Flavoured salt 101

March 19, 2008

Flavoured saltIn my last Topline Trends newsletter, I talked about how salt is interesting because it is trending up as something we want to avoid as well as something we want to use as a gourmet ingredient. On the one hand, we’re trying to get salt out of packaged food so we can reduce our dietary intake of sodium. On the other hand, we’re buying exotic, interesting salts from around the world and adding them to food — both at the table and when we’re cooking.What’s interesting about the gourmet side of the salt trend is that, like wine, salt is always linked to a geographical location. I was on Canada AM last week talking about food trends and I had 14 different kinds of salt on set (one of my favourites from the batch is pictured above and you can see the others here); each salt was from a different exotic geographic area and had special characteristics (again, like wine) because of its place of origin.Interestingly, scientific research shows that our palates can’t discern the difference between the flavours of different salts when they are dissolved in water (once diluted, sodium is sodium). So, when we use a special kind of salt and find it more or less delicious than another type, it is the rate and the way the salt crystals dissolve on our tongues that is actually creating a different taste experience.How does it work, you ask? Different salts have different shapes and different sizes, therefore they dissolve at different rates which means our palates perceive differences in the flavour. Now some salts — such as ones that are filled with minerals (like volcanic salt) — do have distinct tastes, and flavoured salts offer many culinary opportunities. For instance, smoked salt is certainly on many chefs’ ‘must-have’ lists this season for its incomparable rich flavour. But if you were to dissolve any unflavoured salt in water in equal amounts of weight to equal volumes of water and tasted them, you would be completely unable to tell one from another.So, what I’m really trying to tell you is to save your specialty salts to use as a finishing salt. When you’re cooking with moisture, use the cheap and cheerful stuff. There is absolutely no reason to put expensive sea salt into pasta water. If purity is an issue for you, buy kosher salt to avoid the iodine and use it as your basic cooking ingredient.What do I mean by “finishing salt”? Basically a finishing salt is a salt that you use either at the table or just after food is cooked. For instance, if you’re grilling steak, you might sprinkle it with some finishing salt while it’s resting on the chopping board. (This is where smoked salt is a really delicious choice!)Expect to pay a premium for the specialty salts. In fact, a small bottle of fleur de sel can cost as much as $7 or $8, which gives you yet another reason to use it sparingly.How many kinds of salt do you have in your pantry?