Salt Shake-Up

Seasoning goes from plain to fancy


It happened with coffee. It happened with ice cream. It happened with jelly beans and mustard and olive oil and vinegar and cheese and even water, for Pete's sake. And now it's happening with salt.

The salt of the earth has gone gourmet.

Turns out there's more to sodium chloride than meets the eye. Not only does it have different forms and different tastes, depending on where it comes from; it also has different colors. Red salt from Hawaii. Sel gris, gray salt, from France. Black salt from India.

The colors come from trace mineral elements in the salt, the same properties that give salts different flavors.

"It's just like grapes," says Galen Sampson, executive chef at Harbor Court Hotel. "You can grow the same grape in 10 different places, and it will taste different because of what's around it."

Until the last couple of years, these celebrity salts were mostly a secret kept among chefs and well-traveled connoisseurs. But since the mid-'90s, when entrepreneurs discovered specialty salt and began bringing it into the country, fleur de sel (blossom of the salt), sea salts and other fancy salts have been showing up in restaurants and specialty stores and even in some supermarkets.

Each of the specialty salts has a particular use: Ultra-pure salt is used for pickling, kosher salt is used for creating kosher meats and the "boutique" salts for dressing up certain dishes.

The taste differences among the salts are subtle, but clear: Sel gris, which comes from Brittany on the coast of France, has an earthy, slightly metallic taste. Sea salt tastes faintly of the sea.

People use salts in all kinds of different ways, Sampson said. "We use it in baking, in curing and preserving meats and, of course, for the flavor. And it's essential in cheese making, to draw the moisture out of the curd."

Using a boutique salt also can provide texture for some foods, Sampson said recently at the hotel. He illustrated his point by producing a plate of sliced tomatoes and sliced goat cheese, and sprinkling various salts over them. Both fleur de sel and Diamond Crystal kosher offer a bit of crunch that contrasts nicely with the silky texture of the tomato.

The craving for salt is as old as mankind, and with good reason: Salt is essential in the diet. It's among the electrolytes that control electrical charges in the body's cells. Electrolytes regulate the body's water balance and heartbeat, promote healthy skin, aid kidney function and send oxygen to the brain, among other things.

As Michele Anna Jordan explains in her new book, "Salt & Pepper" (Broadway Books, 1999, $25), early humans got all the salt they needed from the raw meat they ate. (Animals need salt for the same reasons people do.) As people's diets became more refined and complex, they learned to get salt from other sources.

But the fact that we need salt isn't the only reason we like it: It also plays a major role in how food tastes.

"I love what salt does for food -- it really makes food blossom," Jordan says. When salt dissolves on your tongue, "it brings everything together."

It's hard to say exactly what salt does to enhance flavor. For her book, Jordan talked to food scientist Harold McGee. McGee told Jordan that because there are only a few genuine tastes perceptible on the tongue, and salt is one of them, it adds to the balance and complexity of flavor. Salt also affects the way other flavors in food become available to our senses, McGee said.

Shirley Corriher, food writer and "culinary sleuth" whose latest cookbook is "CookWise: The Whys and Hows of Successful Cooking" (Morrow, 1997, $28.50), said, "I think with so many dishes, salt really makes the dish. I'm passionate about sea salt. I think it's absolutely delicious."

Salt is harvested in one of two ways. It is mined from deposits left by ancient seas, or it is evaporated from sea water or salt springs. Ordinary table salt, Corriher said, is formed by vacuum evaporation, which creates a dense cube. Sea salt is formed through surface evaporation, and fleur de sel is the very first light crystals that are formed on the surface of a new salt-evaporation pond.

Most commonly available kosher salt is table salt fused into larger grains that are ideal for absorbing the moisture in meats. It might more properly be called "koshering" salt because it is used to make meat kosher. However, one product, Diamond Crystal kosher salt, is formed through a patented process that creates hollow pyramid shapes.

For consumers, the main difference between table salt and boutique salt is the price. A 2-pound box of ordinary table salt costs about 50 cents. French sea salt can cost $20 a pound, and fleur de sel is $25-$30. The expense is due to the hand labor involved in harvesting these artisan salts.

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