Which salt is best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
April 26 2005 4:38 AM

Worth One's Salt

From fleur de sel to kosher, which salt is best?

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.

Some Explanation

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).

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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.

The Testing

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?

Three tests were performed on nine salts (from each of the four salt varieties) by eight tasters in New York City: the finger dip (self-explanatory), salt atop a slice of fresh cucumber, and salt used in pasta sauce made with unsalted canned tomatoes. (I made Marcella Hazan's classic tomato sauce.)

While the East Coast results were interesting, I felt they were inconclusive. Thus, I embarked on Round 2, which took place in Los Angeles at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, the Edendale Grill in Silverlake. The restaurant kindly agreed to cook French fries and steaks for a group of eight testers, using each of the same nine salts.

In both rounds, testers were asked to blindly rate the salt from 1 to 10 and comment on its taste. The scores from all five rounds were averaged together for one final "taste" score. (Click here to view the results of each individual taste test.) Salts were also assigned an aesthetic rating based on the packaging and the look of the salt itself, since appearance is often as important as taste. As Malcolm Gladwell says in Blink, "We shouldn't be at all surprised that Pepsi's dominance in blind taste tests never translated to much in the real world. Why not? Because in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind."

The Results (from worst to best)

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Nu-Salt Salt Substitute, $1.95 for 2.5 ounces ($0.78 per ounce)

Category: Not technically a salt, though it's designed for table use.
Taste: -1.02 (out of 10) Note: Due to its revolting taste, several people went so far as to give Nu-Salt negative scores.
Appearance: 6 (out of 10)
Packaging: 1 (out of 10)
Total: 5.98

Serving Suggestions: Torture.

I've never knowingly tasted poison, but Nu-Salt tastes as close to eating poison as I'd like to get. Made from potassium chloride, potassium bitartrate, silicon dioxide, and "natural flavor derived from citrus fruits and honey," its phoniness is obvious. Tasters referred to it as "an unswallowable, rancid imposter," and one hardened New Yorker described it as "Living hell! I'd rather lick a subway rat's tummy." Nu-Salt is designed for people on low-sodium diets and is made by the Cumberland Packing Corp. (the folks who made the world a little sweeter with Sweet 'N Low).

It earned a 6 for looks because the grains are intriguingly spherical; upon close examination, they float around the plate like air-hockey pucks.

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Iodized Diamond Crystal Salt

, $.99 for 26 ounces ($0.04 per ounce)

Category: Table Salt

Taste: 3.89

Appearance: 5

Packaging: 2

Total: 10.89

Serving Suggestions: Baking, salting water for pasta, a helping hand around the house, killing slugs (a childhood pastime of mine, now forsaken).

I tested Diamond Crystal instead of Morton because I couldn't find any Morton at my corner supermarket, but I regret that decision. I've always loved the Morton Salt girl—her cute yellow sundress and matching yellow shoes … she's even had poems written about her. But alas, we tested Diamond Crystal, which was found to be "pedestrian." On the fries, the small grains were dismissed as "too strong." No surprises in the looks department—it looks like table salt. And the packaging, well, like I said, I've got a thing for that Morton girl. Diamond is the cheapest of salts—and it seems you get what you pay for.

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La Baleine Sea Salt

(fine), $3.59 for 26.5 ounces ($0.14 per ounce)

Category: Sea Salt

Taste: 5.38

Appearance: 6

Packaging: 7.5

Total: 18.88

Serving Suggestions: Sauces, baking. Convenient shaker spout allows for even distribution over meats before grilling.

La Baleine (the whale) is the first "gourmet" salt that I ever purchased, and thus I hold some allegiance to it. The French sea salt fared OK in our taste tests, receiving high marks for its contribution to the pasta sauce: It "brought out the flavor of the tomatoes without overpowering them." In the basic tongue test, one taster suggested it was, "An ass-salt on the tongue! Like a bad one night stand—cheap and sleazy." This is probably because the very fine grains dissolve quickly on the tongue. Given its reasonable price, and its relative success in the steak test, La Baleine would make an excellent addition to your outdoor grilling area.

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Ravida Sea Salt

, $12 for 17.85 ounces ($0.67 per ounce)

Category: Sea Salt

Taste: 5.42

Appearance: 8

Packaging: 8

Total: 21.42

Serving Suggestions: With its crispy crystals, best used where a noticeable crunch is desired, as on grilled meats, salads, fresh tomatoes.

The taste results for this Sicilian sea salt were scattershot. One taster described its large, glasslike crystals as "circus salt from a vendor's pretzel." Ravida didn't satisfyingly latch on to the fries and scored rather low that round: As one taster quibbled, "Does not adhere well to the fry. No impact."

It fared well in other areas—the crystals resemble tiny, gleaming diamond fragments. I particularly like the packaging because it shows photographs of salt mounds cast against a deep blue Sicilian sky. I can almost taste the Mediterranean when staring at the canister, but I'm not convinced that makes it worth the $0.67 per ounce price tag.

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Big Tree Farms Handcrafted Course Balinese Sea Salt

, $7.50 for 8.5 ounces ($0.88 per ounce)

Category: Sea Salt

Taste: 6.02

Appearance: 9

Packaging: 6

Total: 21.02

Serving Suggestions: For finishing salads, an accompaniment to bread and olive oil.

This large-grained "small batch, artisan produced" sea salt from Bali performed best on the steak, where its uniquely square grains provided a savory crunch to the meat. But the giant crystals were ineffectual on the fries, where one taster was inspired to quote the .38 Special lyric, "Hold on loosely, but don't let go!" Some found the large grains simply "too much."

Big Tree Farms' geometric crystals resemble flawlessly formed cubes of broken glass. The recycled brown paper packaging boasts stories of well-intentioned American organic farmers heading off to sunny Bali to maintain "the ideals of sustainability and cultural preservation." Yeah—sure. Note: They also sell the salt in jungle-chic coconuts and burlap bags. Feel good about yourself when you spend nearly $1 per ounce of salt! You're supporting cultural preservation!

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Camargue Fleur de Sel

, $9.50 for 4.4 ounces ($2.16 per ounce)

Category: Fleur de sel

Taste: 6.64

Appearance: 9 (with an added 2 point bonus for fragrance)

Packaging: 9

Total: 24.64

Serving Suggestions: Salad topper, fresh vegetables; sprinkle on meats before serving.

Pull the cork from Camargue's cylindrical container, and a waft of oceanic flavor tickles your nose. This fleur de sel was a triumph on the tongue, where one taster said it was "strong and pure and warm like a Santa Ana wind." Overall, it provided a "fresh flavor" to the pasta sauce, but one taster loathed its "gritty, sweaty" taste. Camargue helped make "a nearly perfect French fry" and, as was said by one carnivore, "Now, that's the salt for steak."

The moistness of this salt probably explains its strong appetizing odor, but it also means that the crystals frequently stick together. The packaging, with its cork top and pastel colors, suggests a delicious French country market; but at $2.16 per ounce, is it worth its salt? With the dollar bottoming out against the Euro, it's at least cheaper than going to France.

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Morton Coarse Kosher Salt

, $2.99 for 3 pounds ($0.06 per ounce)

Category: Kosher Salt

Taste: 6.91

Appearance: 4

Packaging: 5

Total: 15.91

Serving Suggestion: To brine or kasher meat, great on fries, good for baking. A great all-purpose salt, and at $0.06 per ounce, a great value.

In my past life as a restaurant cook, I used kosher salt exclusively. It's cheap, and it's got a good texture. Still, I was surprised to see it perform so well—perhaps people are accustomed to its flavor because it is widely used. It scored the highest of the salts in the pasta round, where it yielded a "rich, complex, delicious" sauce. It was also a notable fry-coating favorite, where its "organic shapes sparkled."

On its own, this kosher salt looks a bit sickly—grayish and translucent. On fries or the rim of a margarita glass, however, it glistens. The packaging: I was pleased to reunite with my beloved Morton Salt Girl. Unfortunately, she's reduced to a minor character on this box, playing second fiddle to a still-life of vegetables. One note: The canister's spout can be treacherous—best to pour into the hand before sprinkling on food.

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M. Gilles Hervy Fleur de Sel

, $14.00 for 16 ounces ($0.88 per ounce)

Category: Fleur de sel

Taste: 7.11

Appearance: 8

Packaging: 9

Total: 24.11

Serving Suggestions: The SaltWorks Web site suggests, "It is a natural complement to fresh raw vegetables, salads, or grilled meats. A truly fulfilling moment is fresh trimmed radishes dipped in Fleur de Sel and served with sweet butter and sliced baguette." Yum.

A light, crunchy crystal, this winning fleur de sel comes from Brittany (near the town of Guérande, renowned for its fleur de sel harvesting marshes) and true to suggestion, was best on a piece of freshly sliced cucumber where its "smooth flavor" provided a "nice crunchy burst" that finished "amazingly clean—like a clean shave."

Similar to the Camargue fleur de sel, Gilles Hervy's moist square crystals occasionally stick together. In the package, the salt has an amber-gray hue that suggests its natural, hand-harvested origins. $14 seems like a lot for a bag of salt; but I've certainly spent $14 in far less gratifying ways—take that last U2 album, for example.

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Maldon Sea Salt

, $5.50 for 8.5 ounces ($0.65 per ounce)

Category: Sea Salt

Taste: 7.31

Appearance: 10

Packaging: 7

Total: 24.31

Serving Suggestions: Surprisingly, Maldon sprinkled on scoops of chocolate Häagen-Dazs ice cream is the perfect desert. Would also be a welcome dusting on any meat or vegetable.

The giant pyramid-shaped flakes of this British sea salt melt slowly on the tongue and provide a satisfyingly crispy crunch. It won big in the finger taste test, where its "extreme texture" had a "gentle flavor." One taster expounded, "Lovely! Looks like dandruff but tastes like food. It's a salty snack on its own." Not coincidentally, Maldon is recognized as a chef's favorite; Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten extols its "lovely square flakes."

According to Maldon, the flakes of this salt are "evaporated in large stainless steel pans, using many of the traditional skills handed down by generations of salt-makers. The salt crystals are hand harvested daily using traditional long handled rakes, a process known as 'drawing the pans.' " The packaging (a simply decorated white box) conjures the fantasy of a country picnic.

It's half the price of a movie ticket in New York City. Shut up and buy this salt.

Dan Crane is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He is the author of To Air is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist.

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