As a child, I would while away the time after dinner, when I had to sit at the table until everyone else finished, by filling a teaspoon with table salt and quietly licking its contents. I have no idea what prompted me to do so, except that I liked the taste.
In retrospect, I can say that some part of me must have recognized salt as an element essential to all humans; something without which we cannot live. Salt not only enhances the taste of our foods, but it helps us maintain electrolyte balance inside and outside of cells and triggers the production of saliva and gastric juices, thus paving the way for healthy digestion. While too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and excess fluid retention, a moderate intake is necessary for good health.
“Salty” is one of the five identified tastes, and something humans crave as part of our flavor palette. In Ayurvedic medicine, which has six identified tastes, it’s believed trigger a slew of complex chemical processes within the body, along with having a calming effect on vata dosha, while stimulating both pitta and kapha doshas.
Like me, you might have grown up with Morton’s salt. I figured that this was the only salt there was. But that was common table salt. As a matter of fact, Morton had a salt collection operation on the western shores of the San Francisco Bay, just about a mile from my home. Salty sea water was let into “trays” or “ponds” on the land bordering the bay, then the water was allowed to evaporate, leaving the salt residue, which was then raked into large, white mountains to sit in the sun. This is the basic procedure still used today for collecting table salt, which is usually then processed to remove everything but the sodium chloride (the salt part of salt) and sprayed with iodine and packed into a container along with some kind of anti-caking agent.
My taste in salt has greatly expanded.
Today, we have access to many types of salt. Some of them owe their unique properties to the methods used to harvest them (grey French sea salt, which comes from the Brittany region of France’s Atlantic coast and is collected by hands using traditional wooden tools); the places from which they come (pink Himalayan salt, mined from the mountains of Pakistan); or the natural trace minerals that remain in them (“black” salt found in India, or red Hawaiian salt). These are the salts that have been flavored by nature.
Then there are the salts that have been flavored through the addition of other flavors, such as truffles or curry powder or citrus rind or even smoke. In high-quality flavored salts, the flavoring comes from another natural product or process (as in smoked). In lesser-quality salts, the effect is produced with synthetic flavoring.
There are also differences in salt textures: coarse grain (which needs to be ground) and flake (which dissolve quickly and are great in recipes, like cheese, where quick, thorough dissolving is important) in addition to the more pedestrian granular table salt.
For a cook, the range of options is almost limitless. I now use unrefined Himalayan pink rock salt, freshly ground in a surabachi (a Japanese mortar and pestle, as my everyday salt. I find that it has a more distinctive, almost sweet flavor. (Sometimes I do use “sea salt” from the health-food store, which is harvested the same way as regular table salt, but maintains its trace minerals and doesn’t have an anti-caking agent.)
If I want to add a smoky flavor to a dish, like split pea soup (no ham-hock for this girl), I’ll use a smoked salt. In high-quality versions, the salt is actually smoked on different types of wood to imbue it with a specific flavor.
I love using a dash of sulphery black salt in traditional Indian dishes. And a treasured gift one year from a dear friend was a homemade citrus salt, bright and fresh and perfect on sliced tomatoes.
Making flavored salt isn’t difficult. You just start with good-quality, non-chemically processed salt and add in dried ingredients that you like for flavor (citrus peel, mushrooms, herbs and spices, as examples). But while it’s fun to experiment with your own, I recommend checking out salts from the pros that have this art down. You can even get samplers, which are perfect for beginning your salt exploration. You’ll be amazed what’s out there, and you’ll probably get some ideas for your own creations!