wireless_kitchen (2006-11)

Salt of the Earth

A primer on the periodic table’s tastiest element

by Gay Lyons

If you think salt is an edible item, you’re only  partly correct. About four percent of the world’s salt production is edible. According to cooksrecipes.com, salt has more than 14,000 chemical and industrial uses, such as the manufacture of glass and ammunition.

Other inedible salts include the rock salt used in ice cream freezers, the solar salt pellets used to soften water and the halite used on icy roads. Edible salt includes canning or pickling salt, table salt, kosher salt and sea salt. Of these, the biggest variety is found in sea salt.

Canning salt is pure fine-grained salt, with no additives. Table salt, which is refined and fine-grained, comes in plain and iodized forms, with additives that make it flow freely. There is nothing kosher about kosher salt. It is simply coarse salt used in cleansing meat so that it is kosher. Sea salt is harvested from the sea but also from ancient seas that have since evaporated, leaving salt deposits to be mined. Salt distilled from the sea is much more expensive than salt that is mined.

You can distill your own salt. I read about a woman who strained three liters of ocean water through cheesecloth and then boiled it for a couple of hours. She ended up with about three ounces of clumpy beige salt.

I like coarse, pure salt. The only thing I want in my salt is salt, no sodium silicoaluminate, sodium thiosulfate or potassium iodide. The salt I grew up with was iodized, but if you eat seafood and use sea salt, you don’t need additional iodine. Salt is a chemical compound composed of the elements sodium and chlorine, NaCl on the periodic table, which are essential to the human body. But it’s also a flavor enhancer, which has lately become a gourmet item with prices to match.

I came home from a recent tour of Knoxville’s salt shelves with an impressive selection of pouches, shakers, boxes and jars, a cosmopolitan collection from all over the world: Cyprus, France, Portugal, Italy, India and Pakistan—and closer to home, California and Utah. The local supermarkets sell table salt, kosher salt and basic sea salt, but the more exotic salts are found at Fresh Market, Gourmet’s Market, Nature’s Pantry and Williams-Sonoma. At the low end of the price range I found Southern Home table salt in 26-ounce boxes two for 70 cents; at the other extreme, I found small jars of Hawaiian red sea salt and Australian pink sea salt at Williams-Sonoma for $16. Salt was once so rare and valuable that Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their compensation package, but $16 seemed steep to me.

The “rag-taggy people” in the Rolling Stones’ song “Salt of the Earth” can’t afford gourmet salt, but some of them may be harvesting sea salt or working in salt mines, which is a dangerous occupation. This is not something you can tell from the attractive labels with images of smiling workers harvesting salt with wooden rakes accompanied by words such as “hand harvested” and “all natural.”

A small can of Cerulean Seas coarse sea salt boasts these poetic words: “There is a place where the gentle breath of the ocean whispers its gifts upon the shore and the ebb and flow of the tides lovingly caress the silver sands. There is a time when the diverse elements of the universe come together in harmony and unite the quintessence of all things.” Inspired by those words, I grabbed a couple of bottles of water for palate-cleansing purposes and sampled my “gifts from the sea.”  

I prefer coarse salt, but I tried some fine ones, Reese Imported Sea Salt (26.5 refined ounces for $2.29) from a supermarket and Lima Atlantic Sea Salt (17.6 unrefined ounces for $2.89) from Nature’s Pantry, and a coarse salt from the Fresh Market sold in its own disposable mill. I preferred the Lima brand, which was clumpier and had a stronger salty taste. I wasn’t impressed with the Mediterranean Salt Mill (3.17 ounces for $3.99). If you like fine salt, buy fine salt, or

My favorites were Cyprus White Flake Sea Salt (3 ounces for $12.00) and Fleur de sel (8.8 ounces for $10.50), both from Williams-Sonoma. I also liked Redmond Gourmet Kosher Sea Salt (16 ounces for $7.29) from Nature’s Pantry, a coarse pinkish salt with lots of trace minerals. The Cyprus salt and the Fleur de sel are both hand-harvested from the Mediterranean. The Redmond salt is mined from ancient seabeds in Utah.

I found only one salt I didn’t like. The sulfuric taste of Black Sanchal Sea Salt reminded me of a science project gone bad and presented a real palate-cleansing problem. All the others ranged from OK to very good, but there’s another problem. I’m so over-salted I’ve dipped into my husband’s M&M stash to try to get the salty taste out of my mouth. Another handful or two of them will probably do the trick.