The Truth About Salt

truth about salt

truth about saltThe Truth About Salt: salt and health, sea salt or table salt, the taste of salt–and what about these new flavored salts?

I had a conversation with my brother about a year ago that inspired me to write on salt. He said he read an article revealing that all the fancy salts taste alike, so its foolish to bother with anything other than plain old table salt, as in Morton’s. The article he read included a blind taste test of various premium salts.

I never read it myself so I’m not sure when or where it ran.  My brother is an economist so my best guess is that it was some sort of science journal. According to him, the tasters were unable to differentiate between salts in the blind test. He also added that all salt has the same amount of sodium, a fact I was later able to discredit and will explain further in this article.

So I am writing this article with the goal of finding the answer to several burning salt questions including: Do all salts taste the same? What’s the deal with the different-sized and shaped granules and when should we use each one? Is salt the health evil we’ve been told we must fear? And what about the new salt blends? How are the pros using smoked, flavored and infused salts and how can we use these products at home like a pro?

Table Salt vs Sodium in Processed Foods

I started my research with a new book, The Secret to Skinny: How Salt Makes You Fat, and the 4-Week Plan to Drop a Size and Get Healthier with Simple Low-Sodium Swaps. (I do wish to add that I first opened the book with the attitude that I don’t really think that salt makes us hefty–the sodium in processed foods is a concern for sure, but salt?) So I started reading with, let’s face it, a bad attitude.

In the introduction, the book makes the point that salt can increase food cravings. I can see how that could result in weight gain. But it doesn’t mention how much salt or what kind of salt  it takes to increase cravings. Are we talking the salt in a can of soup or the salt you sprinkle on top of your veggies? The book then points out that a high-sodium diet can block calcium absorption. Ok, this is another cause for concern but again, how much salt are we talking? I skipped ahead to the section with the recommended diet plan to get a grip on how much salt is too much. It looks as thought the book is really targeting the sodium in processed foods and sort of picking and choosing for the reader the least evil of processed foods to use in their diet. That’s one tactic but what sounds better to me is to just make my own food and use high-quality sea and lake salts. Since the book still allows eaters to use ingredients with sodium, then salt can’t be totally evil, right?

But just after I started researching this article, the announcement came of a bill introduced in New York trying to ban salt in restaurants. If the state of New York is trying to make salting food a crime, then the salt situation must be worse than I thought!

I went to one of my favorite online medical resources, Web MD. The first article I found on the topic, “The Salt Solution: cutting back on sodium,” stated right off the bat that the big issue with salt is high blood pressure. BUT it quickly adds that lack of exercise and genetics are additional contributors to high blood pressure. What I found most interesting was a quote from nutrition expert Lisa Hark stating, “.Americans consume way too much salt, mostly in processed foods.” Ah hah! Again, we’re talking about processed foods. The article also recommended a program called DASH, (the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). So I clicked my way to DASH’s “Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure.”

DASH offers a downloadable booklet, that highlights adjustments to your diet for lowering blood pressure. It recommends that, if you have high blood pressure, you reduce sodium to 1 teaspoon a day and then gradually reduce further if needed in collaboration with your doctor. Finally! A definitive answer to what is a reasonable amount of salt to eat. DASH offers a whole menu plan of meals that does include table salt–but very little processed food.

Next I consulted The site reminds us that salt contains important electrolytes. It helps maintain Ph levels and aids in the absorption of other nutrients. So salt is good or at least it has benefits! In addition to the discovery that salt does, to some extent, do the body good, my research also uncovered some of the differences between table and sea (or lake) salts—which seems to be the big “hot topic” of salt these days.

Differentiating Between Salts

Table salt generally comes from mined salts and is, like granulated sugar, processed nearly to death to obtain a smooth texture and snow-white color. Most table salts also have added anti-caking agents as well as a supplemental iodine. Sea and lake salts are far less processed and, although they aren’t supplemented, offer trace minerals. I’ve read a bit of conflicting evidence on this but the overriding conclusion is that these minerals aren’t ingested in high enough quantities to really offer any health benefits. However, they do compose a portion of each salt granule, meaning that they typically make the salt lower in sodium by volume than table salt. These trace minerals also, according to my research, greatly affect not only the size of the salt granules but also the flavor. If this is true, it debunks my brother’s story that, tasted blind, a variety of salts do not have discernable different flavors.

I wanted to find out for myself if I could discern the different flavors in sea and lake salts from different parts of the world. So I got a sampler pack of “gourmet sea salts from around the world” packaged by Salts of the 7 Seas, I selected 6 different salts from varying parts of the world to taste—I did not, however, taste them blind. Instead I dissolved 1/8 teaspoon of each salt into 1 tablespoon of warm water and drank. See my salt tasting notes here.

Choosing Salts For Cooking

What I noticed immediately was the rate at which the different salts dissolved. It started to make sense to me that chefs would want to use different salts in different applications. For example, if you’re adding a salt during cooking, then you probably want one that melts easily. But if you’re looking for a finishing salt to add a hit of crunch and saltiness to the final dish, as in the case of salt sprinkled atop a caramel, then you want a salt that doesn’t quickly dissolve and lose its texture. (That said, I’ve also heard that some chefs who serve raw seafood like salt from Australia’s Murray River as a finishing salt because it melts quickly and will better integrate with the delicate flavors of raw fish than will a traditional finishing salt.)

Though I did not notice outstandingly different flavors in the salts, I did notice that the salts hit the palate in different ways. From what I learned in 5th grade health class, I would have expected all the salts to hit the palate on the sides, where the “salty” taste buds reside. But when sipping the salt waters, I noticed that some only hit the tip of my tongue, others coated the entire tongue in briny flavor. I could see selecting a salt by what part of the mouth you want it to affect. For example, if you have a dish in which most of its flavor hits the back of the mouth, say like a piece of beef with a peppercorn crust, then maybe you want a salt with flavor at the front of the palate, to give the dish a more interesting taste experience across the whole tongue.

I  also observed that some salts offered more minerality in flavor than others. Some were almost imperceptively salty and one salt evoked that overpoweringly salty craving for water you get after eating a fist full of pretzels without liquid to wash them down.

Flavored Salts: the new frontier

I realize that these observations on salt and what part of the palate it awakens really belong in the higher echelons of food geekdom. For most of us, the desire is to just use a nice salt to make food a little more flavorful. And for that, it seems to me that what would be more useful than owning five different salts with varying degrees of “saltiness,” the average home cook would be much better off exploring the new world of “flavored” salts.

Flavored salts are natural salts, typically unrefined sea salts that have been infused or blended with other flavoring agents. One of my favorite types of flavored salts are truffle salts, in which tiny truffle shavings have been added to a coarse-grain salt before packaging. Because truffles are so pungent, the entire container of salts tends to take on a truffle flavor when sealed in a jar with the tiny truffle bits, thereby drastically extending the flavor of the exorbitantly expensive truffles.

But there are suddenly so many different kinds of flavored salts on the market that it almost seems impossible to figure out what to buy and how to use these premium-priced salts. So I asked two of the men behind what I deem some the more creative flavored salt varieties just what it is the general consumer is supposed to do with flavored salt.

First, I talked to Chef Joseph Conrad who makes Secret Stash Sea Salts. What interested me in Conrad’s salts was what also takes me a little bit aback about trying to buy and integrate flavored salts into my home cooking. Conrad makes fascinatingly creative flavor blends like Apple Five Spice and Almond Orange Cardamom salts. Unlike many of the dozens of salt companies popping up across America, Conrad put his initial emphasis on the base salt, tasting over 30 varieties of salt before settling on the salt that he feels best carries his flavors. He only uses Fleur de Sel, considered by some the most prized salt in the world. Another practice that sets Secret Stash apart is that instead of simply adding dried herbs and other flavorings to the salt blends, Conrad creates many of his salts through a complex process of dehydrating surprising ingredients like chorizo. Some flavors he introduces seasonally based on what he can find at local farmers’ markets near his Seattle home. All the flavors sound mouthwateringly delicious, but the more complex the flavor, the more dubious I become about how I can find a use for it.

I asked Conrad how he recommends a consumer choose a salt blend. He suggests that the cook think about the things they like to make and choose a salt with flavors that would compliment their signature dishes. So, for example, if you like to cook a lot of southern French food, you might like the Lavender Rosemary salt. Or, if you’re an aphrodisiac addict like me, you might choose either the Black Truffle or Smoked Chipotle.

Unlike most gourmet food purveyors, Conrad also recommends making price a prime consideration. He suggested that you might want to choose a couple of flavors in your price range, rather than splurging on one luxury item that you may or may not ultimately enjoy. (Conrad actually makes 1 oz containers along with his standard 3.5 oz size to allow customers to do just that.) However, he advises that with blends like his that use herbs and spices, the flavors will diminish after six months and the salts should be used within a year of packaging.

Next I spoke with Eric Stubenberg also known as Lord of Salt, (Lords of Salt is his brand, not a European title). Stubenberg makes his infused salts through a process of hot smoking. In other words, the final products are not, like most flavored salts, blended with a flavoring agent. In this case the flavor is in the salt. And as a result, the products have a longer shelf life than most flavored salts on the market.

Like Conrad, Stubenberg is based in the Pacific Northwest and his salt flavors are influenced by local products (in this case, Willamette Valley wines and local, artisan chocolate among others). Also like Conrad, Stubenberg started making his salt blends for the restaurant business. But unlike Conrad, Stubenberg is not a chef. He’s a fifth grade teacher who started making his salts for chef friends.

Because he really is your average consumer, Stubenberg’s approach to using flavored salts is very much that of your regular guy who happens to like to cook. His recommendation for incorporating his flavored salts into home cooking is to, “Use it like salt.” Perhaps sometimes those of us in the food and nutrition worlds get our heads stuck too far in the clouds to remember that the answer is as simple as just use salt like salt!

view Amy’s salt tasting notes

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