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March 26, 2008
Salt has been in general use before history was even recorded. According to the Salt Institute, Alexandria, VA, about 4,700 years ago, the "Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu" was published in China, and is regarded as the earliest known treatise on pharmacology emphasizing a discussion of more than 40 kinds of salt.
Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of varieties of salt, with some 14,000 known uses. Food-grade salt use accounts for as little as 5%, according to the Salt Institute. (The largest markets are for highway salt and water conditioning.)
A grain of salt
Salt is the oldest known food additive, and the most widely used of all food preservatives.
Sea salt is in a category all its own, distinguished from other varieties such as table, iodized, kosher, rock and pickling salts. "Sea salt is a natural product that does not contain any commercial additives," says Al Kirchner, CEO, Oceans Flavor Foods, Asheville, NC, which makes a product that has 45% to 57% less sodium than regular sea salt. Sea salt is derived from living oceans and saline seas and is typically formed in an open environment (usually a shallow pond), with wind, sun and climate conditions that cause evaporation that, in the end, forms crystals.
The evaporation process concentrates the sea saltwater, or brine, which is moved pond to pond where heavy deposits of calcium sulfate are laid down. "At certain concentrations or salinities, specific minerals or salts begin to crystallize and recrystallize and drop out of the brine," says George Lutz, quality assurancetechnical services manager, Cargill Salt, Minneapolis.
Some grades of sea salt are not as refined as table salt and can contain some trace minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc and iodine. Sea salt comes in both fine-grain and coarse-grain. Flake type sea salts may be perceived as less salty or "sharp-tasting" and more subtle than table salt. The real differences between sea salt and table salt are primarily taste and texture, but also include place of origin, particle size and shape, color, crystal count, moisture content, adherence, flowability, solubility and more.
"I hesitate to guess how many types of sea salts are available," says Linda Kragt, technical services manager, Morton Salt, Chicago. There could be as many different varieties as coffee or wine and from as many different regions around the globe.
Table or granulated salts contain about 2,400 mg of sodium per teaspoon; however, coarse grades of sea salt have fewer crystals per teaspoon and, therefore, less sodium by volume. The difference is less dramatic by weight. While a typical refined table salt is 99%-plus sodium chloride, or about 40% sodium, a typical sea salt might only have about 96% sodium chloride, somewhere in the neighborhood of 38.5% sodium. One sea-salt-based product marketed by Nexcel Natural Ingredients, a division of Spectrum Foods, Springfield, IL, is called a natural sodium-reduced, magnesium-enriched sea salt with sodium, potassium and magnesium that, the company says, "contains 60% less sodium than ordinary salt yet can be used to replace it on a 1:1 basis."
Sea salts primary function today is flavor enhancement, and is most-commonly used by chefs to flavor foods and "liven up" a dish. "Sea salt as an ingredient has a healthier reputation than table salt; sea salt as a condiment or finisher has a more-engaging flavor," says Kirchner. Sea salt is not recommended for food preservation, because the natural mineral content can discolor some foods.
The use of sea salt is a major food trend. "With the proliferation of televised cooking shows and celebrity chefs, consumers are being exposed to new cooking techniques and global cuisines, such as the flavors of Asia, South America and Europe," says Lutz. "Foods made with artisanal ingredientsincluding sea saltsare gaining in popularity as consumers demand fuller flavor, more-satisfying mouthfeel and greater satiety."
Rising consumer awareness and acceptance has also put this ingredient on the map. "Sea salt was originally confined to health-food and gourmet stores, and now it is much more mainstream," says Kragt. "The trends on the food shows and in the restaurants eventually work their way into processed foods." But, she cautions, "just because a chef is using a type of sea salt does not mean its right for food processing."
Pass the salt
Its time to play "match the sea salt" and its characteristics with the correct foodservice and food-processing applications. Here are some of the more-common types:
Coarse sea salt.
With large-grained crystals, coarse sea salt will dissolve more slowly, with a more-deliberate release of the salty taste, according to Kragt. Many professional chefs prefer it as a finishing salt, because of its higher moisture levels and because they can easily add a "pinch" with their fingers. Coarse sea salt is well suited for foodservice use in salt-encrusted cooking applications (meat or fish) and as flavoring for soups, stews, pasta and processed tomato products.
For a topical salt, Lutz says to consider particle size and shape, since the salt will be tasted directly on the tongue. "For example," he says, "a coarse, sun- and wind-made sea salt with high sodium chloride would be a consideration in a pretzel or bagel application, as opposed to a fine granulated salt in a chip application."
Fine sea salt. Its finer granule size and silky texture lets fine sea salt work best in baking applications, for boiling in pasta water, adding to sauces and making marinades. It dissolves much quicker than its coarse counterpart.
Flake sea salt.
A light crystal with a mild flavor and unusual texture, flake sea salt appears as a pyramid of snowflakes. It works well as a finishing salt for pastas and mild meats such as lamb, and applied topically to vegetables and fruits. Because the delicate flakes melt quickly and evenly as they are applied, they adhere easily to food.
Purified sea salt, untreated
. This is a granular, white, crystalline sea salt made by evaporating the brine from seawater. "It typically contains less than 30 ppm of calcium and magnesium, with no anti-caking or free-flowing additives or conditioners," says Lutz. He says some of the best uses for this type of sea salt include mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine, conventional churn butter and canned vegetables such as peas, lima beans and tomatoes.
Purified sea salt with yellow prussiate of soda (YPS). This variety has improved caking resistance and is particularly useful for dry salt dispensing or brining, and in baking, cheese manufacturing and meat processing.
Celtic sea salt. The branded Celtic sea salt refers to a product harvested by hand from the Atlantic seawater off the coast of Brittany, France. It is known for retaining the oceans flavor essence and naturally occurring minerals, and for its distinctive light-gray color. Chefs use it for cooking, baking and finishing dishes.
Fleur de sel. Labeled "flower of salt," young crystals of fleur de sel are delicately hand-harvested by traditional paludiers (salt farmers) from the sea salt beds in the Guérande (west central) region of France. It has a unique flavor and aroma profile reminiscent of the sea, and its color is not marred by the minerals and sediment that darken other sea salts. Its moist, crunchy texture is praised by chefs who use fleur de sel to finish many a fine plate. It is suited for salads, cooked fresh vegetables and grilled meats.
Deb North, freelance food writer, marketing consultant and recent graduate of LeCordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, can be e-mailed at [email protected].
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