Today I want to talk about salt. What we call salt in the kitchen is different to other uses of the word salt. For example, for chemists it is an “ionic compound” of different elements. This is why they have salts in all possible colours. We call bath salts a range of different products that can be dissolved in water before we take a bath, etc. But in gastronomy what we call salt is just good old NaCl.

Now, if salt is salt, that is NaCl, how come different salts taste different? And how come in the supermarket shelfs there is an increasing number of different kinds of salt each of them is more and more expensive?

Personally, since I live in the UK, I find that table salt is the dullest of them all. Back in Spain the most common salt in a supermarket is sea salt, so I had not used table salt before. I found that I had to use much bigger quantities of table salt to obtain the same effect that I did with sea salt and yet, it was never quite the same.

Initially I thought this was perhaps because the cheap table salt was not pure salt but perhaps had some impurities in it that made necessary to use more quantity of it while cooking. I was surprised to discover that it is quite the opposite: table salt is the purest of them all. Table salt is refined until it contains a percentage of NaCl of between 97% and 99%. Sea salt, on the other hand contains typically around 90% of NaCl and the rest is sulfate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, bromide and some other elements in very small quantities.

So what makes sea salt different and gives it a flavour that I personally like more (and it seems from what I read that most gourmets agree with me) are precisely those elements in it which are not salt: its defects.

There is much more to the world of salt than just table salt or sea salt and some of its other shapes are quite expensive as well. The difference between them is not only in the flavor because of their impurities but also sometimes in the texture. Salt comes in little crystals. These crystals can be very thin (salt flakes) or very big (like for example in Maldon Salt). The thin ones  melt instantly in your mouth giving the feeling of a very smooth flavour while the Maldon rocks give that nice crunchiness. Of course one can only notice this when the salt is added just before serving and it does not have time to melt before it gets to your tongue. If you pour Maldon salt or salt flakes in the water while doing pasta you won´t notice the difference then.

Recently I learnt about a kind of salt that I had never heard of “Fleur de sel” or salt flower. Only a few days a year in the very early hours of the morning a thin layer of salt is formed on the top of the water in some salt plants. These layers are manually harvested before they sink back to the bottom after the sun rises and sold at high prizes in airtight jars while still slightly dump. It has two attractive properties: on the one hand it has a high contain of some minerals that give it a very special flavor. On the other, the structure of the crystals is so thin and delicate that they dissolve instantly in your mouth.

I came a cross some “Fleur de sel” in my supermarket recently:

Flor de Sal (Fleur de sel)
Flor de Sal (Fleur de sel)

Unfortunately they didn´t have the plain one but only this one which is flavored with olives. I used this salt, sea salt and table salt in different parts of a Caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella) and I have to say it was delicious!

Capresse with different kinds of salt
Caprese with different kinds of salt

I could notice the difference in flavour between the three: my favorite being the Fleur de sel and the one I liked the least table salt. However to compare properly I would have liked to use plain salt flower, rather than the olive flavoured one. Also, the texture was remarkable, it was certainly the smoothest salt my tongue has ever felt.

I highly recommend doing this experiment at home. Take different kinds of salt from the supermarket, pour them onto different parts of a salad or a stake and feel the difference. What is your favorite one? Perhaps you like one better on meat but another better on the salad? Mastering which salt to use for each particular dish is a very difficult task, but using 2 or 3 different kinds of salts in your cooking will surely improve your dishes and impress your guests.

Embrace the defects!