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Salt is Essential

It's the only rock we crave to eat! Discover all the salty details behind our love/hate relationship with this essential yet much maligned mineral.

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.

Dec. 20, 2009 3:22 pm
Hi my name is Antionette I like the taste of sea salt better than regular salt. It really brings out the flavor in your foods.
Mar. 6, 2010 9:08 am
can i omit salt in making bread in my bread machine
Mar. 25, 2010 7:48 am
I've tried eliminating salt,just can not do it.I like having the different types of salt and use them all,finding the right match for the right dish. I use mostly sea salt and kosher.
Jun. 10, 2010 11:18 pm
I'm living in a country where we self sufficient in rock salt, salt range is spread many squares of mile, and sea salt is also available from our sea..But overall this post is very informative .. Thanks..
Well Fed Gardener 
Feb. 4, 2011 7:57 am
I much prefer sea salt but there's even a wide difference between brands. I mainly use one from the Mediterranean.
Mar. 2, 2011 12:16 pm
i read some where that there is sugar mixed in with salt is this true?
Mar. 3, 2011 6:57 am
I use "no salt" due to dietary restrictions and find through trial and error it can work quite well. Once I kicked the salt habit I found that a lot of dishes I use to love are way to salty for my tastes. Substituting no salt seems to work for me. I have tried other "saltless" products and found this one to be the best.
Mar. 3, 2011 7:00 am
You can omit salt but must double up on no salt baking soda and add some vital wheat gluten to get the bread to rise.
Mar. 21, 2011 3:52 am
these days i am mindful of how much salt i take,this post has given me more inspiration to watch my salt intake.
Mar. 21, 2011 1:58 pm
Astrid--no. Salt is necessary in pretty much all baking. Salt with help your dough rise, will make the bread softer and make it stay soft for later. I have omitted salt before and it was ill-advise.
Mar. 21, 2011 1:59 pm
@robbins7eggs, yes that's true for table salt at least. I was surprised when I read the ingredients on my table salt shaker I bought and saw sugar and some other additives. I don't know why they do that. I try to watch my salt intake as well and encourage others to do the same.
Mar. 21, 2011 5:27 pm
mcjo, You need to have a little salt in your diet.
Mar. 22, 2011 2:11 am
Yes, but the bread will be bland. "astrid Mar. 6, 2010 9:08 am can i omit salt in making bread in my bread machine "
Melanie B. 
Mar. 23, 2011 1:20 am
We do not salt in our diet. The natural unprossed food contains its own natural sodium. I am on a no salt diet for congestive heart failure and use oxygen 24/7. I have several cookbooks for no salt cooking. Go to for bread recipes in your bread machine plus much more.The man that runs the sight lives on 500mg of sodium a day and it has taken him off the heart transplant list. He has written 5 cookbooks and I swear by them. Read your labels when you shop and you will get a shock. The frozen turkeys advertized as juicey are because they shoot them full of salt brine as they do all other meats, poultry and fish unless other wize stated on the label. The governments guidelines have changed and people 50 and over should have no more than 1500mg per day. I've lost over 100lbs(most of it fluid) in 6 months following the 500mg per day of sodium. I cook everything from fresh unprocessed foods. I feel so much better.
Melanie B. 
Mar. 23, 2011 1:35 am
You have 33 recipes listed with high sodium levels; how about 33 recipes with no salt added(or salty products) except what is found in the natural food?
Mar. 23, 2011 12:02 pm
I was given a book called Salted by Mark Bitterman for Christmas and it opened my eyes to the whole world of salt and its history. I now use only grey salt, fleur de sel and Maldon flake salt. We use far less than we did using processed salt, including kosher and commercial sea salt. The salts we use now are expensive but they go a very long way and we have noticed such a difference in taste that I carry it with me for dining out. If you are interested in the subject, this book is quite the eye-opener.
Mar. 23, 2011 7:04 pm
When you cook with salt try adding it at the end just prior to serving. You will use less and have the taste you crave!
Mar. 24, 2011 11:36 am
Living in Paris, I've discovered the joy of the finishing salt, "Sel de Guérande", from Brittany, in the west of France. It's absoloutely delicious and enhances the flavor of everthing it touches. Normandy produces "Beurre Salé", salted butter which is absolutely addictive; and finally, there's "Caramel Salidou".When swirled lightly in homemade vanilla bean ice cream, it's to die for!
Mar. 25, 2011 11:34 am
I have always had a problem with water retention until I began to restrict the salt in my diet. No problem now unless I have a meal out at a restaurant. Can expect about one to three pounds extra on the scale because of water retention, not to mention headaches from "water on the brain", literally.
Mar. 26, 2011 6:46 pm
Phyllis Anne, I sure wish I could get some of that Beurre Sale, which is mentioned in the book. And the author also notes that using salt only as a finishing condiment will not only decrease your intake, it will allow you to fully appreciate what it brings to the dish, given that you use something other than processed mass-produced salt of course. It has made a real difference for us.
Mar. 26, 2011 7:26 pm
I bicycle a LOT in Florida, and sweat like a horse. I cook almost everything from scratch, and thus don't get the sodium that all the processed junk foods provide. One night I woke up with the room spinning, and woke up the next morning the same way. A quick check with the Mayo Clinic website suggested it might be electrolyte depletion. I slammed some salt and I was back to normal in 15 minutes. Thus, salt intake has to be gauged to salt output, as in sweating. It is possible to under do it, obviously. These days, I carry a bottle of salt with me on bike rides. The first indication of depletion is a deterioration of performance. The second is heart irregularities. When I detect either, I do a teaspoon of salt, and in 15 minutes I'm fine for the rest of the ride. These days, I'm using a good bit more salt in my cooking, and I've been having fewer problems. Just a heads up on the salt in your diet. You can under do it.
Mar. 27, 2011 6:25 am
That is interesting Splashme.I am a believer in that we need some salt for our health but no more than 1 tsp. a day. F. Batmanghelidij's book: You're Not Sick, You're Thirsty writes about salt and some of its hidden miracles. Another heads up for salt in your diet.
Mar. 27, 2011 9:57 am
Rosemary, bear in mind that before that night, I avoided salt in my cooking because of all the bad press it gets. A pound of salt lasted me over a year. In the summer months, if I do a 35 mile ride (typical), after the ride I can take a finger, run it under the bottom of the top tube of the bike and get a pile of salt 1/2" tall on my finger. All that has to be replaced. In the winter, I get a fraction of that if any at all. It all depends on your exertion and the weather. A teaspoon is just about the maximum recommended max per day, 2500mg, I think. But that is for average people doing average activities. Cycling 35 and more miles in 98 degree heat with 90% humidity generates so much sweat that some additional salt is required.
Mar. 27, 2011 1:58 pm
The only bread disasters I can recall were due to my forgetting to add salt. That's not to say it can't be done. But, in my experience if you want decent rise and crumb, you need some NaCl.
May 22, 2011 11:13 am
I wonder how much of my excess weight is from salt... I'm going to start looking at the sodium in my diet. Is there a blood test or something to see if you are retaining weight from salt intake?
Dec. 13, 2011 8:04 pm
this is very informative.I use fleur de sel a lot because it is delicate and kosher salt is always on hand ...all salts but individually quite different.i also like the different peppers and onion types.used properly they change a ho hum meal into flaverful delights.
Aug. 24, 2012 1:25 am
I do not have that lame iodized table salt in my house. Fresh cracked sea salt, Murray river, or pink himilayan are the only salts for me!! Yum!!!
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