All About Salt
The difference in taste between specialty sea salts and table salt is a matter of texture and time.
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Specialty sea salts enhance the flavor and presentation of both entrees and desserts.
To compare some sea salts on the market, Joe Benkovitz, president of Benkovitz Seafoods, hosted chefs and food professionals in Pittsburgh. It was much like a wine tasting, beginning with the lightest crystals to the heaviest. Specialty "boutique" topping salts, all agreed, are best used where their contrasting textures contribute to overall flavor and, in some cases, color. Kosher and plain shaker salt were available for comparison.
Benkovitz's chef and fishcutter Henry Dewey brought platters of sushi-grade king salmon, fluke and tuna to serve as the "canvas" for the sprinklings.
Before they began, the chefs were asked what kind of salt they use to season dishes on the line. Without exception, kosher salt is used for sauces, in soups and stocks and in seasoning liquid mixtures. Most also use one or more sea salts, such as fleur de sel and Maldon, for topping dishes.
Shaker salt is mined by sending down water, pumping up the dissolved salt (brine) and then evaporating the brine quickly to make small cubic crystals that will fit through the holes in a shaker. Solar salt, on the other hand, is evaporated slowly by the sun, which makes larger, irregular crystals.
All salt crystals are shaped in variations on a cube. They can be plain cubes such as shaker salt, or they can be pyramids and other geometric variations. Sizes and shapes depend on how their brines were evaporated.
Fleur de sel is different because its crystals are formed on the surface of the solar evaporation ponds. Its crystals have unique shapes because they can grow only downward from the surface.
Shaker (or table) salt is often considered harsh because of additives. Cubes have flat faces that can stick together if they become moist. The additive in shaker salt is there to absorb moisture and keep the salt free-flowing, but it is tasteless. Dense cubes dissolve slowly and linger longer on the palate than flakier sea salts. Tiny cubes also do not have the crunch that sea salts deliver.
Flavor is not only taste, smell and texture, but time. The difference in taste between sea salt and table salt is a matter of texture and time. The complex flaky crystals of sea salts make them dissolve on the tongue more quickly. That's why some people think they are saltier. There is no smell to pure sea salt. Sea salts that contain algae may have a slight aroma.
Cooking with sea salt, such as adding it to soup or pasta water, is pointless. When a recipe specifies "sea salt" for anything other than as a topping, it is meaningless because there are dozens of sea salts, each of which has crystals of unique sizes and shapes, making consistent measurement impossible. Second, if the salt is going to dissolve in a batter or liquid, its unique crystal structure has disappeared.
Comparing various "doctored salts" - that is, salts that have other things added to them, such as clay, lava and smoke - is not comparing salts per se, it is comparing condiments.
Fleur de sel, Maldon and kosher salt are the least expensive and are readily available in gourmet stores. The others are expensive, from $12 to $24 for 4 ounces and are available mostly by mail order. Are they worth it? It depends on how you choose to spend your disposable income.
Kids will love helping to assemble (then devour!) these creamy, crunchy treats.