So many salts! How do you know when to reach for kosher salt or sea salt? What about coarse versus fine? What’s up with iodine? We have your answers!
Salt is unique in the culinary galaxy. It’s the only mineral we use in cooking. It’s also a vital nutrient, helping the body maintain the balance of its body fluids, and aiding in nerve and muscle function Without it, we die.
Also, salt makes things taste good. Too much salt isn’t great for you or your food, but just enough salt makes food sing. This guide is to help you decide which salt to buy and how much of it to use. Understanding how to properly salt your food is something that can take your recipes to the next level!
But fear not! Salt smarts are not a trade secret, and we’re sharing them now.
What Is Salt?
What we call table salt is sodium chloride, a basic chemical compound. Sodium chloride is a naturally occurring mineral.
There are many other salts—magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium nitrite (used in curing meat)—familiar for their household uses, and still others with industrial applications. Turns out over 95% of the sodium chloride produced worldwide isn’t even meant for consumption. It goes to de-icing roads, chemical production, and a thousand other purposes.
In most cases, the salts we use for cooking are not pure sodium chloride. If they are unrefined or minimally refined salts, they have trace minerals that give them character. If they are industrially produced salts, they usually have extras like dextrose, anti-caking additives, and iodine.
Why Are There So Many Kinds of Salt?
There are so many kinds of salt just to make you confused. Just kidding! But the landscape of culinary salt has become quite complex.
For cooking purposes, we can divide salts into two basic, totally unofficial groups.
- Cheapie salt: Refined salt like table salt, kosher salt, and other industrially produced salts. These are probably the salts you use every day.
- Fancy salt: Unrefined salts that are distinctive because of specific crystal shapes and trace minerals that affect their color and flavor. Often they are named after where they were produced, like Maldon Sea Salt, and are usually made using traditional methods unique to the area.
When you use fancy salt or cheapie salt is up to you. But since cost and availability are factors, we’ll give you some background on the many salt sub-genres to help you strategize.
What Is Table Salt?
Ah, table salt: the filler of salt shakers and cardboard canisters from coast to coast. It has small, consistent cubical crystals and is highly refined. It comes in two types: with iodine added and without iodine.
Most table salt, according to the Salt Institute, is harvested from underground salt deposits called solution mines. Manufacturers inject the mines with water to create a brine. The salinated water is then brought to the surface where the liquid is evaporated in a series of pans under controlled conditions. It’s an industrially produced product meant to be incredibly consistent.
Though it has some of the additives mentioned previously, it’s also been stripped of other trace minerals, draining it of its character. There’s something to be said for predictability—and low cost. What was once so valuable it was used as payment in multiple civilizations worldwide is now cheap enough to get at any store for pennies on the ounce.
What’s up with iodine, anyway? Since the 1920s, much of the table salt in America has been iodized in order to supplement diets with iodine, a necessary nutrient which helps regulate thyroid function and prevent goiters. (Why salt? Because it’s convenient.) Not everyone cares for the taste of iodized salt, though some tasters can’t even detect the difference.
What Is Kosher Salt?
Chefs love kosher salt not because of its taste, but its feel. It’s got large crystals that are easy to grab with your fingers, enabling you to season pinch by pinch.
Kosher salt is not iodized, but it’s still highly processed. It’s called kosher salt not because it is kosher (under Jewish dietary laws, all salt is pareve, or neutral), but because its coarse crystal shape works well for the process of koshering meat (salting the surface of meat to draw out blood).
- For information on swapping Morton Kosher Salt for Diamond Crystal (or vice versa), see here.
What Is Sea Salt?
Technically, ALL salt is sea salt. Some just comes from defunct, prehistoric seas. If you want to be a stinker, you can say table salt is sea salt, but what we’re talking about here is ideally a much less industrial product, and possibly (though not necessarily) small-batch and artisanal.
What we think of as sea salt is typically evaporated from seawater, but it can also be mined from the earth (remember those prehistoric seas!). The crystals can be fine or coarse, moist or dry. With so much variance, any recipe calling for simply “sea salt” is doing you a disservice; inconsistently sized sea salt makes it difficult to measure accurately and results in inconsistent seasoning in recipes.
Because sea salt is trendy, companies have taken advantage of this very broad term. From potato chips to canned green beans, sea salt is popping up on labels for dozens of processed foods. So, when it comes to sea salt, buyer beware. Ultimately, you’ll need to decide if what you are buying is truly the romantic, unspoiled sea salt you are hoping for—or just a clever marketing ploy.
A few of the more widely recognized unrefined sea salts are fleur de sel, sel gris, and flake salt (especially Maldon sea salt).
The Case for Cheapie Salt
A lot of home cooks are swingers, like me. I use cheapie salt and fancy salt. We are not here to give you salt guilt.
Whenever you are using salt in decent quantities—salting cooking water, dry-brining meat, or just seasoning a soup—cheapie salt should be your go-to. Anything that costs $9 an ounce and flaunts flaky, glittery, pyramid crystals just goes to waste once it’s dissolved in liquid.
This does not mean you have to use mass-produced industrial salt if that’s not up your alley. Just find a good, unrefined salt for everyday cooking that’s not too coarse.
My cheapie salt of preference is kosher salt. And I’ll also be the first to admit I use iodized salt almost exclusively for baking. I’m not ashamed and I’m not proud. I just do it, and I’ll probably keep on doing it and feeling totally okay. Now then...
The Case for Fancy Salt
Fancy salt is something you can get excited about, and you can’t say that about cheapie salt. Ideally, fancy salt isn’t snobby or elitist, though it is special. Use it selectively, in smaller quantities. Going for broke is missing the point.
Most fancy salts are not the salts you’ll be measuring out to add to recipes. They are finishing salts, meant to be sprinkled with care over food right before you serve it. They are salts you want to show off.
If the salt crystals are irregular, there’s the thrill of having slightly varied amounts of salt in each bite. If the salt crystals are flaky, there’s a crunch factor. If the salt is colorful, there’s a visual factor. You’re engaged in the experience differently. The more pizzazz the salt has to offer, the more mileage you'll get out of it.
How to Measure Salt
Back when recipes became broadly standardized (marked by the 1896 publication of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book), food was also becoming industrialized. Morton salt company introduced free-flowing salt in 1911. By the 1920s, if a recipe called for a teaspoon of salt, a cook was almost definitely using table salt purchased in a round cardboard canister. Measure for measure, it was the same.
Our newly expanded universe of culinary salts has presented a new problem. When some salts are fine and others are coarse, how do you measure salt consistently in recipes? A teaspoon of table salt and a teaspoon of coarse Himalayan pink salt don’t weigh the same. You can’t swap them one for one by volume.
Here’s a rough guideline, with the consideration that most recipe measurements, unless specified, call for table salt.
- If a recipe calls for table salt, you can substitute fine sea salt 1:1.
- If a recipe calls for kosher salt, you can use half the amount of table salt or fine sea salt. (Conversely, if a recipe calls for table salt or fine sea salt, use twice the amount of kosher salt).
- Measure kosher salt by weight, if possible: The weight per volume of kosher salt varies greatly by brand. If the amount of salt in a recipe needs to be precise (let’s say you are making a lot of sausage, or you’re pickling a few crocks of sauerkraut), you can weigh the salt. But only if the recipe gives you the weight, and only if you have a scale.
- To swap Morton Kosher Salt for Diamond Crystal (or vice versa), see here.
- If a recipe calls for coarse salt, then I don’t know what to tell you, except who uses coarse salt in a recipe that’s not pretzels or pickles? When in doubt, the rule of thumb is to err on the side of less salt. Unless you are baking bread or a cake, you can always add more salt—but you can’t take it out.
Taste, season, and repeat as many times as necessary until your food tastes right to you. It can be tedious at first, but keep at it.
Also, if a recipe has salty ingredients (like feta cheese, prosciutto, soy sauce, fish sauce, or anchovies) those will contribute their own salt, so to speak. Season with a lighter hand, in that case.
How to Store Salt
Great news—salt keeps forever! It won’t go bad. Humidity may cause some types of salts to cake up (that’s why people put grains of rice in salt shakers), but the salt itself is a-okay.
This frees you to store your salt where it’s handiest. I keep a small crock of kosher salt right by my stove and refill it as needed. I dress salads with Maldon flake salt, which I keep in a cuter, smaller crock. Fancy finishing salts I keep in my spice drawer. Since I use table salt when I bake, that canister is on the same shelf as my baking powder, baking soda, and other dry goods.
In other words, it all depends. Because salt is such a workhorse in your kitchen, treat yourself by giving it a convenient and flattering home. Unlike spices and oils, light won’t damage salt, so feel free to show it off!
Seasoning at the Table
A lot of us grew up eating under-seasoned food, and it’s become habitual to reach for the salt shaker and dump a bunch all over the plate before digging in.
I still have to tactfully remind my family to taste the food before salting it. After that first taste, they may salt away as they please.
But table salt, as it turns out, might be one of the most blah salts you can have on your table. Try filling your shaker with something showier and more interesting—or get a salt mill.
So, What Salt Do You Need?
The kind you like! That’s it. But we hope you are emboldened to branch out, try some new salts, think twice when you’re measuring, and season with care. Salt is precious, and so are you.
Get Salty With These Recipes
- The interplay of salt and sweet enlivens these fleur de sel-topped Butterscotch Cookies.
- Grainy crystals of kosher salt rubbed on the skin of Dry-Brined Turkey make the bird flavorful and moist.
- Fine sea salt glistens like diamond dust on imminently snackable Air Fryer Chickpeas.
- Your favorite fancy salt is the finishing touch over perfectly simple Tomatoes on Toast.
- Addictive Boiled Peanuts are not the place for finishing salts, because the salt dissolves in the cooking water to thoroughly season the shell-on peanuts.
- For salt that clings best to Perfect Popcorn, smash it to a fine powder.