From sea salt to that pretty Himalayan pink salt, here's how to fancy up your meals without drowning your dinner in sodium.
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Cooking with salt isn't exactly a revolutionary culinary idea, but everyday cooks and famous chefs alike are getting more creative in the kitchen when it comes to seasoning their food with salt. No, they aren't doubling down on the salty stuff—sodium is already a big problem in American diets thanks in large part to processed foods. They are using specialty salts to brighten plates and add a newfound level of creativity and elegance to dishes. Plus, there just so happen to be more health benefits in gourmet salts than in generic table salt.
Now, this doesn't mean you should be salting everything, as excess sodium intake can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. (It's smart to find ways to reduce sodium intake in general.) However, some of these trendy salts are, well, saltier than you're used to, so a little goes a long way for both seasoning a recipe and for creating a pretty presentation.
Here are five trendy salts you'll want to keep in your pantry.
A major benefit of using sea salt over simple table salt? Natural minerals found in rock salt are stripped when processing table salt, but they are kept intact in the larger sea salt granules.
These trace minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, help balance electrolytes in your body, says John Hogan, executive chef at River Roast in Chicago. (Replenishing electrolytes after a tough workout is especially important when stores are depleted through sweat.) "In the restaurant, we use fleur de sel (a type of French sea salt) to finish savory and sweet dishes for flavor and texture. If your mind is wandering to sea salt caramels, you aren't alone.
Sea salt is a pure salt from the sea, which means it will taste especially salty, so using it with less-salty foods is the way to go to achieve a nice balance of flavor. "Some chefs believe there is a 'terroir' in sea salt, as you would experience with wine, where the minerals and microorganisms specific to one localized area can produce a particular flavor in its salt," explains Ben Roche, director of product development (culinary) at Hampton Creek. Consider which area you're getting your salt from, as the taste will be relative to the region. "Taste could be slightly different from place to place ranging from mild to minerally, to having strong marine flavor," he adds.
Sea salt can also be used as an all-purpose ingredient in "bulk or general cooking, meaning soups or stocks or broths or sauces," says Roche, "as opposed to more of a finishing salt where the salt would be a highlight in a dish."
Smoked Sea Salt
A cousin to its pure relative, smoked sea salt is similar in nutritional value and will give your recipe an extra kick. There are various producers of a smokier version, with one of the most common being the flaky Maldon salt from Spain, says Roche. You can expect a mild saltiness with a balanced smoky flavor that lingers, he says.
It's also great for adding a bit of texture to a dish. You get a "smoky flavor and a lovely crunch from flaky salt," he adds. The best ways to use it in cooking? "Delicate seafood, gently cooked vegetables, perhaps lightly sprinkled over coconut ice cream and/or roasted pineapple. We often explore the use of smoked salt as a seasoning on adventurous flavors for our ice cream prototypes," says Roche.
Here's another way that millennial pink is making a name for itself. Himalayan salt is actually pink in color, thanks to trace minerals in the salt. "Himalayan is the oldest salt on earth," says Hogan. "It is jam-packed with more than 84 minerals and a myriad of health benefits. It's an air purifier, helps prevent respiratory problems, and is also a sleep inducer."
How? Salt's antibacterial qualities can thin out excess mucus and cleanse the air of pathogens. according to the Lung Institute. This is why Himalayan salt is used from floor to ceiling in salt room therapy caves that are said to clear out sinuses and help with allergies and even skin problems.
In the kitchen, Himalayan salt isn't always used in cooking. "It can be used to plate food either hot or cold, as the salt can retain heat or cold for hours all the while seasoning the protein," says Hogan. The flavor is slightly less salty than traditional table salt and could even be considered to have a "sweeter" flavor, says Roche. For desserts, it could be used in "cakes and cookies and baked goods to offset the sweet flavor, and give a hint of savoriness," he adds.
Unlike sea salt, which varies from region to region, Himalayan salt is mostly mined in the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan.
Hawaiian Black Salt
"Hawaiian Black salt is formed from the evaporation of sea water," says Hogan. "The color is achieved by adding charcoal." While you may have heard that activated charcoal has detoxifying benefits, sorry to say those claims have all but been dismissed by science. However, the flavor and aesthetic appeal black salt has at the dining table are legit.
"We use it primarily for finishing dishes, adding flavor, texture, and a beautiful visual," he says. "This salt should not be confused with Indian Black salt, which has a distinct aroma and flavor of sulfur." Yikes—not a mistake you want to make.
Traditional Hawaiian salt is not as salty as regular old table salt. "Usually, it's sold in larger grain/crystal sizes, which can give a burst of salt and a more crunchy texture," says Roche. So, it's best for "garnishing foods where you can see the salt on top. Cooked or raw sliced fish or meat, as well as cooked vegetables, are also good fits," he says.
Persian Blue Salt
Blue salt, which is rich in iron, calcium, and potassium, comes from Iran and is one of the rarest salts on earth, says Hogan. (Not to be confused with Blue Majik—another popular food trend that's turning food blue everywhere.) "It is generally regarded as a dessert salt being used in caramel sauce and ice cream, but is also great to use as a finishing salt for foie gras, seafood, and other meats," he says. It is dotted with blue crystals, so it'll add a nice touch of color to any plate.
As for the taste? "Intense salinity up front, more mild/almost sweeter finish," says Roche, who also uses it as a garnish for cold seafood or warm desserts with caramel and chocolate.