Artisanal bread, hand-crafted cheese, heirloom tomatoes . . . specialty salts. At first, it seems like just so much food snobbery. After all, how different can one salt be from another, right? A lot, actually.
Gourmet salts are not a marketing ploy. A good salt will release and balance the flavors of the other ingredients in a dish. Regional salts show as much individuality as their culinary peer, pepper. The same way you might choose green pepper instead of black for pepper steak, you can pick a salt to match your recipe.
The shape of the salt crystal has a lot to do with it. The appeal of flaked salts, such as kosher salt, is in their large surface area and their ability to melt in the mouth. One of the most interesting salts available is Cyprus flake. The crystals of this white Mediterranean product are large, hollow pyramids. They play the taste buds with amazing complexity. The flavor is bold, yet clean, eliciting a meatiness that fades at the sides of the tongue into faint sweetness.
Gourmet salts retain the unique mineral profiles of their sources, which also contribute to their flavor. Elemental minerals such as iodine, magnesium and chromium residing in natural sea salts react differently on the tongue and palate, exciting taste buds in different ways.
Most artisanal salts are evaporated in small batches at seaside and bring with them a refreshing flavor that smacks of ocean air. Use them as you would free-running table salt, but go easy. While not as harsh as standard salt, they are stronger.
The best way to enjoy these salts is freshly ground. Store them in airtight containers away from moisture and grind only as much as you need. A simple pepper grinder works well, but use one with a ceramic gear instead of a metal one. (Target Stores have clear plastic grinders with ceramic gears for around $10.) If using a mortar and pestle, make sure it’s glass or stone.
- Fleur de sel. The “flower of salt” from northern France has a flavor bolder and more complex than refined table salt. It fills the mouth with a burst, then fades to sweetness toward the back of the tongue.
- Pink salt. A recent star in the specialty salt category, pink salt plays across the palate without harshness. Its color comes from iron and dozens of other trace elements. Several popular pink salts include Peruvian pink, with an almost meaty-sweet flavor to Himalayan salt, which has a milder flavor.
- Hawaiian. This volcanic salt ranges in color from rose to blood red. It has long-lasting flavor that carries a hint of apple.
- Kosher salt. This is something of a misnomer because all salt is kosher. “Koshering” salt would be a more accurate name. The fluffy flakes are highly absorbent, making them perfect for koshering meat. That fluffiness also gives kosher salt a simple but expressive taste that enhances rather than overpowers other flavors.
—David Feder, a food writer in Buffalo Grove, Ill.