A person is said to be the “salt of the earth”, but what does that mean? When someone is said to be the salt of the earth it means they are of great value and reliably. I think sometimes it means that someone is down to earth -unpretentious. The origin of the phrase is found in the bible Matthew 5:13
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men”
The part that interests me however is the word “savor”. Salt is one of the most basic of seasonings. Without it, many foods taste flat. It also played an important role in food preservation. It allowed us to travel the world by insuring a source of protein would be available on long journeys where hunting for fresh game was not convenient or even possible.
We shouldn’t just add salt willy-nilly to our dishes. We need to be thoughtful about how its used. Too little and it doesn’t do its job. Too much and it can ruin a meal completely.
There is a resurgent interest in salt. Sea salt, flaky salt, kosher salt – the varieties can be dizzying. Let’s see if we can make some sense of it all.
Table Salt – This is the most familiar of the salts. It comes in a fine gain to be used in a shaker to season food at the table. It is typically mined from underground salt deposits. It is heavily processed to eliminate minerals. Table Salt is often “iodized” to prevent goiter (enlarged thyroid). The thyroid enlarges to try to get more iodine. Our bodies cannot synthesize iodine which is a mineral component of the hormone thyroxin. Thyroxin is responsible for maintain a person’s metabolic rate. It was added to salt to prevent iodine deficiency in the 1920’s. Because of its fine texture, table salt contains about 2325 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon. This is something to keep in mind when using it for cooking if you are substituting for some other kind of salt.
Pickling Salt – This ultra-fine salt is used in pickling and brining and dissolves in water quickly. It does not contain iodine nor any other trace minerals that could cause discoloration of the preserved food. When a small amount is added to the oil of popping corn, it evenly salts the popcorn without being grainy.
Kosher Salt – It is a course-grained salt make from salt crystals. They can be made from evaporated brine or mined. It may also contain an anti-caking agent. It usually does not contain iodine. Kosher salt’s original purpose was to kosher meat meaning to remove blood from the meat. Kosher salt can vary in size and shape between brands. That means that it won’t measure out consistently. For example, Morton’s Kosher Salt is twice as salty as Diamond Crystal. If the brand of salt is not called out in the recipe, use caution. You can always add more salt later. Kosher salt is most often used where you are initially seasoning food, steaks for example. Its pretty easy to pick up with your fingers, sprinkle and see exactly where and how much salt you have used.
Sea Salt – Sea Salt is produced through evaporation of ocean water or water from saltwater lakes. Depending upon where it comes from, also left behind are trace minerals and elements that add flavor and color. Flakey salt is merely salt crystals formed when saltwater can evaporate at a slow rate of speed. You can make this yourself at home using inexpensive kosher salt and water. If you are interested in doing it, turn to the internet for instructions. Fleur de Sel is a finishing salt revered by chef’s everywhere for its delicate crunchy texture. Sel Gris is a more course granular salt. It comes from the same solar evaporation as fleur de sel but comes into contact with the salt pan before being raked giving it, its grey color. It is denser than table or finishing salt so there is a lot more salt in the same volume of sel gris.
Pink or Himalayan Salt – It is made from rock crystals that have been mined from areas close to Himalayas, quite often Pakistan. The pink color derives from trace minerals like magnesium, potassium and calcium. If there are any health benefits beyond its flavor or lovely color, they hasn’t been proven. The additional minerals help to dull salt’s sharpness. Use as a finishing salt or in a relaxing bath.
Black Hawaiian Salt – Great for finishing pork and seafood. It gets its deep black color from the addition of activated charcoal.
Alaea Salt – Unrefined red Hawaiian salt. It gets its color form the reddish iron-rich volcanic clay alea. It has been used for cleansing and purification for centuries. It adds a lovely finish and great flavor to seafood and meat. It’s often used in Hawaiian dishes like poke and pipikaula, a Hawaiian jerky.
Smoked Salt – Salt is slow smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire and adds a smoky flavor to dishes. Taste will vary from brand to brand based upon the wood used. It is best used for flavoring meats and heartier vegetables, like potatoes.
Regardless of what salt you use, it is important to season a dish at every stage of cooking and to adjust the seasoning at the end. Salt helps draw out moisture from vegetables when sautéing. It can be used to draw out moisture from potatoes, prior to making potato pancakes, or aubergine and zucchini prior to grilling. Salting baked goods adds a savory counterpoint to sweetness that elevates the baking.
There was a time when salt was traded for an equal amount of gold. That’s no longer the case, but salt still holds an important place in cooking and baking that is quite valuable.