Which Salt is Which?

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I just read a recipe (for keto “bread”) that calls for one teaspoon of Celtic sea salt. I admit, although I thoroughly enjoy cooking, and read a lot of articles and recipes, I had not heard of Celtic sea salt. Is it different from normal sea salt? Does being Celtic make it somehow superior? And how does sea salt compare to “normal” table salt?

It’s not just this recipe—I’ve noted a tendency for food bloggers to post recipes specifically calling for various types of salt. Kosher salt is particularly popular. Then there’s pink Himalayan salt, which is very pretty in a salt grinder. But does it really matter? Do these various kinds of table salt actually taste different? And is one type of salt healthier than the others?

To answer my questions, I researched the six most common types of salt on the market today: plain old table salt, iodized table salt, Kosher salt, pink Himalayan salt, sea salt, and gray (Celtic) sea salt. (There are others, mostly defined by source and/or color.) Here’s what I learned.

Particle size:
Grains of salt come in various shapes and sizes. Traditional table salt tends to have small particles that fit easily through the holes of a salt shaker. Fancy salts tend to have larger particles, either cubes, pyramids, or flakes, although you can buy them finely ground as well. The grind affects the amount of salt packs into a teaspoon, how fast it dissolves onto food, and how strong its salty flavor is on the tongue. Larger grains also “crunch” as we bite them—usually a desirable effect.

Kosher salt is simply coarse 100% NaCl. It was originally used to draw blood from a cut of meat, as dictated by kosher cooking rules. For some reason, many recipes specify kosher salt, but once it dissolves, it tastes no different than salt with a finer grind.

Particle size has by far the most significant impact on the taste of salt sprinkled on food. Even Cook’s Illustrated suggests, “Don’t bother cooking with pricey sea salt; we’ve found that mixed into food, it doesn’t taste any different than table salt. Instead, we use it as a ‘finishing salt,’ where its delicate crunch stands out.”

Health benefits:
All salts are primarily sodium chloride (NaCl). Sea salt and other non-processed salts may also contain an assortment of trace minerals, although in the case of sea salt, the process of crystallization as the water evaporates leaves most of these behind. The type and percentage of these minerals varies according to the source of the salt, but usually include “calcium, potassium, and magnesium salts of chloride and sulfate with substantially lesser amounts of many trace elements found in natural seawater.” The minerals add color and perhaps flavor. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Sea salt and table salt have the same basic nutritional value, despite the fact that sea salt is often promoted as being healthier.”

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How about the pink salt mined from Pakistan? I’ll send you to this article at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, as they do a bang-up job of dismantling the hype. Let’s just say that I bought some because it’s pretty, not because I believe it’s particularly healthy.

It’s well known that too much sodium is bad for you, and you’d have to consume a lot of salt to get significant amounts of these trace minerals. There are far better dietary sources of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

Iodine:
Some table salt contains iodine. Sea salt naturally contains some iodine. In other cases, minute amounts of a compound containing iodine are added to pure NaCl to create iodized salt. Why does this matter?

Iodine is an essential nutrient. Iodine deficiency “affects about two billion people and is the leading preventable cause of intellectual and developmental disabilities.” The easiest way to ensure adequate iodine is to use iodized salt. If you use salt without iodine in it, such as Kosher salt, note these alternate sources: fish, shellfish, seaweed, and other seafood; dairy products; grains. Fruits and vegetables contain some iodine, but the content varies according to the amount present in the soil where they were grown.

I found it interesting that, while some cooks complain about the bad taste of iodine ruining their food, they also rave about sea salt. Personally, I can’t taste the difference.

A special note on “sea salt”:
Technically, all mined salt is sea salt. The deposits are simply salt left behind by ancient seas, whose water evaporated a very long time ago. Whether the salt comes from present-day saltwater, or it was deposited a million years ago, the chemical composition is very similar. That’s why there is no legal requirement for salt manufacturers to distinguish between the two.

Additionally, not all “normal” salt is mined. I remember the Leslie Salt Company’s evaporation ponds that once filled the south end of San Francisco Bay. While most of those dikes have been demolished and the area returned to a more natural state, seawater is still a commercial source of plain table salt, especially on the west coast.

Finally, consider this excellent explanation by Robert L. Wolke, that was published in the Washington Post back in September 6, 2000 (I highly recommend reading the entire article!):

If you evaporate all the water from a bucket of ocean (fish previously removed), you will be left with a sticky, gray, bitter- tasting sludge that is about 78 percent sodium chloride—salt. Ninety-nine percent of the rest consists of magnesium and calcium compounds. Beyond that, there are at least 75 other elements in very small amounts. That last fact is the basis for the ubiquitous claim that sea salt is “loaded with nutritious minerals.” But cold, hard chemical analysis tells the tale: The minerals, even in this raw, unprocessed stuff, are present in nutritionally negligible quantities. You’d have to eat two tablespoons of it to get the amount of iron, for example, in a single grape.

Bowl of salt sludge, anyone? Not in the United States, because although people in coastal regions of some countries do use this raw material as a condiment, the Food and Drug Administration requires that food-grade salt be at least 97.5 percent pure sodium chloride.

That’s why even “natural” sea salt is processed to remove most of the impurities.

Cost:
Last, but not least, is the cost of all these “gourmet” salts. I went online and checked the lowest price I could find for several types of salt (there are many more). In several cases, buying in bulk offered significant savings, but who wants ten pounds of salt? In all cases, prices and claims were extremely varied.

Type of salt:

$/oz.
Iodized table .03
Non-iodized table .03
Kosher .04
Pink Himalayan .11
Sea salt .14
Celtic sea salt .61

Clearly, there’s a lot of hype about salt, and much of it is completely unsubstantiated. My take-away is that I use regular, iodized salt in my cooking where the salt is going to dissolve anyway, and we have a grinder* of pretty pink crystals to add at the table. I discovered that most of these salts are available in a variety of sizes, from finely ground to coarse cubes. Having some of each on hand is turning out to be useful.

And in case you’ve been wondering about that Celtic sea salt, it turns out that it’s actually harvested from the coast of Brittany, France. The gray color comes from the gray clay found in the area, which is scooped up with the salt. Some people claim that eating clay is good for you. I’ll believe it when I see the studies.


*Note: the grinder is just to complement the pepper grinder next to it. Salt doesn’t get stale, although it may clump in damp climates, and grinding it doesn’t make it “fresher.”

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