A staple ingredient in home kitchens for centuries, salt helps you bring out the flavor of food and preserves meats and vegetables for extended periods of time by drawing out the moisture from them.
Ask any food expert about the composition of salt, and they’ll tell you that, in its simplest form, it consists of approximately 98% sodium chloride (a chemical compound of equal parts sodium and chloride ions) and 2% trace minerals.
While the trace minerals will vary with the variety and origin of the salt, the most prevalent ones are almost always sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Some salts, like Himalayan pink salt, contain sulfur, giving them a more distinct taste and smell than others.
For a reasonably straightforward ingredient, selecting salt at the grocery store can be a surprisingly tricky thing to do. Look for it in the spice aisle, and you’re likely to find a mindboggling number of options ranging from table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and Himalayan salt.
Suppose you’re looking for sea salt. Even then, you’re usually confronted with a choice between Pacific Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Celtic Sea salt, and, in some cases, French fleur de sel…
With all the brands and varieties, and the hefty price differences between them, it’s only natural to ask which salt is truly best for cooking (and which will be nothing but a waste of your money).
In this post, I will walk you through the different types of salt and help you separate nutritional facts from marketing fiction so that you can stock your pantry with the best kind of salt without falling victim to the gimmicks that most brands try to fool you with.
So keep on reading if that sounds like what you came here to find out. And, once you get to the end of it, don’t forget to share your thoughts and experiences with selecting salt in the comments below.
Is All Salt the Same?
When it comes down to your choice at the supermarket, there are three types of salt you need to know about (with a virtually limitless amount of brands, packages, and varieties spinning off from each).
There’s sea salt, which is made by evaporating salty seawater. Then there’s rock salt mined from the underground salt deposits of long-dried seas from ancient times. Last but not least, there’s table salt, which is basically heavily processed rock salt (more on that below).
As we already established, salt consists of sodium chloride and more or less similar kinds of concentrations of trace minerals. So the difference between these types comes from:
- Their origins;
- Their textures;
- Their smell and taste;
- The additives that they contain (or not).
Keep these three traits in mind as you read through the rest of this post, and remember their order. This is because the origin of a salt determines its mineral contents, subsequently affecting its texture, aroma, and flavor.
Some producers will add additives to their salt to keep the crystals from clumping together and preserve their texture. The question for you as a consumer is whether you’re okay with eating anti-caking agents along with your steak or not.
At the end of the day, it’s your kitchen—and your choice. In case anyone’s asking, my two cents are for you to check out the facts that I’m about to share with you, then take them in mind and decide what’s best for you.
Table salt is the cheapest salt at the store and the kind you’ll find the most in American kitchens. Simply put, table salt is fine-grain rock salt with a few additives (typically iodine and an anti-caking agent).
The iodine helps prevent goiter, an abnormal swelling of children’s necks resulting from the enlargement of their thyroid glands. Experts claim that as much as 90% of the endemic goiter cases worldwide are caused by iodine deficiency, making them generally preventable.
Apart from the added iodine, most table salts a few decades ago were mainly additive-free. There was just one problem: salt tends to absorb moisture, which causes it to clump.
To keep the table salt from clumping, home cooks and restaurant owners had to put rice grains in their salt shakers. Anyone who didn’t do that had a pretty hard time getting salt out.
So salt producers started looking for ways to make table salt that wouldn’t clump—and they found that adding anti-caking agents used in processed foods worked well. And that’s how table salt started having sodium aluminosilicate, a synthetic mixture of sodium, aluminum, and silicon oxides, on its ingredients list.
Some producers will go the extra mile and add sugar to your salt. Frankly speaking, I don’t get why. And I’m probably not the only one, as many home cooks avoid buying table salt for the exact same reasons.
So does that mean you should stop buying table salt? Not necessarily.
Compared to other salts, table salt has a few advantages. Perhaps the two most prominent of them are its plain taste and fine texture, which make it perfect for adding to doughs.
When you’re baking bread, you don’t want to break someone’s teeth by adding coarse sea salt, which usually has a hard time dissolving in water. You add salt that’s delicate—and table salt perfectly fits that description.
So what you can do is buy your table salt iodized and free from any other additives. The issue is that such table salt is becoming increasingly hard to find, which is why many consumers go for one of the alternatives below.
Okay with anti-caking agents? Some readers are, and that’s a totally fine choice. If you find yourself to be one of them, my pick for you is Morton Regular Salt (4 pack, 26 oz each).
Kosher salt is a type of salt that has large, irregularly shaped flakes. Just like its counterparts, it’s used in cooking and baking to bring out the flavor in food. But it originates from the traditions of Judaism—and has a special place in Jewish cuisine.
The name “kosher salt” comes from the Hebrew word kasher, which means “to make fit” or “to make proper.” True to its name, this flaky salt is used for preparing meats in a way that makes them fit for consumption in adherence to the strict Jewish dietary law of Kashrut.
Generally speaking, Jews who observe these laws do not consume meat and any other food products from animals without proper preparation. This preparation includes drawing the blood out from the raw meat.
Coarse and flaky, kosher salt makes the process of drawing blood out from raw meat more effective. As a side effect, it’s also easy to pick up by hand and portion in pinches, which is why most people will store it in open containers and will seldom put it in shakers.
Kosher salt comes from salt mines; it’s considered to be a variety of rock salt. Unlike table salt, it is usually free from iodine and additives, turning it into an affordable natural salt for your daily cooking. Most consumers who want “regular salt” without the extra ingredients tend to buy kosher salt.
The best uses for kosher salt are undoubtedly seasoning, brining, and marinating meats. As with any other salt, you can just as well use it for dressing salads, adding to doughs, or intensifying the flavor of sauces, soups, and stews.
Are you looking for kosher salt? Consider David's Kosher Salt (2.5 lb), also known as the most kosherest salt of them all (check out the packaging, and you’ll see what I’m talking about).
Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater. It’s as simple as that, folks. This type of salt is made by heating seawater to its boiling point, at which point the water starts to evaporate and leaves behind coarse, irregularly-shaped salt crystals in solid form on the ground.
Compared to other types of salt, sea salt contains a higher concentration of trace minerals like potassium, calcium, and iron. These minerals give it its unique smell and distinct taste of the sea. Since it isn’t as heavily processed or refined as table salt, many home cooks prefer it.
According to encyclopedia Britannica, sea salt contains 77.8% sodium chloride, 10.9% magnesium chloride, 4.7% magnesium sulfate, 3.6% calcium sulfate, 2.5% potassium chloride, 0.2% magnesium bromide, and 0.3% calcium carbonate.
Though it can come from practically any water body with a sufficiently high salinity level across the world, the bags you’ll find in most stores are normally extracted from the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Celtic Sea.
My favorite sea salt, and the one I cook with daily, is Maldon Sea Salt (8.5 oz). If there is such a thing as traditions in salt production, Maldon is one of the few companies that are still around to protect them. It’s a fourth-generation family business that extracts salt from the Blackwater estuary in Maldon, England (population 64,4250).
Yes, Maldon salt is expensive (after all, England has never been known for producing the cheapest things). And yes, you can smell and taste the difference.
Fleur de sel (which translates literally as “flower of salt” from French) is a more expensive and sophisticated kind of sea salt from the land of fancy hats and elaborate sauces. It’s harder to find and is carried by only well-stocked supermarkets. With an intense aroma, rich flavor, and delicate texture, fleur de sel can significantly enhance any dish you use it on.
When you’re in a mood for splurging on salt, give it a try. I recommend Tablissima's Fleur de Sel from Guerande, which comes with a Protected Geographical Indication (P.G.I.) stamp from the European Union as a guarantee for its authenticity.
Himalayan salt has a misleading name since it doesn’t come from the Himalayas! It’s actually mined 186 miles away at the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan.
Pink in color, Himalayan salt’s hue will vary with the mineral contents of the deposit that the crystals in your salt shaker came from. This type of salt contains 98% sodium chloride and 2% minerals, including potassium, magnesium, and calcium.
In a way, its composition is very similar to that of table salt, even if the minerals give it a different color. But what makes Himalayan salt stand out from all other salts on this list is its high sulfur contents, which provide a pungent smell and metallic taste.
Some love it; others don’t. For example, my wife won’t eat without Himalayan salt on the table. Me, I’m more of a sea salt kind of guy. For one reason or another, sulfur smells off to me—and reminds me of the smell of the water from the open showers on the beach. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not the most appetizing smell that comes to mind.
A general-purpose salt, use Himalayan salt to enhance the flavor of meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables. With its unusual color, some chefs like to use it as much for decorative garnish as they do for adding flavor.
When in doubt, buy Sherpa Pink Himalayan Salt (2 lbs) from The San Francisco Salt Company. It’s high-quality, tastes good, and sells for what I consider to be a reasonable price (the same can’t be said for all of its counterparts).
How Many Salt Varieties Are There?
One study by researchers at the North Carolina State University’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences tested as many as 45 salts to determine their flavor profile.
Three of the brands whose samples were tested in the study hadn’t disclosed the origin of their salt, so I took their products out. I also added smoked Maldon salt, which hadn’t made it to the original set of samples of the researchers.
So I ended up with a list of the 43 most common salt varieties from across the world (sorted alphabetically by country of origin):
|Murray River Salt||Australia||Peach||Mineral|
|Bali Reef Sea Salt||Bali||White||Savory and acidic|
|Bolivian Rose Salt||Bolivia (Andes Mountains)||Pink||Savory|
|Pure Ocean Salt||Brazil||White||Balanced|
|Sal Grosso||Brazil||White||Savory and acidic|
|Cyprus Silver Sea Salt||Cyprus||White||Savory and acidic|
|Fleur de Sel de Camaraque||France||Grey||Intensely salty, savory|
|Fluer de sel de Guerande||France||Grey||Savory|
|Light Grey Celtic Sea Salt||France||Grey||Balanced|
|Frontier Sea Salt||France||White||Intensely salty, savory|
|Paphaku White Salt||Hawaii||White||Salty and acidic|
|Haleaka Red Salt||Hawaii||Brownish-red||Acidic|
|Kilauea Black salt||Hawaii||Black||Balanced|
|Palm Island Red Gold Salt||Hawaii||Brownish-red||Balanced, mineral|
|White Silver Salt||Hawaii||White||Balanced, mineral|
|Palm Island Bamboo Jade||Hawaii||Olive green||Balanced, mineral|
|Black Lava Salt||Hawaii||Black||Balanced, mineral|
|Kala Namak Salt||India||Pink with black||Savory and acidic|
|Ittica d’Or Sicilian Sea Salt||Italy (Sicily)||White||Balanced|
|Alessi sea salt Mediterranean||Italy||White||Savory and acidic|
|Okinawa Shima Masu Sea Salt||Japan||White||Savory and acidic|
|Shinkai Deep Sea Salt||Japan||White||Balanced|
|Korea Bay Gray Salt||Korea||Grey||Savory and acidic|
|Flor de Sal de Manzanilla||Mexico||White||Savory and acidic|
|Moroccan Atlantic Sea Salt||Morocco||White||Savory and acidic|
|Pacific Natural Sea Salt||New Zealand||White||Savory|
|New Zealand Organic Sea Salt||New Zealand||White||Savory|
|Himalayan Pink Salt||Pakistan||Pink||Salty, savory and metallic|
|Pangasinan Star Fleur de Sel||Philippines||White||Balanced|
|Atlantic Sea Salt||Portugal||White||Savory and acidic|
|Sal Marin de Noirmouteir||Portugal||White||Savory|
|Halon Mon Sea Salt||United Kingdom (Wales)||White||Acidic|
|Maldon Sea Salt||United Kingdom (Maldon)||White||Savory and acidic|
|Maldon Smoked Sea Salt||United Kingdom (Maldon)||White||Smokey and savory|
|Sonoma Pacific Sea Salt||United States (West Coast)||White||Intensely salty|
|Redmond Real Salt Rock Salt||United States (Utah)||Pink||Savory|
|Nutra SaltTM (66% less|
|United States (New Jersey)||White||Mild|
|Morton’s Lite Salt||United States (Illinois)||White||Balanced|
|Morton’s Salt Balance||United States (Illinois)||White||Balanced|
|French’s No Salt||United States||White||Mild|
|Maine Sea salt||United States (Maine)||White||Mild|
|Vietnamese Pearl Sea Salt||Vietnam||White||Balanced, mineral|
The best salt for cooking is the one that you and your household like the most. Though it ultimately boils down to sodium chloride plus/minus a few minerals, those minerals make a difference and give each variety a unique smell and taste of its own.
Cooking is as much about knowing the facts and following the recipes as it is about experimentation and discovery on your own. So the best thing to do now is to add a few of these salts to your wishlist—and try them out one at a time until you find the brand and variety you like the most.