Salt of the Earth: What You Need to Know about Salt

Unprocessed salts from around the world are a treat for your palate—and your well being.

| May/June 2002

  • Black Lava Hawaiian Sea Salt, mixed with lava rock for a high mineral content
  • Gray Salt from France
  • Fleur de sel salt crystals form on the surface of crystalizers early in the morning, with a little help from the sun.

  • Salts courtesy The Spice House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Photos by Joe Coca

  • Pakistan Black Sea Salt
  • Red Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt, mixed with alae clay
  • Sarah’s Sea Salt with Pacific Rim spices combines pure, medium-grain salt from the Mediterranean with star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and other spices.

“In it, we taste infinitude,” Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of salt in Elementary Odes (Odas Elementales, 1954). Salt has been called the dust of the ocean and the essence of life. Salt is sacred. Entire civilizations have risen around it. It’s part of wedding ceremonies and religious offerings around the world. In Hawaiian tradition, the elders use salt as a purifier in all medicine and ritual. Our word “salary” is a daily reminder that salt served as legal tender in ancient Roman times.

Salt is vital to our health and well-being. There is nothing more elementally of this planet, and of who we are, than its shimmering crystals and its unmistakable taste.

But not all salts are the same. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, published in China in 2700 bc, discusses more than forty different kinds. And in recent years, expensive, glittering sea salts are replacing regular, cheap table salts in the kitchens of natural homes and celebrity chefs. So what’s going on?

The salt crop

Whether mined inland from ancient deposits or evaporated along coastal shores, all salts originate in the sea. In its natural form, salt consists of eighty-plus different minerals, including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, potassium and yes, even gold. The stuff that gives salt its characteristic saltiness, sodium chloride, makes up about 78 percent of this highly variable mix.

Natural sea salt is harvested from coves, exposed rocks, or tidal basins. Artisan salt farmers often channel and rake the salty watersheds, then gather the exposed crystals by hand. Unrefined, this salt is ready for use just as it is.

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