In this post:
- How you can test the difference between table salt and natural salt
- The texture
- The taste
- When to use table salt and when to use natural salt – setting aside the health issues
- The health benefits of natural salt
- The advantages of trace elements in natural salt
- Not especially nice things which are added to table salt
- Anti-caking chemicals
- What is kosher salt?
- What is the choice between the various different types of natural salts?
- Rock salt
- Sea salt
- The difference between fleur de sel and gross sel
- A rather nice story about the history of the sea salt process at Maldon
- Alternatives to salt
“The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.”
The difference between table salt and natural salt – from an eating point of view
Test out the differences between table salt and natural salt for yourself
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that table salt tastes the same as, say, Maldon salt. The best way to tell the difference is to try yourself.
Try a blind tasting! Put a teaspoon of each on a saucer – don’t try and distinguish between different types on natural salt, just use table salt and your natural salt of choice.
Dip a wet finger into one. Taste and consider. Rinse your mouth with fresh water. Repeat with the other salt.
Unless you’re really not trying you will notice two differences:
The most obvious is the texture – the Maldon salt has a sort of snowy, downy, flaky texture. Personally I prefer this to the rocky type of natural salt. It certainly does give a different ‘mouthfeel’. Considering that natural salt appeals to other senses, namely touch and sight, it’s worth putting it on the table in something gorgeous. Charlotte Tabor designs beautiful salt and pepper pinch pots – treat yourself to one of those, or go to my pinterest salt and salt cellars board for more inspiration.
“So much of the flavour of the salt is in the shape of the crystals and the way they are experienced on the tongue. Fine ground table salt is a bare-knuckled and viciously blunt weapon. Maldon’s flakes release their saltiness with a sweet precision, and add another layer of texture, of crunch. They are tactile.”
Jay Raynor, Desert Island Dishes
The table salt has a certain bitterness. The Maldon salt is a little bit sweet.
When to use table salt and when to use natural salt – setting aside the health issues
Some of the most helpful and sensible information I found when I was researching this post came from a man making a comment on a Chowhound discussion forum with the nom de plume of Mr Taster.
He describes a Cooks Illustrated taste test. “Maldon came out on top not because of its flavour. The big difference was texture. And in the baking test simple Morton’s table salt won. Again, not because of any inherent flavour of the salt, but because finer crystals dissolve better in the biscuit dough.” He goes on to explain that “in cooked applications like chicken stock etc the flavour differences were minimal because of dilution.”
So the conclusion was that it’s worth paying the extra for salt you’re using for ‘finishing’, but not for normal cooking. Or as Rezpeni, another member of this group summarises, “Obviously you wouldn’t bake with Maldon any more than you would fry with a $40 bottle of olive oil, that’s just common sense.”
But what about the health benefits?
However, there are health aspects to consider.
Salt, these days, has become the demon in the kitchen. It’s the combination of sodium and chloride, forming NaCl (salt effectively) which causes all the trouble. It binds water in the blood stream, thereby increasing blood pressure and this leads to strokes and heart problems among other things.
The advantages of trace elements in natural salt
But respected author, Pat Thomas, writing on the The Ecologist blog , explains that table salt, like refined sugar, contains no trace elements. Some natural salts and unrefined sugars contain over a hundred trace elements which help the body metabolise better. In the case of salt, she points out that the unrefined salts found in either sea or rock salt “contain a broad spectrum of trace elements, often in the same balance as are found in the human blood. These include magnesium and potassium, necessary for health and which help the body metabolise the sodium better.”
It’s all a balance
Salt is essential for life, among other things, helping the brain and nerves to send electrical impulses around the body. You need salt…. just not too much.
What’s added is as bad as what’s taken out in table salt
Not only are these helpful minerals taken out in table salt, but often two things are added, neither of which are healthy.
A lot of table salt has iodine added to it. This is because in 1995 the World Health Assembly recommended that it be incorporated into all salt in an effort to combat iodine-deficiency-related diseases. Their intentions were good, but most populations in the West don’t need additional iodine – in fact too much iodine can be harmful. If you are really concerned that you are short of iodine you should consult your doc. Often, kelp supplements are the answer.
A lot of table salt contains anti-caking chemicals to enable it to pour more smoothly and easily (maybe so that you use more?). Three which are quite often used are:
- Sodium ferrocyanide
- Potassium ferrocyanide
- Calcium ferrocyanide
I’m not sure I’m so keen on ingesting any of those….
What is kosher salt?
Kosher salt is, usually, ordinary refined table salt which has been forced into a flat, plate-like shape by pushing it between rollers. It can also be made using an evaporation process which results in a pyramidal shape.
Either way the grains are bigger – it’s easier to pick up in your fingers and spread over food. This helps with the removal of surface blood from meat as required by the Jewish religion. ‘Kosher’ is the term used to describe food approved under the Kashrut dietary laws. The meat is soaked, drained, covered with a layer of salt for an hour or so, and then rinsed off again. Compare this method to dry-aged beef.
Most kosher salt does not include iodine, but much does include anti-caking chemicals. And it doesn’t have anything like the feel of, for example, Maldon salt.
So what is the choice between the various different types of natural salts?
Well, of course there are many. There are two types – those harvested from the sea, and those derived from salt mines. If harvested from a polluted sea the trace elements may include contaminants.
Of the rock salt varieties there are, among others:
- Himalayan pink salt from Pakistan – this contains more potassium than most salts. It’s iron oxide that makes it pink.
- Tidman’s (which merged with Maldon in the 1970s – according to the website, “this salt puts up the sort of fight that grinders appreciate”)
- Blue Persian salt comes from Iran
Of the sea salt varieties there are, among others:
From the UK
- Maldon Salt,
- Cornish Sea Salt
- Halen Môn.
- There’s the beautiful Norður salt which comes from Iceland (also very low in sodium).
- There’s Sel de Guérande (Celtic salt) from Brittany (which has the least sodium content – it’s grey and a little moist). I asked Kristell Darchy, who imports this salt into Britain what the difference was between the fleur de sel and the gross sel – they both come from the same area. Follow this link to buy this wonderful salt.
- There’s beautiful pink lake salt from Australia, as described by Hilary McNevin, writing for The Guardian, in this link.
There are many, many other types of both types of salt.
“Salt is born of the purest parents: the sun and the sea.”
The difference between fleur de sel and gross sel
“The fleur de sel is the harvest of the first layer, which can only be done during very specific weather conditions – hence it’s more rare, and more expensive.
Fleur de sel is also more expensive because it’s naturally delicate and white, and as it is the top layer it doesn’t touch the clay below, so it is very pure. Another benefit of its being the top layer is that it absorbs the scents of surrounding flowers. They call fleur de sel ‘the caviar of salt’.
Gros sel is the coarse salt in the layers underneath and it becomes coarser and greyer as it gets closer to the clay. There’s more of it, but it’s still very prized salt due to the flavour and the quality and the fact that it is unprocessed and hand-harvested, this product has earned worldwide respect. It is owned by a cooperative so the ethos is very important as well. There is a lot more information on their website.
Sel de Guérande is very high in minerals compared to most unprocessed salts in the world, and it’s recently been mentioned in the BBC programme, A Matter of Taste.
A rather nice story about the history of the sea salt process at Maldon
There’s an uncorroborated, but rather nice, legend described on the Maldon site. Apparently, a couple of millennia ago, Casius Petrox, a Roman commander, was posted to Maldon. The British weather wasn’t any more clement then than it is now it seems – there was fog, damp, and icy winds – and a hot bath in local sea water was found to help relieve the misery. One day his slaves got a bit overenthusiastic with the heating process and inadvertently produced salt. Salt was a valuable commodity in those days, so Petrox gave up soldiering and became a salt maker.
Alternatives to salt
If you are trying to cut down on salt, try substituting herbs, spices, pepper, lemon and garlic.
You can read a Guest Contributor post by Kristell Darchy on seaweed by following this link.
You can read a Guest Contributor post on the beauty of Icelandic sea salt by Søren Rosenkilde by following this link.