Cooking with salt is like wielding a magic wand. The secret is in knowing when and how to use it. And for a beautiful presentation, the wise cook also considers the unusual colors and shapes of sea salts.
Because of some interesting chemical processes, salt causes tasty things to happen to food. Salt draws moisture out of veggies and enhances flavors. It makes spices more effective. Foods like carrots become sweeter -- since salt eliminates bitterness -- which is why some people add a pinch when making coffee.
Obviously, just tossing some table salt into or onto food isn't going to cut it. Salt has to be added throughout the cooking process for the chemical miracles to take place. And you should keep tasting to avoid over salting. The idea is to bring out the flavors, not the saltiness.
Using the Right Salt
For cooking, you should use kosher salt instead of table salt. The bigger crystals make it easier to control how much you're adding. Also, it's usually not iodized, so you get a purer, true salt taste.
That being said, table salt is perfect for brining meat, since it dissolves quicker than the big kosher crystals and you can add more of it. It's also more effective in things like pasta water, where the food is going to be drained.
Exotic Salts and When To Use Them
These salts are the real showstoppers of fine cuisine. They're called "finishing salts" because the large crystals come in unusual shapes, sizes and colors, adding a shimmering touch to the presentation. Shapes can be pyramids, delicate flakes or large crystals, and they really stand out.
Odd as it sounds, exotic salts, used sparingly, are sensational when sprinkled over desserts like cake, cookies, ice cream, berries and fruit. Chocolate and caramel flavors explode when just a few salt crystals are added on top.
- Himalayan Pink is the most popular finishing salt. The large crystals are mined from ancient salt deposits in Pakistan. The colors range from white to deep red, but the most popular are shades of pink. It's also cut into slabs to cook fish and meats in the oven, and can be frozen or chilled to serve with ice cream or fruit for a slight thrill of salt. Peruvian Pink is another popular pink salt mined from prehistoric mountain deposits.
- Persian Blue contains a bit of sweetness. The blue crystals in the white come from naturally compressed rock salt.
- Hawaiian Salt is red or black, depending on the natural minerals formed in it. Red "Alaea" salt contains red volcanic oxides. The black version gets its color from activated charcoal.
- Kala Namak, mined in India, is a pinkish-gray that looks black, with a sulphuric scent. It's perfect for Southeast Asian cuisine.
- Fleur de Sel (Flower of Salt) is the queen of salts, a white or pinkish flake salt harvested by hand from salt evaporation ponds in the Guerande region of France. It can only be produced once a year, and each area of the region produces its own flavor.
- Smoked Salt is made by coating salt crystals with smoke from various woods such as oak, juniper, and cherry and oak wine barrels, resulting in a strong, smoky flavor. Smoked salts are particularly good over potatoes and vegetables.
Make Your Own Exotic Salts
Although you can't change the crystal shape of plain kosher salt, you can flavor it with spices or herbs. First, toast or grind your spices, then mix them with kosher salt and let them sit for a few hours. You can also mix salt with sugar or sweet spices such as ground vanilla beans or cloves.
Remember: Cooking with salt isn't unhealthy. It's the increased amount of salt added to almost all processed food that causes concern. Don't be afraid to experiment with these exotic salts and enliven your cooking!