leaves behind not just sodium chloride, but other minerals that were dissolved in the water as well. Its mineral content gives sea salt a wide range of colors and shapes, as well as a certain sense of terroir. So you can easily collect sel de Guérande from Brittany, Maldon salt from England, New England salt, Hawaiian salt, and so on. These are attractive to finish a dish with, and have interesting textures (some are still damp from the sea) and subtly different flavors that are really only apparent when the salt hits your tongue directly, not if it’s mixed into a dish. Need to own? No, but it makes a nice gift.
How about the wildly popular, wildly ’grammable Himalayan pink salt? It’s mined in Pakistan, pink because of trace inclusions of iron, and has little perceptible flavor difference from other salts. Need to own? Not really.
If you’re looking for a salt that really does taste different, there’s kala namak, or Himalayan black salt. Made by kiln-firing pink salt at high heat with the addition of sulfate compounds, the purplish-red salt takes on a powerful sulfurous aroma from the chemical transformation. It’s a distinctive part of some South Asian cooking and wonderful in limeade. Need to own? No, but unique and delicious.