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When to cook with fancy salt — and when cheap salt will do

Rich and crunchy Maldon sea salt — use it as a finisher on dishes.
Rich and crunchy Maldon sea salt — use it as a finisher on dishes.
roman may/flickr

European chefs like Ferran Adrià and Jamie Oliver have said that when it comes to salt, there is one to rule them all. It's called Maldon.

The pyramid-shaped flakes of crunchy sea salt, hand-harvested on England's Essex coast, cost 10 times the price of regular table salt. They taste so good, Britain's Nigel Slater says he'll use nothing else in his dishes, and Maldon has even earned a coveted nod from the
British Royal Family.

maldon salt Stephen Upson/Flickr

But are there different classes of salt for cooking? Is there really anything special about the spendy, "pure white crisp clean crystals" Maldon so effectively markets to foodies?

Let's be clear: Chemically speaking, all salt is exactly the same.

No matter its size or color or shape, salt is sodium chloride, with a few trace chemicals or minerals depending on how it's been processed.

What you get, if you're paying $30 for Himalayan pink salt or $10 for Maldon sea salt (instead of $1 for good old table salt) is different types of manufacturing and additives, or the absence thereof. These can affect subtle variations in flavor, texture, and intensity of the saltiness you get in each pinch.

Most of us just use table, kosher, or sea salt. So we did some poking around to find out when it might be better to cook with one instead of another, especially for special cooking days like Thanksgiving. Take these recommendations with, er, a grain of salt — whatever salt you use is really a matter of preference. But if you've ever wondered why some recipes call for one type and not another, this should clear your questions up.

When to use table salt

Table salt crystals are tiny. They're made by pumping water into man-made salt deposits and evaporating it with a vacuum to get those uniform, white specks. Anti-caking chemicals are typically added in the process to keep the salt from clumping, and it's often fortified with iodine — an important micronutrient that helps keep our thyroids healthy.

"Because table salt is much smaller, it's better for [things like] baking," Molly Birnbaum, who has experimented with all kinds of salt as co-executive editor of Cook's Science at America's Test Kitchen, told us.

And as chef and author Kenji López-Alt wrote on his blog The Food Lab, table salt is the one to turn to when you need to melt salt quickly in a liquid. "When making a high salinity solution (such as a brine), table salt will dissolve a little faster than kosher salt due to the smaller size of its crystals," he writes.

That also goes for any kind of stewing, braising, or marinating.

When to use kosher salt

Kosher salt is the top choice of many cooks because it costs about as much as table salt, but it's comprised of larger, flatter pebbles, which make it easy to handle. There's nothing that makes it particularly holy, except that its large flakes are more effective than table salt at drawing the blood from slaughtered animals to prepare them according to Jewish law. As the blog explains, "In truth, the name 'kosher salt' is misleading. A better term would be 'koshering salt.'"

morton's kosher salt Laurin Rinder/Shutterstock

Kosher salt is also thought to taste purer than table salt. Though it's also processed in man-made salt deposits, the kosher kind is typically free of those anti-caking agents and iodine, which, to the fussy palates among us, can leave a slightly chemical flavor. So if you're looking for salt that doesn't need to be evenly dispersed, Birnbaum suggests going kosher: It costs about the same as table salt, and tastes better. It can also add some crunch and texture to a dish if the crystals haven't dissolved.

But beware: The larger crystals make it less dense than regular table salt, so you have to use more to get the same amount of saltiness.

Here's how the foodie magazine Saveur explains it: "A tablespoon of table salt contains about 25 percent more salt than a tablespoon of coarse sea salt and 50 percent more than one of kosher salt."

At American's Test Kitchen, they've found that different types of kosher salt also have varying levels of saltiness. According to Birnbaum, one teaspoon of table salt is equal to 1.5 teaspoons of Morton's kosher salt and two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. (If you're getting really fussy, you can find equivalency charts for specific brands online — like Morton's here).

Bottom line: If you're using kosher salt, expect to use a bit more for most recipes. (Note: If you are following a recipe, you may want to see if the website or cookbook you're using specifics a salt type — some do.)

When to use fancy sea salts like Maldon

Sea salt is made from evaporated ocean water, usually with minimal processing.

The water source can alter the texture and shape of the sea-salt crystals. "Depending on exactly how they are formed and the trace minerals the contain, their shape can range from moist, clumpy chunks to pyramid-like, lacy flakes with colors ranging from bright pink to pitch black," wrote López-Alt.

In the drying process, minerals — calcium, magnesium, potassium — from the sea water can attach to the sodium chloride. They can add flavor, though they occur in such small amounts, they don't alter the nutritional profile of the salt.

In the cooking process, a lot of these subtle differences are lost. And as Lopez-Alt writes: "If you're using your fancy sea salt to cook with … you may as well replace your toilet paper with dollar bills, because you are flushing all of its good features down the toilet." Touché!

This is why experts typically suggest using sea salt for finishing a dish. "If you have something you want to sprinkle with salt at the end, for that crunch of salt — that's when you want the flakiness of the sea salt," said Birnbaum.

So don't use Maldon — or any other specialty sea salt — to salt boiling pasta water; do consider it adding a pinch of it to a crunchy rice bowl, chicken that's just come out of the oven, or a salad.

Again, you want to be careful about volume here, too: A tablespoon of table salt has about a quarter more salt in it than a tablespoon of coarse sea salt. 

Confession: I started experimenting with Maldon recently. The texture it adds, with its fat, crunchy pyramid-shaped flakes, really appeals to me. Does it taste all that superior to other types of cheaper sea salt? Probably not, and there may even be a less expensive sea salt out there with equally luxurious crystals that I haven't yet discovered.

Oh, and I also salt pretty generously when preparing my own food. Though too much sodium in the diet can be a health concern, the worry is probably misplaced in home cooking. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, three-quarters of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed food — not the salt shaker, or Maldon box, at home.

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