Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
Pass the Salt Shaker, Please
I got a text from a patient of mine asking what’s the best kind of salt to use. I can’t remember the last time I bought salt so I really wasn’t sure what was available these days. After a trip to the grocery store, I see there’s quite a variety on the shelves!
Let me start with some salt trivia because it appears I have taken the white stuff for granted all these years. In Roman days, salt was a rare commodity and was often bartered for trade or used as currency. In ancient Egyptian days, the Nile Delta lakes were rich in natron, a salt consisting of sodium carbonate. Natron was left in Egyptian tombs for the Pharaohs’s after life, as well in the drying out and mummification process. In Medieval times, salt was used in households to preserve freshly slaughtered meats. In the 19th century, John Landis Mason patented the Mason jar, and in in the 1950’s salt was used for brining and canning foods as pickling became popular using said Mason jars. Wouldn’t he find it interesting to know that we are now drinking smoothies and iced tea out of them!
So, what is salt and where do we get it? It’s a mineral that consists of the compound sodium chloride. One teaspoon of salt contains 2300 milligrams of sodium chloride. Often the terms “salt” and “sodium” are used interchangeably; wrongly used, I may add.
Salts are harvested from different sources but most are derived utilizing mining or evaporation methods. The salt goes through a refining process to remove impurities and minerals before it is sold commercially. When pools of ocean or sea water are left to evaporate under the sun, salt is left behind to harvest. Sea salts are often harvested by hand using the same methods and tools as have been used for centuries by each culture.
Let’s look at some salts available today:
Most of this kind of salt is typically mined from underground salt deposits and is commonly referred to as "iodized salt.” It contains sodium chloride. Depending on the brand, anti-caking agents like potassium iodide, aluminum, and silicon may be added to keep it from clumping. Iodized salt is one way to get iodine in your diet. Your thyroid needs iodine to function and produce hormones. Iodized salt in the U.S. contains 45 micrograms of iodine per gram of salt. The recommended daily intake for adults is 150 micrograms, which can be obtained from about one-half to three-quarters of a teaspoon of table salt.
Kosher salt is a refined salt with large crystals that dissolve easily. It does not have iodide or other additives added to it. It gets its name by its association to the method of making meats kosher, as large crystal salt is used in this process. Not all kosher salts are actually certified by a hechsher as having met kosher requirements. Kosher salt is not used as a finishing salt; it’s best to cook with it.
Easily recognizable by its color, its pink hue comes from trace amounts of minerals that include magnesium and iron oxide. Himalayan pink salt is a rock salt that is hand-extracted and harvested from the Khewra Salt Mine in the Himalayan Mountains of Pakistan. The salt is minimally processed to yield an unrefined product that's free of additives. And while thought to be more natural than table salt, in reality it is chemically similar to table salt with its sodium chloride content but lacks iodine that is added to table salt. There is no scientific basis for its claimed health benefits and generally costs more.
Himalayan black salt
Its formal name, kala manak, translates to “black salt” in its solid form but once ground, it takes on a pinkish tint. Its dark color comes from the mineral, greigite. Apparently, it has a pungent smell due to its sulfur content—for this reason, it can lend a rotten egg smell to foods if not used appropriately.
The name of this salt gives away its origin. Harvested from evaporated sea water, its taste can vary depending on the sea of origin. Its mineral content and the evaporation method are different, so sea salts can vary quite a bit from one another. Sea salt and table salt contain comparable amounts of sodium by weight. Sea salt contains 2,000 mg of sodium per teaspoon while table salt provides approximately 2,300 mg of sodium per teaspoon.
Celtic Grey Sea Salt or Sel gris (gray salt):
Celtic sea salt is also known as sel gris (French for “gray salt”) and is harvested from the bottom layer of Atlantic tidal ponds off the coast of France. Minerals, left behind when the sea water evaporates, give the salt its grayish color. Its cousin is Fleur de Sel, which is is harvested from the top layer of the tidal pool.
Fleur De Sel
In French, fleur de sel translates into “flower of salt” and is harvested from evaporated sea water from the Brittany coast in France. It’s lower in sodium than normal salt but has a higher mineral content. It's best used as a finishing salt.
Like sel gris and fleur de sel, flake salt is harvested from evaporated sea water—although its shape and texture are quite different. Light, thin, and irregularly shaped, flake salt has a very bright look and a low mineral content the dissolve quickly. It is a more expensive salt and is best used as a finishing salt.
Hawaiian Black Lava and Hawaiian (alaea) red salt
Obviously, the origins of both of these salts is from Hawaii. Hawaiian black lava salt comes from evaporated sea water pools located on hardened lava flows. The salt crystals are mixed with activated coconut charcoal as a detoxifying agent. It has a strong, earthy flavor (possibly from the sulfur aroma from the minerals in the lava pools) that can be sprinkled on finished dishes.
Hawaiian red salt gets its reddish tone from red volcanic clay (alaea), which is also said to have detoxifying properties. It’s used in a lot of native Hawaiian dishes and has a place in religious ceremonies. It has lower sodium content than normal table salt.
Smoked salt results by cold smoking salt with wood (such as apple, hickory, or mesquite) for up to two weeks. Its flavor and color can vary depending on the type of wood used and the length of time smoked. It’s used in dishes like chili or BBQ’s to add a smoky flavor to them.
Pickling salt, AKA canning or preserving salt, is pure granulated salt (sodium chloride). There is no anti-caking ingredient added in, as they can change the color of the liquid. Pickling salt has finer granules that dissolve easily in a brine.
As you can see, the taste and flavor, texture, and color of salt depends on where it's harvested and how it is processed. I guess when someone says “pass the salt shaker, please” at the dinner table today, it might not be filled with the white stuff from the blue carton with the yellow-clad girl walking under the umbrella, anymore.