The Sea Inside Us
Elemental. Essential. Salt is the only mineral for which we have an innate craving. Good thing, because many chemical functions of the human body depend on a delicate, life-sustaining balance of water and sodium. Though we don't need a lot of salt to sustain us, and our modern diet gives us many more times the amount our bodies require, it is a necessary and essential ingredient.
High and Dry
Before freezing and canning, there was salt. For centuries, salt has been critical in preserving foods like fish, meats, olives, vegetables, and cheese. Salt preserves foods by drawing off moisture; dehydrating food makes it less hospitable to harmful bacteria that would spoil it.
Worth its Salt
Historically, the food-preserving power of salt made it a commodity of tremendous strategic significance. Salt powered trade, fortified armies, built wealth, propped up economies, and preserved the food necessary to sustain large armies and urban populations.
What's in a Name?
In antiquity, Roman soldiers were paid, in part, with salt. In fact, the term “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt, salarium. Likewise, the word “salad” is derived from salarium, as is “salami.”
Besides being essential for survival, salt is also a significant flavor enhancer. Salt enhances aromas, dampens down the taste of bitterness in foods and helps reveal the essential taste of food. It makes a thing taste more like the thing it is--a tomato more tomato-y, a steak more steaky.
What's the Difference?
Although salt is salt--it is all sodium chloride--trace minerals found in sea salts and certain mined salts can change the color and flavor of salt. Refining takes away these individual characteristics. If you invest in an imported or high-quality salt, don't use it in your pasta-cooking water: reserve it for finishing a dish.
Measure for Measure
Because of the size and shape of their crystals, sea salt, table salt, and kosher salt should not be used interchangeably. Even different brands of kosher or sea salt may measure up differently. As a general rule: one teaspoon of regular table salt equals two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt or 1-1/2 teaspoons of Morton brand kosher salt. Sea salts can generally be used interchangeably with table salt, unless they're large flakes. In that case, “Salt to taste” is the best guide.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that we limit our salt intake to the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon (2,300 mg) of table salt per day. Though most Americans get much more than this, the recommended amount is still more than three times what our ancient ancestors would have consumed by eating a Paleolithic diet. What has changed since then? For one thing, we've invented the salt shaker. But even so, less than 15 percent of the salt we consume is added in the kitchen or at the table. An astounding 75 percent comes from processed foods by way of the salt that is added to increase shelf live, improve taste, and add weight to the package.
For further information, please consult the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.
Salt of the Earth
Simple and inorganic, salt is a mineral that is mined from deposits that were once ancient seas or is harvested from coastal areas after sea water evaporates. There are a number of different types of salt, including:
- Table Salt: A standard condiment salt, refined into fine, uniform, dense grains with additives that keep the crystals from caking and help ensure a steady pour from salt shakers.
- Iodized Salt: Table salt fortified with the mineral potassium iodide. Iodine deficiencies can lead to serious mental and physical impairment. In 1925, the U.S. government began fortifying salt with iodine, choosing salt because it is universally consumed.
- Sea Salt: Salt that has been harvested from evaporated sea water. The large flakes are easy for cooks to pinch between their fingers, and the texture adds crunch and flavor when added at the table. Fleur de sel, "flower of salt," is one of the best known sea salts, harvested in France and renowned for its delicate flakes and fine flavor.
- Kosher Salt: A coarse salt that does not contain additives. Kosher salt is used in traditional Jewish preparations to make meats kosher by drawing out blood from the tissue. Many cooks find that it has a superior flavor, and its larger grains and coarse texture make it easy to cook with.
- Seasoned Salt: Table salt flavored with ingredients like dried garlic or onions. Hawaii produces salts that are mixed with lava and clay particles to produce attractive pink and dark gray salts. Some specialty purveyors offer smoked salts for added flavor.
- Rock Salt: Less refined than other salts, grayish rock salt is often used for freezing ice cream and melting icy sidewalks.