Salt, a natural mineral, helps regulate the heartbeat and water content and the body's fluids and is essential to our existence. According to Wikipedia: "Sodium and chlorine, the two components of salt, are necessary for the survival of all living creatures, including humans, but they need not be consumed as salt, where they are found together in very concentrated form." However, too much of anything is generally bad: Excess salt intake leads to health problems, including high blood pressure.
We meet our salt requirements in many ways but, lucky for us, edible salts offer a pleasant taste for the palate. Most of us use salt as a seasoning when cooking or to enhance the flavor of food while eating. Soy sauce, fish sauce and oyster sauce, which have a high salt content, are used to satisfy salt flavoring in many Asian dishes.
Salt is crystalized matter and, depending on its origin, is white, pale pink or light gray in color. There are various forms of edible salt: unrefined salt (such as sea salt), refined salt (table salt) and iodized salt. Normally it is extracted from sea water or rock deposits, like the ones you see when you travel over the Dumbarton Bridge.
Salt is also used as a food preservative and that's a clue to how its history begins. Before refrigeration, curing food with salt allowed people to store food for out-of- season use, preserve meats for dry hunting spells and travel longer distances. Since salt was not easy to obtain, it became a highly valued trade item in the ancient world and was as good as gold. Roman soldiers were paid in "salt money," salarium argentum, which ultimately evolved to the English word "salary." The expression "he is not worth his salt" originated in ancient Greece where slaves were traded for salt.
And from Morton Salt's Web site: "Trade routes were established because of it. And when supplies ran out, empires fell. You think Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus off to who-knows-where just to find a few bags of gold? Nope. Chris also had strict orders to bring home boatloads of salt."
UNREFINED SALTS: Natural sea salt contains sodium chloride and trace minerals and is usually light gray in color due to this mineral content. Some say these trace elements render unrefined salts healthier for us; others assert that unrefined salts are missing adequate amounts of the iodine that help prevent diseases like diabetes and goiters. Honestly, even cooking with sea salt, most of us will still get enough of the iodized salts in our diets to meet our iodine needs.
There are many varieties of sea salts, from the simple to the complex. To name a few:
* Fleur de sel - "Flower of salt" - is a natural sea salt that has unique flavors that vary by region. It is hand-collected by workers who scrape the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans. Traditional French fleur de sel is collected off the coast of Brittany; it is also produced in Camargue.
* Portuguese sea salt - "flor de sal" - is hand-harvested from the Algarve region of Portugal and is becoming popular for its pure white color.
* Hawaiian sea salt - alaea - is reddish in color from small amounts of clay, which enriches the salt with iron-oxide.
* Himalayan Pink Salt is hand-mined salt found deep inside the Himalayan Mountains. The crystals range in color from sheer white to shades of pink to deep reds and contain 84 trace elements and iron.
* Black Lava-Flake is Mediterranean Sea salt combined with activated charcoal. The dramatic color and delicate texture make this ideal as a table condiment.
* Bali Coconut and Lime-Smoked Salt is sea salt crystals that are smoked over coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves. It has a light smoky flavor with a touch of citrus that is perfect for cooking or roasting.
REFINED AND ODIZED SALTS: Table salt is refined salt, 95 percent sodium chloride, that also contains anti-caking substances and a miniscule amount of invert sugar (to prevent the salt from turning a yellow color when exposed to sunlight and to prevent a significant loss of iodine via vaporization). Table salt is often iodized by the inclusion of small amounts of potassium iodide, which serves as an important dietary supplement.
Kosher salt generally has no additives like iodine. Kosher salt has a much larger grain size than regular table salt, and a more open granular structure. Kosher salt gets its name from helping to make meats kosher, by extracting blood from the meat. Because kosher salt grains are larger, they do not dissolve quickly so the salt remains on the surface of the meat longer, allowing more fluids (blood) to leach out of the meat. However, because kosher salt grains take up more volume, you'll usually need twice as much kosher salt to replace table salt. And, conversely, use half as much table salt as a substitute for kosher salt in a recipe.
Many chefs prefer using kosher salt because the larger, coarser grains allow you to pinch a larger batch of salt and evenly sprinkle them on food. Kosher salt tends to make flavors cleaner and brighter than iodized salt as the iodine can generate a slightly metallic flavor, according to the Food Network's Alton Brown. Personally, I like cooking with kosher and sea salts, then offering refined salt as a table condiment. Try cooking your favorite recipe with kosher or sea salt to see if you can discern a difference in taste. Or, try one of the simple recipes here. All are worth their salt.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Sweet Potato Chips with Lime Salt (serves 2):
4 limes to generate 1/2 tsp. lime zest
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 large sweet potato (about 3/4 pound)
3 cups vegetable oil
1. Finely grate lime zest and stir together with salt in a small cup. Peel sweet potato and, with a vegetable peeler, shave as many long strips as possible from potato (or slice potato into thin rounds).
2. Heat oil in a deep heavy skillet, over moderately high heat, until thermometer registers 375 degrees. Fry potato strips in small batches, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and all bubbling stops, about 1 minute.
3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer fried chips to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with lime salt.
Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms with Garlic & Coarse Salt (serves 4-8 as starter):
1 pound Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed (about 1-1/4 pounds with stems; save stems for making vegetable stock)
1-3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. finely minced or pureed fresh garlic
1-1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
Herb sprigs, for garnish (thyme or a bit of rosemary)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking dish with oil.
2. Place Shiitakes in dish, caps up or down. Make sure pan is big enough so the mushrooms are not on top of each other; they need space to roast well.
3. Toss the mushrooms with the oil, garlic, and salt. Place the pan in the oven, uncovered, and bake 10-12 minutes. Take them out, shake the pan a few times. At least a third of the mushrooms should be starting to color and getting a little crunchy. Put them back in until all mushrooms are done.
4. Serve, warm or at room temperature, with herb garnish.
Spicey Hawaiian Salad
4 young cucumbers, sliced thick
2 carrots, thinly sliced
4 stalks celery, sliced
1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup vinegar
1 1/2 Tbsp. of Alaea sea salt
1 cup water
1/4 pound smoked salmon
1. Combine sugar, vinegar, salt, and water. Boil the mix then pour it over the sliced vegetables; then cool the mix by refrigerating overnight.
2. Add thin slices of smoked salmon before serving.