"What's the deal with sea salt—is it better for you than regular table salt?” —Alex Corton
Arguably, all salt is sea salt, since the vast salt mines that give us table salt and rock salt (for snowy roads and old-school ice-cream churners) were once prehistoric inland oceans that became buried in geologic upheavals. I learned this firsthand when I stood 650 feet beneath the tall-grass prairie that now covers the ancient Permian Sea, at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Which was fascinating, once I forgot that I was in Jules Verne territory and stopped hyperventilating.
So what’s all the fuss about? Sea salt, the result of evaporated seawater, undergoes minimal processing, so it retains trace amounts of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Table salt, on the other hand, is mined from those aforementioned underground salt deposits, stripped of any trace minerals, and processed so its crystals are finer and thus dissolve more readily in food. Table salt usually contains an anticaking agent as well as added iodine, a standard issue additive since the 1920s, geared to counteract the then-growing public health problem of Iodine Deficiency Disorders. (These days, more is known about sources of iodine; they include fish, milk, potatoes, almonds, and spinach and other dark greens.)
Generally speaking, sea salt is the less-processed choice. It’s true that, depending on where it comes from, it contains varying (tiny) amounts of minerals. Those minerals, however, are easily obtained from other foods, so if you eat a well-balanced diet, odds are, you have nothing to worry about. And if it is additives that concern you, do read the label when shopping; depending on the brand, iodine and an anticaking agent may be included in sea salts too. You should also be aware that Hawaiian red and black sea salts—which I always thought came by their color because they are evaporated from clay- or lava-lined pools—are actually mixed with clay or activated charcoal. I know that ingesting clay or activated charcoal can help with all manner of gut problems, but, in this case, they still sound like additives to me.
Now, I don’t want to get sidetracked by the unfortunate fact that Americans eat too much sodium—more than double the amount recommended by the American Heart Association. We all know that a sodium overload (caused in large part by eating too much processed food or restaurant meals) can cause a cascade of health problems in many people. But I must admit I was gobsmacked when I first read that a 2011 nationwide survey of 1,000 people by the American Heart Association revealed that 61 percent believed sea salt was a low-sodium alternative to table salt.
Now that I think about it, I am not surprised in the least. Of course, gram for gram, sea salt and table salt contain the same amount of sodium, and this is probably a good time to mention that the words salt and sodium aren’t synonymous: Salt is a combination of sodium (40 percent) and chloride (60 percent). For more details, you can work your way through this technical explanation or kick back and enjoy Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ode to NaCl, which should be required listening in every middle-school science class in the country.
Where the confusion lies, I think, is in the fact that we usually measure various salts by volume, not by weight. Although sea salt is available in fine crystals, what most people think of as sea salt is coarser-grained, like Brittany’s famed sel gris, harvested from the bottom of the salt pan; fleur de sel, the light, white crystals that are skimmed from the surface of those ponds; or Maldon, the crunchy, flat flakes of sea salt harvested in England since the Middle Ages. A tablespoon of any of those larger, more irregularly shaped crystals of sea salt is going to have less sodium chloride (i.e., less sodium) than a tablespoon of iodized table salt because it will contain more air between those rough crystals. This discrepancy is especially important in baking; don’t substitute sea salt for table salt (or vice versa) in recipes.
So what do I use, and why? Following the lead of many chefs I know, in the kitchen, I rely on Diamond Crystal kosher salt for cooking. Like table salt, kosher salt is mined, but Diamond brand doesn’t contain iodine or additives. It’s inexpensive, and its larger crystals make it easy to grab from a salt pig while you’re at the stove. (BTW, the term kosher in the salt world doesn’t mean kosher in the usual sense, of adhering to Jewish dietary laws; all salt, which is neither animal nor dairy, is pareve. Instead, it means that the salt is the right coarseness for drawing out as much blood as possible during the koshering process. If the salt is too fine, it will dissolve on the surface of the poultry or meat; if it’s too coarse, it won’t draw out enough blood.)
Although I think seafood or greens taste especially delicious when cooked with fleur de sel or sel gris, I usually reserve sea salt for finishing a dish or seasoning at the table. I prefer that cleaner flavor and more interesting texture to table salt. Almost anything, for instance, tastes better topped with a few spiky, crunchy shards of Maldon. I’m also looking forward to experimenting with the Himalayan salt I received at Christmas. Considered a rock salt, it’s mined in Pakistan and ranges in color from dull white to rosy pink (due to iron oxide). Just looking at it makes me crave lamb curry.
Sea salt is a relatively inexpensive luxury (a little goes a long way), so try a few and see which one appeals to you. Grocery stores have a good variety, and a boutique shop like The Meadow will knock your socks off. And who knew? There is even a Sea Salt of the Month Club.
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