A Few Grains of Salt About Choosing the Right Seasoning

Most home cooks probably grew up with only one type of salt – table salt, which was kept in a cylindrical can in the pantry, or in a shaker on the table, next to the pepper. But in many kitchens these days, you can easily find kosher salt, sea salt, and specialty salts like Himalayan pink salt or black volcanic salt. And more than any other seasoning, the types of salt you use – and for kosher salt, even the brand you buy – can make a tremendous difference in how your food tastes on the plate.

Professional chefs and experienced cooks typically don’t use table salt because of its small, dense grain that makes it hard to distribute evenly on food. Also, packaged table salt usually contains iodine, which can give food a slightly metallic taste. By contrast, kosher salt granules have a larger surface area that clings more easily to meats and vegetables, and tastes clean and pure.

But all kosher salts aren’t exactly the same. The two major types of salt are Diamond Crystal, which you’ll find in a red box at the grocery store, and Morton’s, which comes in a blue box. Because these brands use different processes to produce the salt crystals, Diamond Crystal granules are larger and more fragile than Morton’s, which are denser and crunchier. And that means that a teaspoon of Morton’s is much saltier than a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal, about 70% more by weight.

As with other dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, one way to ensure you get the right amount in your dish is to measure by weight, not volume. But recipe writers usually specify the amount of salt in teaspoons (or fractions of teaspoons). Because the leading brands of salt have such different salinities, unless your recipe specifies which type it’s using, you risk over-salting your food if it was written with Diamond Crystal in mind, and you’re using Morton’s. (You can often add more salt if a dish is under-seasoned, so the opposite scenario isn’t quite so treacherous.)

That’s why Milk Street announced last year that it was switching to using Morton’s in its kitchen. “By developing our recipes to use less salt by volume (but the same amount by weight, and therefore the same level of saltiness in the finished dish), we believe it will be more difficult for people to unintentionally add too much salt to a recipe,” Milk Street said in its blog.

Another solution for recipe writers is to forego kosher salt entirely rather than specify a favored brand. Samin Nosrat, author of “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” has shifted to using fine sea salt in the recipes she’s written for the New York Times and other publications. Nosrat says that refined sea salt, which comes from evaporated seawater, has the same salinity as table salt but doesn’t have its metallic taste.

Other types of sea salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, are less refined and more expensive. They’re better choices as finishing salts, when you want the contrast of a salty texture on top of a sweet chocolate chip cookie or a sharp and creamy tomato-and-mozzarella salad. “Fleur de sel, one of the most expensive salts in the world, is not something you want to dump into your pasta water, because you just spent $22 to dissolve all of that away,” Nosrat said on a July 2020 episode of her “Home Cooking” podcast.

And what about those specialty pink or black salts? “To me they’re much less about how they taste than how they look,” Nosrat said.

Whichever types of salt you use, remember that salt is a flavor enhancer that can keep your food from turning out bland. Whenever you’re sprinkling it, tasting as you cook will prevent you from being unhappy with how your dish comes out – a disappointment that might lead you to use some salty language.

What I Ate: Cucumber salad with sumac-pickled onions

The types of salt you use for seasoning can make a big difference in how your final dish tastes