Learn about the science of salt—along with the flavor and best uses of increasingly popular artisan salts.
Salt is the only rock we eat. Nearly every recipe, from lentil soup to chocolate chip cookies, calls for salt. It is essential to cooking, and just as essential to our survival. Wars have been waged and international trade routes forged all because of the supreme value of an inorganic mineral. Homer referred to salt as a “divine substance.” The ancient Romans called a man in love salax, or “in a salted state.” Its value is evident in its linguistic progeny: The Latin root word has spawned sauce, salad, sausage, salacious and even salary—but is it worth its salt?
Salt is an essential component of many of the world’s greatest foods, including bread, cheese and cured meats. In recipes, it performs vital functions from thwarting bacteria to regulating yeast. As sodium chloride dissolves in liquid, it splits into individual atoms. Because these molecules are small and mobile, they penetrate other ingredients and cause cellular changes. For example, they draw water out of cells. If enough salt is present, the kinds of bacteria that spoil foods are suppressed, and those that create new flavors thrive. Until modern times, salt was the primary means of making food last longer. We still use salt in preserving foods from bacon to pickles.
In fact, salt has more than 14,000 known uses. Paramount is its ability to amplify flavor in almost all foods. Salt also helps retain color in cooked vegetables, makes water boil faster, helps freeze ice cream, and makes bitter and sour foods taste less so.
Salt is 40 percent sodium, 60 percent chloride. The sodium and chloride ions in our bodies mostly hang out in plasma and other extracellular fluids. There, they carry electrical impulses and, by osmosis, regulate the amount of potassium and other ions inside cells.
The relationship between salt and blood pressure is this: Our bodies retain water in order to maintain a stable concentration of sodium in our blood. The more salt in our bodies, the more water. This, in turn, expands blood vessels, causing blood pressure to spike at least briefly until the kidneys eliminate the salt and water. Many experts believe that continued high blood pressure leads to heart disease, stroke and eventually premature death.
Yet this last supposition has not necessarily been borne out in piles and piles of research. It is true that sodium raises blood pressure. And it is true that hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. But the actual evidence to support the hypothesis that dietary sodium causes hypertension has always been weak. “The salt-hypertension hypothesis is nearly a century old,” says Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. Because researchers only found hypertension in populations that consume a Western diet full of salt-heavy processed food, they concluded that low-sodium diets could prevent the Western diseases. “Of course the same societies that ate little or no salt also ate little or no sugar and white flour,” Taubes says. He believes the cause of our nation’s relatively high frequency of hypertension may lie more with our intake of sugar and refined grains than with our intake of salt. “The studies show that even if you restrict your sodium intake by half, you may only see a reduction in blood pressure of a few points.”
Actually, recent research may support the idea that extremely low salt intake could be bad for us. “The idea that eating less salt can worsen health outcomes may sound bizarre, but it also has biological plausibility,” Taubes says. A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report came to the same conclusion. The report’s researchers say there is not enough evidence to support the dietary guidelines encouraging Americans to reduce sodium consumption to very low levels (1,500 mg per day, or about half a teaspoon), and that doing so can cause harm in some cases.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, says some people are sensitive to salt, and that their blood pressure will go down with reduced salt. But “there’s another (probably larger) percentage of the population who doesn’t respond,” she says. “They are people who can eat as much salt as they want and still their blood pressure is low.”
Aviva Romm, a physician and herbalist, advises balance: “What the conflict between the IOM and the cardiology association illustrates is just how little is known by the medical profession on what constitutes healthy, let alone optimal, nutrition. We do know that following a Mediterranean-style diet, as demonstrated by Dr. Walter Willett as well as other researchers, is protective against diabetes and heart disease, and promotes longevity. This is not a salt-restricted diet—and it is rich in good-quality fats. While the medical establishment is sorting out this salt issue, it is worthwhile for those who wish to promote or restore their health to eat a sensible diet of whole foods, particularly plenty of fresh vegetables and antioxidant-rich fruits. Many American diets are full of salt and this might be OK if the other components of a healthy diet were present.” Still, she thinks it is wise to keep salt intake below 2,300 mg per day.
Nestle says the evidence and guidelines are confusing because studies are impossible to do. “Virtually nobody can consume a diet as low in salt as is recommended because the vast majority of dietary salt is already in processed and pre-prepared foods before anyone eats them.” She thinks it’s smart to eat a balanced diet and pay attention to salt. “Would eating less salt help? Probably yes. How much less? Hard to know. Personally, I’m trying to keep my salt intake as low as I can, but I suspect it’s still way above recommended levels.”
If you do choose to limit sodium, the unquestionable No. 1 way to do it is to cook your own food. Processed foods and restaurant foods contain the most sodium. This will surely improve your diet in a number of other ways, so that’s good enough reason to give it a shot. Once you’ve cut out the packaged food, you will certainly still use salt in your home cooking. If you wish to reduce your salt use there, experiment with seasoning food by other means: fresh herbs, pungent spices, citrus juices, vinegar, green onions, sesame seeds and the like. Consider using supernutritious seaweed in place of salt, too.
It takes several weeks to get used to eating less salt. Salt cravings are powerful—according to a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, drugs such as cocaine and heroin may be so addictive because they activate the same pleasure centers in the brain as salt. If you’re waiting for your palate to adjust, try low-sodium seasoning blends such as Penzeys Spices “Forward!” or a homemade herb and salt mix (see examples in the article Make Your Own Gourmet Salt Blends).
Sometimes you must use salt to perform a function such as drying out an ingredient, raising the boiling point or inhibiting yeast growth. When the primary function salt provides is to add flavor, however, consider skipping the salt during cooking. Instead, use fine artisan finishing salts, such as fleur de sel, sel gris or Maldon sea salt.
The art of harvesting salt for unrefined, minimally processed sea salts has seen a resurgence in recent years. Melissa Kushi, founder of HimalaSalt, an ethically sourced artisan Himalayan salt company, says this is because Americans increasingly care about food the way Europeans, Japanese and other cultures have for 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.”
Salt can be a whole food, a real food that comes from a specific place. It is abundant in our oceans (sea salts) and in rock deposits (mined salts). “Almost no place on earth is without salt,” writes Mark Kurlansky in Salt: A World History, a book that is far more fascinating than you might imagine. Unfortunately, the vast majority of salt available commercially has been produced through an industrial process that includes chemical washing to remove flavorful and healthy “impurities” such as magnesium and potassium. In most cases, aluminum-based anti-caking agents are then added because the natural moisture has been removed. Additionally, the industrialization of salt has eliminated the jobs of tens of thousands of small salt makers around the world.
Artisan salts contain as much sodium as table salt, but they have fine flavors that allow you to use less and taste more. You’ll also benefit from trace minerals and elements present in unrefined salts not found in common salt. Modern nutrition writers are now arguing that we evolved to eat whole foods—potatoes, not potato chips. So there may be some advantage to eating unrefined salts straight from the source.
Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow, a gourmet food shop in Portland, Oregon, and New York City, uses fleur de sel for everyday cooking and likes sel gris to finish roasted meats and vegetables. “Artisan salt can be used in a lot of surprising ways,” he says. Two of his favorite combos are Andes Mountain Rose salt on popcorn and Kauai Guava smoked salt on fruit salad. But is artisan salt worth its price? “Salt is the most ancient, universally recognized food in the world,” Bitterman says. “There’s no other ingredient except water that costs you less. And there’s no other ingredient, period, that does more. High-quality, artisan salt is the most cost-effective ingredient on the face of the earth.”
Food Editor Tabitha Alterman thinks food artisans are the salt of the earth, for example those folks that are actively reclaiming the nearly extinct artisan salt trade on seacoasts from Maine to Brittany.