At a Japanese restaurant one recent evening in New York City, I watched the chef liberally season a $50 Kobe beef rib-eye with fine-grained salt. "Excuse me," I inquired, "may I ask what kind of salt you are using?" Like a magician who's asked to reveal the secret of his best trick, he answered begrudgingly, "It is Japanese sea salt," and then threw the steak on the grill.
When preparing a $50 piece of aged beef, it's fairly logical that only the finest ingredients will do. But are pricier salts superior to their inexpensive counterparts? Which salt is best? In an effort to find out, I purchased some basic table salts from the local supermarket, and picked up fancy-schmancy varieties from a gourmet Manhattan grocer. I devised a (salt and) battery of tests, thus beginning operation dehydration.
All salts that we consume are made from sea salt or mined from inland salt deposits. There are four common varieties: iodized table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, and fleur de sel (a type of sea salt).
Table salt is made by sending water into salt deposits and then evaporating the mixture until only salt crystals remain. The Morton Salt Company began adding iodine to salt in 1924 to help prevent goiters which, at that time, were typically caused by iodine deficiency. According to the Salt Institute, nearly 70 percent of table salt sold in the United States is iodized. Iodine deficiency has been virtually eliminated in North America, but it still presents a health problem in many countries around the world.
Kosher salt gets its name because of its integral role in making meat kosher. Jewish law dictates that blood must be extracted from meat prior to consumption. Although kosher salt is harvested like table salt, it is raked during evaporation to give the grains a block-like structure that allows the crystals to better absorb blood from animal carcasses.
Sea salt is created by evaporating seawater until you're left with salt; it is generally less dense than table salt, meaning it is slightly less salty than table salt.
Fleur de sel is a type of sea salt obtained by hand harvesting the "young" crystals that form on the surface of salt evaporation ponds. The harvesting of fleur de sel always takes place in the summer months when the sun is strongest. Most fleurs de sel claim to have higher mineral contents than table salts and often smell deliciously like the ocean.
Although sodium chloride is the primary component of all salt, the texture and shape of the crystals must also be considered, as those qualities fundamentally impact salt's taste and how it interacts with food. Does it provide satisfying crunch, dissolve nicely when it should? How well does it season food? How well does it stand alone?