Ever wonder about the differences between the many varieties of salts?
There’s table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, Himalayan Pink, Cyprus Black Lava… it can feel like the options are endless.
All the salts out there can be confusing, but here’s a sweet secret: as far as chemical composition goes, all salts are virtually identical.
Scientifically, salt is always sodium chloride, or NaCl. Although different varieties of salt may also include additives or trace amounts of minerals, the chemical makeup of salt is always the same.
For culinary purposes, though, it’s the size and shape of salt that can make the difference in a dish.
Here’s a rundown of the 3 most common salts, and when to use them:
What It Is: The most commonly-used salt, table salt is the finely-processed salt you’ll find in salt shakers.
Pros: Easily measurable, consistently-sized, and the most common.
Cons: Table salt is the most processed salt, and contains additives. Some say the flavor is not as pure as other salts, especially if iodine is added. Also, due to the ultra-fine crystals, there is a higher chance of accidentally oversalting your food.
Best for: Baking. Also works great in soups and stews.
Additives: Yes. To prevent clumping, anticaking agents are added (examples are sodium aluminosilicate or magnesium carbonate). Also, iodine — an essential mineral that many people do not get sufficient amounts of in their daily diet — is often added for nutritional purposes.
Measurement Details: Because of the tiny, finely-packed crystals, one teaspoon of table salt does not equal one teaspoon of other salts; table salt can actually be as twice as dense as other salt varieties — that means if you use kosher salt instead of table salt, you may need twice as much in a recipe! Always be cautious before making any salt substitutions.
What It Is: With its large, irregular surface area, kosher salt has been used historically in the kashering process to draw blood out of meat (hence, the name “kosher” salt).
Pros: Kosher salt is a favorite of chefs. Since the coarse granules are easy to sprinkle and large enough to see, kosher salt gives you greater control over seasoning. And since there is no added iodine, kosher salt has a completely pure flavor. It also has a crunchy mouthfeel, which works well as a finishing salt.
Cons: Doesn’t dissolve as easily as table salt, and can give an uneven, sporadic saltiness to foods, especially baked goods.
Best for: Brining, curing, pickling, as a finishing salt, and any time you need a controlled sprinkle of salt.
Additives: Most often, no. (Some brands may contain anti-caking agents. To be sure of purity, check the ingredient panel; it should have SALT as the only ingredient.)
Measurement Details: Kosher salt comes in different shapes, which can affect the way it measures out. Diamond Crystal, the preferred brand of chefs, has a pyramidal structure, while the granules in Morton are flatter. Measure salts by weight (instead of volume) to get the most consistent result. Always be cautious before making any salt substitutions.
What It Is: An unprocessed, coarse salt that is collected from evaporated sea water.
Pros: The craggy granules lend a salty and surprising flavor explosion to foods (think: sea salt caramels). Because of its natural source, sea salt contains trace minerals that may add a unique flavor to foods depending on where it has been harvested from.
Cons: Not the best for baking or in any recipe which requires a consistently salty flavor throughout.
Best for: Use in a salt grinder, and as a finishing salt to add a final burst of flavor to foods such as meats, fish, vegetables, and desserts.
Additives: No. However, specialty sea salts can be smoked, flavored, and colored with added ingredients.
Measurement Details: Sea salt comes in many grain sizes (from powder-fine to extra-coarse), each size useful for a different application. Always be cautious before making any salt substitutions.