Andes Salt Pans Salt
From ancient times to the Renaissance, salt was scarce and very costly in much of the world. Regions fortunate enough to have salt deposits or geography suitable for salt evaporation pans were prosperous, as were the merchants who transported salt to regions of scarcity   Photo of salt pans in the Andes mountains © i0050.

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General & History

8000 years ago in Rumania, large scale salt production was already under way. Brine from a salt spring was concentrated into crystal salt by boiling it dry in clay pots. The pots were broken and the salt packaged for a very profitable trade with peoples in regions without a good supply. In China, salt harvesting from a salt lake began around the same time.

A major use of salt from those times was to preserve meat, fish, and later vegetables. While this is no longer necessary in developed regions of the world, the unique flavors produced by salt preservation have kept salted fish, meat and vegetables in high demand.

While the often repeated story that Roman legions were paid in salt is not actually true, it was still a very expensive commodity. Celts in Austria made a good living selling salted meat to Greece and Rome up to the beginning of the Common Era. By the Renaissance transportation and production had improved to the point salt was well on it's way to being the low cost commodity it is today.

Today food grade salt is a rather small market, accounting for less than 5% of production in Europe and North America. The rest goes to Industrial applications. World production is over 240 million tons per year.

Varieties of Salt

There are two basic varieties of food grade salt: Refined Table Salt and Natural Salt, which may be evaporated from seawater or mined from deposits left by vanished lakes, seas and salt flats.

Table Salt
Table Salt crystals Any convenient salt feed can be used for this process. Sodium Chloride, about 99% pure, is extracted by various processes and all other salts are eliminated. This makes a dry product which works fairly well in salt shakers.

To make it shake even better small amounts of anti-caking substances are added. A number of these are in use: tricalcium phosphate, calcium or magnesium carbonates, fatty acid salts (acid salts), magnesium oxide, silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, sodium aluminosilicate, calcium aluminosilicate and Sodium ferrocyanide (yellow prussiate of soda).

Iodized Salt:   This is usually Table Salt, but Sea Salt and Mineral Salt are also often iodized by addition of small amounts of Iodine compounds. Dietary iodine is insufficient for health in many inland and mountainous regions, causing swollen thyroid (goiter), stunted growth and severe mental retardation (cretinism). Iodized salt has largely eliminated these problems in North America, but the program is now loosing effectiveness due to various influences (see Salt and Health). Iodized salt also generally contains a very small (0.04%), nutritionally insignificant amount of the sugar dextrose, which stabilizes the potassium iodide to prevent free iodine in the salt.

Cook's Illustrated ran comparative tests in their test kitchen using salted popcorn. A few people said they could detect a faint chemical aftertaste from the iodized salt but most said they could detect no difference between iodized and non-iodized.

Sea Salt
Sea Salt Crystals Natural Sea Salt is simply what's left when seawater evaporates. It is usually sold as rather large, fluffy looking and somewhat moist crystals. The reason they are moist is that some of the salts other than sodium chloride absorb water from the air. For this reason, natural sea salt is not used in salt shakers at the table, but rather in salt grinders and mills. These are famous for clogging and breaking under the stress of dealing with this stuff. Better to smash it in a mortar and serve it in a salt cellar with a little spoon.

But you have sea salt without these problems? Ha! You've been deceived. Major salt processors refine sea salt to the point it isn't much different from their regular table salt, but since it came from seawater they call it "sea salt" and charge a higher price for it. Real sea salt is slightly bitter and would cake badly if ground fine due to moisture content. It's about 86% Sodium Chloride and the rest is moisture and other mineral salts (analysis in Salt & Health). Some purveryors of sea salt say it is "lower sodium" than regular salt, but you may have to use more for the same saltiness.

Celtic Sea Salt® is a brand name (established 1976) for very strongly marketed natural sea salts in the style of Brittany, France, but sourced from various regions.   French Grey Sea Salt (Sel Gris) from Brittany is light grey in color from the clay salt pans it is harvested from. These are the same salt pans Sel de Fleur is harvested from.

An economical place to get natural sea salt is from a Korean market, because natural sea salt is important to making salt fermented kimchi, and without kimchi there is no Korean cuisine. The photo specimen is Korean. Here in Los Angeles it sells for around 2015 US $1.50/pound in 2 pound bags, less in larger bags.

Mined Salt
Mined Salt crystals This salt is obtained from ancient salt flats, salt lakes and inland seas that have dried up and been buried by normal geologic processes. Straight from the mines it's a natural product, but it's also used as feedstock for salt refining.

Natural mined salt is generally slightly gray in color, though it can be other colors depending on what geological processes it's gone through and what minerals were carried through it by groundwater. The photo specimens are from Russia (left) and Armenia (right). They are ground coarser than table salt and are slightly gray with a few darker speck in them. They can be used in salt shakers if the shaker is sturdy enough to be whacked firmly to break up the clumps every time you use it.

Kosher Salt
Kosher Salt Crystals There is nothing magic about Kosher salt - it is identical to un-iodized table salt except for crystal size and shape. The crystals are optimized for "koshering" meat - drawing out the blood. It is not itself any more nor any less "kosher" than table salt. Like regular table salt it may contain anti-caking agents such as Sodium ferrocyanide (yellow prussiate of soda).

Celebrity chefs and writers of gourmet recipes now automatically call for kosher salt - its the "in" thing. They imagine the iodine in the salt will ruin the taste of their recipe, though it is highly unlikely to be at all detectable. This is worrisome to health officials, but celebrity chefs aren't concerned about your health, they are concerned about your wallet. If avoiding iodine is the point, non-iodized table salt is just as easily available today.

The one place where kosher salt has a definite advantage is in rubs and the like, where you don't want the crystals to dissolve quickly - and there the low density Diamond Crystal salt has a wide advantage over others. Twice the volume for the same saltiness makes for a more even coating.

It pisses me off that chefs and food writers automatically call for "kosher salt" without specifying which brand they use. Different volume for the same saltiness makes it necessary to adjust recipes. Multiply by the adjustments below when converting table salt to kosher - divide by the adjustment when converting kosher to table salt.

SaltAdjust   Anti-Caking Agent
Morton Plain1.00   Calcium Silicate
Morton Kosher1.28   Sodium Ferrocyanide
Diamond Crystal2.09   [none]

Ice Cream Salt
Ice Cream Salt crystals This is table salt in very large crystals, to nearly 1/2 inch long. The object is to dissolve slowly, mixed with ice in an ice cream maker. Since salt water freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water the saltiness forces the ice to absorb more heat from its surroundings than it normally would, thus making them colder than plain ice would. Yes, it doesn't seem to make sense, but it works. Morton says their ice cream salt is not intended for consumption - it's probably about the same as road salt.

Himalayan Pink Salt
Himalayan Pink Salt crystals This salt is from huge salt mines in Pakistan, in the Salt Range, about 190 miles from the Himalayas. Why is it called "Himalayan"? Because as any marketing guru will tell you, you can charge four, six, even 10 times as much under that more romantic name than if you called it "Pakistan".

Numerous health claims are made for this salt, but none have been scientifically verified. Basically, it's Precambrian sea salt (somewhat different composition from current sea salt) contaminated by ground water with minerals (zinc, iron, sulphur, copper, chromium and others). It may have between 60 and 84 minerals, but since it's 98% Sodium Chloride, and most of the rest is Iron and Sulphur, there's likely little benefit from the trace minerals, at least for the quantities you should be using salt in. On the upside, there will be correspondingly little harm from the toxic minerals it contains (including uranium, radium, plutonium, lead and mercury). If you like it, use it, but don't expect much in health benefits.

The photo specimens were purchased from an Indian market in Glendale, California, labeled simply "Natural Crystal Salt" - but they still charged over US $4.50 per pound. Yes, it tastes pretty much like salt - but at least you can be pretty sure it isn't refined. If you buy it ground, you can't tell what it might be, and it is often faked up in India.

Finishing Salts

Finishing Salts are salts that are sprinkled on food at the time of serving, though they may also be included in rubs and the like. They generally have an unusual texture, unusual color, or both, and may have slight differences in taste. You would not use them for cooking, because the texture and color and taste you are paying for would be totally lost. Various health claims are made, including that they have less sodium than regular table salt, but this is true of any natural sea salt. Few have a flavor much different from that of natural sea salt.


Fleur de Sel   -   [(French); Flor de Sal (Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan)]
Fluer de Sel Salt Crystals

When salt starts to precipitate in salt pans, nearly all sinks to the bottom, but some floats as a delicate crust on the surface. When the weather is just right, it is delicately scraped off and dried in a way to preserve its fluffy texture. It has the same composition as natural sea salt, but has more moisture than table or kosher salt, so it sticks to food better and doesn't draw out so much moisture. The largest traditional suppliers are France, Portugal, Spain and Mexico. In France, the salt pans from which Fleur de Sel is harvested are the same ones that provide the coarser (and much less expensive) Sel Gris.

Maldon Salt
Maldon Salt Crystals

This is a very flaky natural sea salt, and is often called for in English recipes. It is made in Essex in southeastern England where salt pans have been in operation for around 2000 years. It is evaporated over heat, rather than by natural solar evaporation. The unique texture results from a very precise "drawing" technique, removal of the salt crystals from the water and final drying.

Hawaiian Black Salt   -   [Hiwa Kai, Hawaiian Black Volcano Salt, Hawaiian Black Lava Salt]
Hawaiian Black Salt Crystals

Despite it's sometimes being called "Black Volcano Salt" and looking like black volcanic beach sand, this salt has nothing to do with volcanos. The best grades are made from regular Hawaiian white sea salt colored with activated charcoal made from coconut shells. Most is made from partially refined California sea salt colored with activated charcoal from any source.

Hawaiian Red Alaea Salt
Hawaiian Red Alaea Salt Crystals

Ancient Hawaiians cut their salt pans into natural red volcanic clay, and it picked up impurities from that clay. Today the coloring is done deliberately. For the best grades, Hawaiian white sea salt is mixed with red clay, and the color comes from iron oxide (rust). It is a finishing salt that is also much used in rubs for meat. The photo specimen label states "Hawaiian Style" and lists ingredients "Sea salt & purified Hawaiian alaea clay", so the salt may not be of Hawaiian origin. Lower grades are made of partially refined sea salt combined with a similar, but cheaper, red clay imported from China.

Indian Black Salt - [Kala Namak, Sanchal (India)]
Indian Black Salt Crystals

This salt used as a finishing salt both in North America and India, where it is used particularly with fruit. It does have other uses, included in chutneys and to flavor lemonade and the like. It is also used by strict vegetarians to replace the sulfurous character of eggs.

Mined in volcanic regions, Black Salt has a very strong smell and taste of sulphur, coming from sodium sulphate, iron sulphide, and hydrogen sulphide. Sulphur, in itself, is not bad. Remember that the wonderful flavor of fried Onions (and the tears) is largely from high sulphur content. Those forbidden onions by religion fill the gap with asafoetida, also high in sulphur.

Ground, Kala Namak is a grayish pink color. My photo specimens are clearly of mineral origin, but there are persistent stories that Kala Namak is made by evaporating brine that has been boiled with fruits of the harad tree. From this I suspect that some of that bright pink powder sold in Indian markets is faked up, so I recommend buying it in chunks and grinding it yourself, I mean, if you care.


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©Andrew Grygus - agryg@clovegarden.com - Photos on this page not otherwise credited are © cg1 - Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted