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Fascinating Facts & Types of Salt

Interesting facts about salt, its history and the different types available in today's market.

For centuries both cooks and physicians have realized that salt is not only an essential component to good health but makes food more palatable, bringing out the essential flavor of a dish (even a sweet one) in a way no other ingredient on earth possibly can.

Today salt is inexpensive and universally available, but that wasn't always the case. Because of its importance in food preservation and the fact that the human body requires it (for the regulation of fluid balance), salt has been an extremely valuable commodity throughout the ages. It was even once used as a method of exchange — Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their pay. Salt was valued by the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 19th century when it began to become more plentiful and therefore reasonable in price. Salt (sodium chloride) comes either from salt mines or from the sea. Most of today's salt is mined and comes from large deposits left by dried salt lakes throughout the world.

Types of Salt

  • Table Salt: A fine-grained refined salt with additives that make it free-flowing, is mainly used in cooking and as a table condiment. It's what most of us grew up on.
  • Iodized Salt: Is table salt with added iodine (sodium iodide) — particularly important in areas that lack natural iodine, an important preventative for hypothyroidism.
  • Kosher Salt: Is an additive-free coarse-grained salt. It's used by some Jews in the preparation of meat, as well as by gourmet cooks and chefs who prefer its texture and flavor. Also called "coarse salt".
  • Sea Salt: Is the type used down through the ages and is the result of the evaporation of sea water — the more costly of the two processes. It comes in fine-grained or larger crystals. Of the brands available in the marketplace, "Hain" brand, is a fine grain, best for general cooking and making bread; "LaBaleine" brand is coarser grained with a softer taste; "Maldon" brand is more expensive and great for seasoning at the table. The most expensive, and considered the best sea salt, comes from Brittany, France, "Fleur de Sel" brand is top-of-the-line and hand-harvested.
  • Pickling Salt: Is a fine-grained salt used to make brines for pickles, sauerkraut, etcetera. It contains no additives, which would cloud the brine.
  • Rock Salt: Has a grayish cast because it's not as refined as other salts, which means it retains more minerals and harmless impurities. It comes in chunky crystals and is used predominantly by combining with ice to make ice cream in crank-style ice-cream makers. It is not recommended for cooking and table use.
  • Sour Salt: Also called citric salt, is extracted from acidic fruits, such as lemons and limes. It's used to add tartness to traditional dishes like Borscht.
  • Seasoned Salt: Is regular salt combined with other flavoring ingredients, examples being onion salt, garlic salt and celery salt.
  • Salt Substitutes: Frequently used by those on low-salt diets, are products containing little or no sodium

Ten Factoids on Salt

1. Most salt sold in supermarkets is labeled "iodized" which indicates that the salt has had iodine added to it, usually in the form of potassium iodide. Seafood as well as sea salt contains iodine naturally and the supplement is unnecessary if there are sufficient quantities of either in one's diet. We require less than 225 micrograms of iodine a day.

2. Studies completed in the late 1980's and 1990's indicate that salt is not the killer it has been declared to be. They show, in fact, an increased risk of death among those with the lowest sodium levels and show a large population (between 75-80%) is unaffected by salt. Moreover, there are no studies which show that salt increases blood pressure, although certain studies demonstrate that some hypertensive people (about 8% of the general population) can reduce an already elevated blood pressure by reducing the amount of salt they eat.

3. Salt has more than 14,000 uses. Less than 4% of all salt produced each year goes into food. It is the second most important element--sulfur is the first--in the chemical industry and is used in the manufacture of fabrics, glass, cosmetics, and ammunitions.

4. Fleur de Sel is the premier condiment salt, like Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Modena or the finest extra virgin olive oil. It's the cream atop the milk, and has been called the caviar of salt.

5. Fleur de Sel's taste is delicate, yet full and round in your mouth. It doesn't sear the tip of the tongue as some salts do. There is no bitterness, no sharpness. The most important characteristic, however, is its texture; it crunches pleasantly between your teeth and because it's crystalline rather than flaky it dissolves slowly.

6. If Fleur de Sel leads the pack of artisan salts, according to food writer Michelle Jordan, Celtic gray sea salt isn't far behind. As late as 1996 it was a well-kept secret praised by food writers, chefs, and loved by anyone who visited the marshes of Brittany on the coast of France. But for many years it was pricey and hard to get. Today, however, Celtic gray sea salt is everywhere and reliable mail order sources (see below) sell it for as little as $1.25 a pound.

7. The saltiness of a specific quantity of salt--be it Fleur de Sel, kosher, granulated sea salt, iodized salt-- will vary depending on the type of salt. But generally, if substituting kosher salt for iodized salt (the former a type favored by most professional chefs) you'll have to use double the amount of larger flaked kosher salt than the finer grained iodized salt to achieve the same saltiness.

8. Even in the best conditions mining for salt it a dangerous occupation. The harsh Indian sun (where much of the world's supply of commercial salt in harvested) reflecting off the white mountains of salt is hard on the eyes. In addition, continued exposure to the salty brine can lead to skin lesions which can become gangrenous --when there's too little salt, wounds can't heal, while when there is too much they won't.

9. The mysterious ability of salt to affect flavor beyond adding it's own character may be best revealed in dry salting and brining. Short-term brining adds flavor to bland foods and juiciness to normally dry cuts of meat. Long-term brining transforms both taste and texture and preserves foods as well. While dry-salting (used in bacon and hams) intensifies natural flavors, contributes new ones and preserves; it is often used on foods that will be smoked.

10. Sodium functions as an electrolyte, as do potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which regulate the electrical charges within our cells. Chloride supports potassium absorption and helps oversee the body's acid and base balance. It enhances carbon dioxide transportation and is an essential component of digestive acids.

Some information based on THE FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst. ©Copyright, Barron's Educational Services, Inc. 1995.

Salt factoids is an excerpt from Salt and Pepper by Michelle Anna Jordan (Broadway Books, 1999).

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