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Is There Any Point to Posh Salt?

As gourmet varieties hit shelves, ‘salt snobbism’ is at an all time high. We find out if the fancy stuff is any better for you.

The Telegraph

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a wooden spoon resting on a pile of flaky salt

 Our columnist explores whether there is really any difference between Nigella Lawson's Maldon flakes and budget table salt. Photo by Quanthe/Getty Images 

When did we all become salt snobs? A lavish cookbook called Sea Salt was published in 2022—a celebration of what is, after all, a simple chemical compound, NaCl, with a sodium atom for each one of chlorine. Superficially, there’s no room for variation. When I was growing up, salt was salt, a commodity that came in a plastic bag from the supermarket or (in my smarter friends’ houses) in a yellow and red Saxa tub. 

Then, in the 1990s, it all changed. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, in the tome that epitomised ’90s cool, The River Cafe Cookbook, declared, ‘You must use Maldon salt.’ The flaky crystals, made by a family company in Essex, became the ultimate culinary accessory, found sparkling atop Nigel Slater’s hummus and nestled in Nigella’s handbag.

Other salts found fame in the wake of Maldon. The Telegraph’s Mark Hix favours Cornish sea salt. Northern Ireland-based butcher Peter Hannan made Himalayan salt the sine qua non of aged steak. Welsh company Halen Môn gained the only British ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ status for salt, guaranteeing that the sole ingredient is Anglesey seawater, with no additional brines from other waters. The family behind it, the Lea-Wilsons, are the ones who have written the cookbook, telling the story of their prized product and how to use it. Rarer still, new kid on the block Sark sea salt is made purely by solar evaporation in the Channel Islands.

These salts are unarguably beautiful, from the flattened glassy pyramids of Maldon to the fat crumbly crystals of Sark. As a crunchy topping to focaccia, say, or as points of saltiness through a chocolate mousse, they are exquisite too. But while the textures vary, do they really taste different? Perhaps, mixed into purified water, you might taste a hint of citrus in one, or a softer flavour in another, which is down to the traces of other minerals they contain. Dissolved in a dish, the variations are all but indiscernible.

So when a recipe for a brine, say, requiring handfuls of salt, calls for expensive sea-salt flakes, you can safely ignore it. Choose rock salt or easy-to-dissolve fine sea salt instead, but avoid any salt that contains anti-caking agents, which can add a bitter note.

In fact, fine salt without any of those free-running agents is easier to pick up between finger and thumb too – an important point when many recipes call for salt by the pinch. A small pinch is as much as you can hold between your thumb and first finger; a large pinch is held between your thumb, first and middle finger. As for salt snobbism, you can take that with a pinch of salt too.

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 From sea salt to rock salt, each variety has different pros and cons for cooking. Photo by Getty Images 

How well do you know your salt?

Sea-salt flakes

Made by the careful evaporation of seawater, though some brands may use rock salt as a filter. Expensive, so save for finishing dishes with crunch and sparkle.

Black salt

Known as kala namak in India, a kiln-fired salt with a pinkish-grey colour and a sulphurous smell, which adds an irreplaceable savoury note to Indian chaat dishes, and is particularly excellent in vegan recipes.

Fine sea salt or rock salt

A fine salt that dissolves easily in cooking. Choose one without anti-caking agents, like the inexpensive Essential brand from whole-food shops.

Table salt

Fine-ground salt, usually rock salt processed to remove minerals and with anti-caking agents such as calcium silicate added to make it pour smoothly through a salt shaker. Sometimes fortified with iodine. Some people find it has a faint bitter aftertaste.

Rock salt

The crystalline deposit left by long-evaporated seas and compressed to rock. Often sold as peppercorn-sized crystals, similar to ‘kosher salt’ in the United States. 

Himalayan pink salt

Unrefined rock salt from the Punjab region of Pakistan, with a rosy hue from minerals including potassium, magnesium and calcium. Blocks can be used like griddles for cooking, and the ground salt added to dishes.

Reduced-sodium salt

Usually a mix of sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Though it’s said to taste the same as pure NaCl, some (such as me) find it less salty.

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This post originally appeared on The Telegraph and was published March 30, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.