Arguably the single most influential foodstuff in the history of the world, salt funded the construction of China’s Great Wall, dictated trade routes, gave rise to Europe’s great cities, ignited wars, fueled centuries of political discourse, helped spark the French Revolution, and was a focal point the struggle for Indian independence. The words “sauce,” “salad” and “sausage” are derived from the root word for “salt.” In Rome, it served as currency; hence the word and phrase, “salary” and “not worth his salt.”
Composed of sodium and chlorine, salt is a stable, staple food essential for human life. It regulates fluid levels and is necessary for muscle function, nerve impulses and the distribution of nutrients. Until the invention of canning and refrigeration, salt was fundamental to food preservation. It’s the only natural source of one of our basic tastes (salty), suppresses bitterness, and serves to enhance the flavor of other foods. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing can lead to hypertension. But cooks can take heart—while the average American consumes far too much salt, 90 percent of it comes from processed foods, with only 10 percent derived from cooking and table use.
Salt exists in two basic forms: sea salt, produced by the evaporation of seawater, and rock salt, mined from buried sea beds. Specialty salts include kosher salt (coarse grained salt used in “koshering” meat, favored for its purity and low cost), fleur de sel (“flower of salt” from salt ponds in France and Portugal), and Maldon salt (a delicate English sea salt). Colorful choices include Peruvian Pink, Hawaiian Red and the mineral rich Celtic Gray. Flavored varieties include truffle, citrus and smoked salts.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.