Salt, the ubiquitous crystalline substance we know today, was once a rare and prized commodity for cultures across the globe because of its varied uses.
According to “Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks” by David Joachim (2001, Rodale Inc.), salt is composed of two types of ions: 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. It also is one of the five basic tastes.
Made from evaporated seawater or mined rock deposits frequently found in underground ancient sea beds, the cubic structure of salts can differ depending on the method of acquisition.
Humans have long known of salt’s benefits, with mines dating to 6,500 B.C.E. having been found in Salzburg, Austria, according to Joachim. Prior to refrigeration, salt was used to help preserve food from spoiling because salt inhibits the microbial and fungal growth within food.
Salt’s composition can nimbly penetrate food. Modern chefs celebrate the seasoning’s structures and flavors because of their varied contributions to dishes. Today, salt production facilities can be found on nearly every continent, with each region’s geologic composition contributing to the veritable rainbow of salts available.
The various forms of salt are table, iodized, kosher, sea and rock salt, according to Joachim.
Table salt is one of the most prevalent, finding its way to its namesake only after refining has stripped away traces of other naturally occurring minerals. Chemical additives are sometimes blended in to prevent clumping of this fine-grain salt, there by providing accuracy in measuring for bakers.
Iodized salt is fortified with iodine that might have been removed during processing. The fortified salt was the result of a Midwest goiter epidemic in the 1920s blamed on iodine deficiencies.
Kosher salt is coarse-grained with no additives, prepared under specific conditions required by the Orthodox Jewish faith, and initially used for koshering meats. It is often a more affordable alternative to gourmet varieties.
Sea salt is the result of a time-consuming seawater evaporation process that maintains each fine or coarse grain’s mineral composition. It tends to have trace minerals such as iodine, magnesium and potassium that are naturally present.
Texture and color of sea salts vary more than flavor, which can be fresher and lighter than other types. Maldon and France’s Fleur de Sel are popular varieties.
Rock salt is unrefined and generally found in large crystals, often tinged with gray because of its mineral composition. It’s used for shellfish presentation or in hand-cranked ice cream makers, for example.
Flavor-infused salt is created by blending salts with other ingredients. They can be made by hand or purchased in stores around Northern Nevada, including Napa-Sonoma Grocery Company, Salty-Savory-Sweet Spices and and Teas on California Avenue, Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods Market.
“Flavored salts are a great opportunity to give your dish another subtle layer such as lavender finishing salt, or a strong confident pop like a lime serrano chile salt,” says chef Christian Christensen, owner of Süp restaurant.
“Salts are used to bring out the flavors of other ingredients, so flavoring salts themselves can be a fun twist, with endless possibility.”
Lemon, truffles, chile peppers and even wine and espresso are used to complement the base salt flavor and add dimension to dishes. Salts even can be smoked.
Chef Michael Woodall of Bistro 7 also likes the way infused salts can enhance a dish with either complementary or contrasting flavors.
“I use smoked salt to finish our butterscotch pudding because it brings out the smokiness of the Scotch,” Woodall says. “But I also use them in our pulled pork sandwich.”
Professional chefs and those in the spice business recommend using these as finishing salts to complete a dish — especially if experimenting with new blends — so that you don’t have to scrap a whole dish if the salt is too heavy-handed or the flavors don’t mesh well.
Some ideas for using flavor-infused salts are on popcorn, meats, vegetables and French fries; in sparkling waters and compound butters; on the rim of cocktails; to counterbalance sweetness in desserts or fruits — even sprinkled atop fresh tomatoes when they’re in season.
The salt spectrum
Salty-Savory-Sweet Spices and Teas owner Lindy Pastor talks about how the various salt hues come from the clay or volcanic rocks where each is found.
Different geographic locations produce salts with varying trace mineral contents. Examples include the higher iron content found in Himalayan pink salts, and the black and red salts of Hawaii colored by the islands’ activated volcanic charcoal and red clay, respectively.
These minerals can subtly to dramatically impact salt flavor, like the pungent, dark Kala Namak salt from the Himalayas. Its aroma and flavor are sulphurous, which can add an almost egg-like profile to dishes.
Taste tests perhaps offer the best glimpse into the flavor differences, and sampling is encouraged at Salty-Savory-Sweet.
Pastor and her husband and business partner Brent operate in a front-of-house, back-of-house fashion. Lindy develops the spice and tea blends they create in-house and mans the shop; her husband makes her recipes.
“We got into this business from traveling,” says Lindy Pastor, a native Nevadan. “We wanted to give people something they are used to, and then give them something they’ve never tried before to expand their palate.”