There must be as much hype about salt as there are salt varieties. In this blog, I’ll share science-based guidelines for making the most flavorful and nutritious choices, plus a do-it-yourself home test.
The first guideline for buying salt is to favor additive-free, unrefined sea salt, as it contains valuable trace minerals and is free of added chemicals. Sea salt is typically 98% sodium chloride with a complement of 60 trace minerals in about the same ratio. In contrast, table salt has the same amount of sodium chloride with up to 2% additives.
Second, I invite you to taste various sea salts and favor those that appeal to your personal sense of taste. Science confirms common sense that healthfulness and flavor go hand and hand, as the trace minerals in sea salt give it a pleasing flavor, while the additives in table salt add an unpleasant metallic taste. I’ll provide some guidelines, but first, while we’re speaking of trace minerals, here’s a myth that needs retiring.
The Himalayan Salt Myth
Himalayan salt is much in fashion these days. And yes, you can find numerous Web posts showing laboratory spectral analysis of Himalayan salt that name 84 trace minerals. However, 24 of these are preceded by the symbol < which means less than. For example, gold is counted as one of the 84 minerals but in an amount that’s <0.0001. This means that the lab equipment could not detect gold. Note: Bolivian Pink salt, like Himalayan salt, also claims to have more than 80 essential trace minerals.
The takeaway is that all unrefined sea salt, including Himalayan and Bolivian Pink salt, contain 60 trace minerals and are equal to other unrefined sea salts in health value, not better or worse. If your budget is a concern, or if you opt for mined salt over salt dehydrated from brine, you might favor a more economical domestic mined salt, Real Salt.
Incidentally, the term sea salt refers to salt dehydrated from ocean brine (such as Celtic, Cape Cod Saltworks, and Eden Portuguese sea salt); underground saline water (such as Murray River); or from mined salt beds deposited by ancient oceans (such as Himalayan, Bolivian Pink and Real Salt).
Trace Minerals and Flavor
As reported in the Journal of Sensory Studies, a trained descriptive sensory panel rigorously analyzed more than 40 salts from around the world to discern what contributed to their taste and flavor profile. The study concluded that even though the impact of trace minerals on flavor is minimal, the minerals do create different tastes. Variations in trace minerals are a result of where and how the salt is processed.
The study revealed that sea salt has mineral, metallic and umami flavors. Salt with a higher percentage of zinc results in more of an astringent mouthfeel and umami flavor. The more iron a salt contains, the more metallic is its taste. And bitterness is associated with a higher amount of calcium and magnesium. Fleur de sel with its delicate floral flavor is unique among salts.
Flavor and Processing Techniques
My twelve-year-old grandson, Jonah, helped me test salts recently. We sampled 12 different types of sea salt and ranked them according to what we found was most pleasurable in both the initial flavor and aftertaste. Yes, it was a 100% unscientific study, but we had fun, he earned a pitcher of lemonade, and it confirmed several decades of my prior test results.
In the entry-level cooking classes I once offered, I’d have students taste different salts. We inevitably found that both mined and processed salts tend to taste sharp and even acrid in comparison to solar-evaporated salts. The later have the most pleasing flavor with a more round and smooth aftertaste. Most creatures and plant life enjoy basking in sunlight; might those rays do something for minerals as well? I invite you to to do a taste test, and perhaps the results will influence your shopping choices.
Your Amazing Sense of Taste
Here’s another experiment Jonah and I did that you can replicate at home or simply imagine. We lined up ten random grains of fleur de sel and measured the length: one inch. Then we imagined extending that lineup for 100 inches—that’s 8.33 feet. We fancied two such lines, one of sea salt and one of table salt. In our mind’s eyes we removed the 99th and 100th grains of salt from both lines. We then fancied placing two grains of chemical additives to the table salt lineup and two grains of trace minerals to the sea salt, separately blending each line and tasting the difference. We marveled at how incredibly sophisticated our sense of taste is in that we could discern subtle differences in two products that are each 98 percent sodium chloride! Indeed, taste differences among the various salts reflect both the refining process and the trace minerals themselves. Jonah and I then toasted our remarkable sense of taste with another round of lemonade.
Color differences in sea salt come primarily from the mineral content in the surrounding beds. White sea salt is white for one of three reasons: it’s harvested from the surface of concentrated brine, it’s harvested from pure white clay beds, or it’s refined. Gray clay particles from salt-evaporating beds color some salt gray. The color pink comes from iron oxide present in salt beds or used as an additive.
There are numerous boutique salts with colorants such as charcoal or ingredients from bamboo to morel mushrooms. I find both the prices and claims for them to be exaggerated. That being said, I delight in making my own salt blends. They’re easy to create and make great little gifts; do an internet search for “flavored salt recipes” for ideas.
Black Salt (Kala Namak)
One speciality salt of interest worth pointing out is black salt, or kala namak, mined from volcanic salt beds in India. Despite its name, this salt is actually pink in color, has a sulfurous taste and aroma and is valued in both Ayurvedic and Tibetan medicine as a digestive. Traditionally kala namak was fired with herbs and charcoal in sealed containers for 24 hours and then aged. Today it is expediently manufactured by adding sodium sulfate and sugar to sodium chloride. My hunch is that this shortcut method compromises its medicinal properties.
Size and Moisture
If you’re relying on taste to discern which sea salt to favor, be aware that both size and moisture influence how a salt’s flavors register in your mouth. Moist sea salt contains from 2 to 4% ocean brine, while dry sea salt is virtually moisture free. As for the particle size, this depends upon how the salt is processed. Size varies from small crystals of varying shapes to tiny irregular grains and chunks so huge that they can be sculpted.
As taste is the ability to respond to dissolved molecules and ions, you’d more quickly experience flavor in 1 gram of small-grained moist salt than the same weight of small-grained dry salt. And it would take longer to experience the salty flavor in a 1-gram chunk of salt than the same amount of small-grained salt. (To remove these considerations, the analysis cited above used equal weight sodium solutions to ensure that neither salt grain size nor moisture would impact the testing results.)
Which Salt to Choose?
Take the dish you’re preparing into consideration when choosing the size of your salt. In a batter or dressing, for example, a small grain that quickly melds with the other ingredients is preferable. If, however, you’re wanting a crunch and burst of flavor, like the salt on a pretzel or a dash of finishing salt on roast beef, then favor a larger grain or flake. Thin flakes have a crisp mouthfeel and quickly melt; larger chunks offer more crunch plus an intense hit of salty flavor.
Which salt will you select? Unrefined sea salt with no additives is your healthiest and tastiest choice, and you might favor the ones that taste best to you. Keep both fine-grained and coarse-grained or flaked salt on hand to match the recipes you’re using them in. Pass the sea salt!
Now it’s your turn. I invite you to do a taste test of at least two of the following unrefined and additive-free salts and share your findings:
- Solar dried
- Mechanically dried
When salt is solar dried, the label or the company’s Web page will say so. As it’s more expedient and economical to mechanically dry salt, this information is not considered a selling point and so is typically excluded from the product label.
While you’re at this test, you’ll find it informative (and less pleasant) to taste table salt. In the Comment section below, please let us know which salt you like best and why.