Pairing Herbs with Gourmet Cooking Salts

Interest in fancy-pants salts has been on the rise in recent years, but which salts are worth their salt?

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Gray & Smoked Salt Caramels by Fran’s Chocolates, $24.

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Chart:  Our Guide To The Best Gourmet Salts
Resources: Buy Your Artisan Salt From These Companies 

Wars have been fought and won over salt. Mahatma Gandhi famously launched his first nonviolent protest by taking a pinch of salt from the sea, breaking the law that made it illegal to acquire salt from any source other than the British government. During the American Civil War, the Union army strategically destroyed the salt mines of the South in an effort to cripple the Confederacy. And lately, government health agencies have declared war on the salt in our nation’s beloved processed foods.

Yet at the same time, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in consumer interest in expensive gourmet salts. Even with the economic problems of the last couple of years, HimalaSalt, the leading seller of the popular pink salt from the Himalayan mountains, expects to see a 130 percent growth in sales this year. The company’s founder, Melissa Kushi, attributes this phenomenon to that “part of America that is beginning to look at food the way Europeans, Japanese and other cultures have for hundreds if not thousands of years. Where food comes from and in what season, how it’s produced, how far it traveled, who grew it or made it, and all the gorgeous ways to prepare it—the deeper the education, the higher the quality of ingredients to be found in their cupboards,” she says. “Artisan salts are a natural extension of that education—they’re flavorful, sensual and transforming to any dish.”

She’s not alone: The upsurge in the popularity of healthy, sustainable, local and artisanal foods in recent years has resulted in a mind-boggling array of colorful, chunky salts at specialty food shops throughout the country. Keith Berner was a member of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in Vermont that supplemented farm-fresh produce with sea salt harvested in New England. “It tasted richer and had more depth than the other stuff, and it taught me how artisans can be involved in providing something as prosaic as salt, which I had never considered before,” Berner says.

But is the higher price tag worth it? And is there really something special about these salts of many colors?

The Four Basic Salt Types

There are four basic types of salt: table salt, mined salts, sea salts and kosher salt.

About 100 years ago, the Morton Salt Company fixed its place in our kitchens by adding an anti-caking agent to table salt, creating a perfectly pourable, uniform product, hence the slogan, “When it rains, it pours.” They also included iodine, because many people were deficient in this natural element. (Hardly anyone is anymore.) And to mask its mineral aftertaste, they added a form of processed sugar. Mark Bitterman, co-owner of The Meadow, an artisan food shop in Portland, Oregon, never uses common table salt. “The salt shaker filled with artificially refined, chemical-laden table salt is the ultimate symbol of the chemical industry’s triumph among industrialized food producers,” he says. Even if you don’t take his hard-line approach, mixing salt with sugar might not be the way to go, particularly now that there are so many tasty options.

Mined salts, also called rock salts, are extracted from the earth like other precious mined commodities, and are generally processed by being boiled in brine from which the liquid evaporates, leaving mountains of chunky salt crystals behind. Some of these crystals are actually slabs, which are large enough that you can bake or grill foods directly on them, seasoning the food with a luscious natural brine. Before it is processed, table salt is a mined salt.

Sea salts are formed when salt water evaporates from pools and cliffs. The crystals are then carefully scraped off. There’s a lot of variability in the structure of salts left behind by sea water. Fleur de sel, or “the flower of salt,” is the caviar of all sea salts. Its lacy “flowers” form only on warm days when the winds are calm on the Brittany coast of France.

Kosher salt can be mined or from the sea. Its structure—tiny, stacked pyramids —is what makes it so valuable. Its shape helps it dissolve much better than common table salt, and it’s easy to pick up by the pinch. Plus, the large surface area of the crystals imparts a lot of flavor, so you can use less. Relatively inexpensive kosher salt is the everyday cooking favorite of chefs and food lovers. 

What Salt Means for Your Health

Almost all Americans consume too much salt. In fact, the average American eats about seven pounds of salt each year, and that’s about double what health experts recommend. Avoiding processed foods is one way to reduce sodium intake. Salting after cooking is also an obvious sodium reducer. Relying on a bounty of herbs and spices for flavor is another fantastic way to cut down on that seven pounds. But there’s nothing quite like salt for great cooking.

Salt wears many hats: It elicits wonderful, flavorful compounds from every food you may want to eat. It preserves many of those foods as well. It amplifies and elevates flavors in a way that simply makes things taste more like themselves. It keeps colorful foods colorful. And it helps to combine and seal in flavors as nothing else does. Salt makes foods sing, period.

Gram for gram, fancy gourmet salts contain just as much sodium as common table salt. According to Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies and public health professor at New York University, “Sea salts may taste better than regular salt, but they only have a health advantage if they are used in smaller amounts.” And that’s exactly why some people prefer sea salts—you really can use less and taste more. When gourmet salts are combined with flavor-boosting herbs and spices, and especially if they’re used primarily as a finishing flavor, it’s possible to reduce your sodium intake dramatically. In addition, you may benefit from the trace minerals and elements present in salts from various parts of the globe, and you won’t find any of those nutrients in regular salt.

How to Blend Herb Flavors With Salts

Keep experimenting until you’ve found an incredible salt concoction that you’d be proud to put your name on!

Sara Jenkins, chef-owner of Porchetta, a widely acclaimed pig-focused sandwich shop in New York City, has painted a work of art onto the canvas of sea salt. Her shop sells Porchetta Salt, created with earthy Mediterranean herbs, wild fennel pollen and other “Tuscan engineering” (as the label claims). It has become as great a friend to pork as barbecue sauce ever was and is much lower in calories.

Dario Cecchini, a well-known butcher in Tuscany, has packed about as much aroma, heavy on the lavender and rosemary, as is humanly possible into an ultrafine, fluffy Italian sea salt. His Profumo del Chianti isn’t easy to find, but knowing that something so fine even exists should be an invitation to creativity in your garden and kitchen.

Mark Bitterman, owner of specialty food shop The Meadow in Portland, Oregon, has been obsessed with artisanal salts for years, and he’s found a perfect pairing for—believe it or not—vanilla ice cream! Iburi Jio Cherry salt is cooked over a cherry-wood fire for three days until its flavor is caramel-y, which, it turns out, might be better than chocolate sauce on your ice cream sundae.

Justin Esch and David Lefkow, two guys who love grilling, share a dream of making everything taste like bacon. If you agree that bacon goes with everything, you might like their pork-infused BaconSalt line, which includes several flavors like Hickory, Maple and Peppered.

Create Gourmet Salts

Blend Your Own 

Delicate salt crystals will extract and absorb the essential flavor compounds and oils from your favorite herbs and other added ingredients, creating a perfect infusion. 

Stir any of the following flavoring agents, or a creative combination, into kosher or sea salt. Start with about 1/2 teaspoon per tablespoon of salt, stirring together gently to keep delicate crystals intact. Keep in mind that dried ingredients have more concentrated flavors than their fresh counterparts, so you can use a little less. Store your infused salts in an airtight container for up to a month.

Citrus zest: grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange

Herbs: finely diced or crushed basil, cilantro, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme; or whole bay leaf

Herb seeds: whole caraway, celery, coriander, cumin, fennel, poppy, sesame

Garlic: 3 fresh cloves, finely diced, or 1 teaspoon dried

Onions: finely diced fresh shallots, onions or scallions

Peppers: whole peppercorns or finely diced dried chilies

Seaweed: dried seaweed, shredded or crumbled

Truffles: black or white truffles, grated (These treasures are outrageously pricey, but a very little goes a long way!)

Smoke Your Own

A dash of smoked salts will lend almost any dish the fired-up flavors you would get from grilling. Even a simple salad will soar with the deep, concentrated flavor of smoked salts.

1. Soak wood chips, such as apple wood, hickory or oak, in water for 1 hour.

2. Add the wood chips to your grill’s coals, smoker drawer, or smoker box accessory.

3. Spread 2 cups of kosher or sea salt in a flat pan, and set it over indirect heat.

4. Smoke the salt for an hour over a medium-hot fire (about 300 degrees).

5. Let the salt cool; transfer to an airtight container.

Salty Sweets

For those readers who think of dark chocolate as an herb—and who among us doesn’t?—here is a particularly winning combination: dark chocolate and sea salt. It may sound odd, but your taste buds will thank you if you simply trust us.

Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Bar by Astor Chocolate, $4.  

Gray & Smoked Salt Caramels by Fran’s Chocolates, $24.  

Fleur de Sel Caramels by Recchiuti, $23.  

Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels, $10.99.  

Tabitha Alterman is senior associate editor at our sister publication, Mother Earth News, and wonders if she’ll ever get her sweet tooth back after all this salty research.