It’s so much more than a pinch of flavor.

Salt is an essential mineral for good health — when eaten in moderation. Naturally harvested salts are prized by chefs everywhere for the magical way they elevate the flavor of most foods. And because they pack more taste into less volume, you can decrease the amount of sodium in your favorite dishes — while reaping even more flavor.

Food Basics

Harvested from oceans or mined from salt deposits deep in the earth, salt is a crystalline mineral of various colors, textures and flavors. Common table salt is heavily refined through mechanical and chemical processes into pure sodium chloride, an ordeal that strips it of most of its naturally occurring nutrients (including iodine, which is added back in after refining). As a rule, conventional table salts also contain a variety of additives and chemical preservatives. Kosher and sea salts are less processed and contain fewer or no chemical additives.

Sea salt is the least refined table salt, containing small amounts of trace minerals. Black salt, from India, is unrefined and has a strong sulfuric taste. Pink salt is harvested on the Hawaiian Islands and combined with a volcanic-baked red clay, to give it its pink color and additional iron. Gray salt, moist and unrefined, gets its color from the clay found in French salt flats. There are many other salt varieties, including smoked and roasted types from Wales, Denmark and Korea; and Celtic salt, rich in trace minerals, which is harvested with wooden rakes from Atlantic marshes on the coast of Brittany in France. Each salt adds a distinctive flavor to almost any food.

Nutritional Know-How

Individual salt needs vary, with some people needing slightly more salt than others. Most of us need about 1 gram of dietary salt daily to help maintain the fluid in blood cells and help transmit electrical impulses between the brain, nerves and muscles. On average, Americans consume too much salt — about 10 grams per day, much of which we get from processed foods. This excessive quantity may contribute to high blood pressure in some people, but not all (blood-pressure sensitivity to salt is often genetic). Too little salt, on the other hand, is potentially dangerous to everyone: It can lead to a condition known as hyponatremia. Symptoms include nausea, fatigue, headaches and loss of balance. Endurance athletes are at risk of hyponatremia caused by sweating and excessive water consumption that depletes sodium levels.

Kitchen Tricks

  • When cooking beans, add sea salt and reduce heat to a low simmer to ensure tenderness and intact skins.
  • Adding freshly ground sea salt and pepper to meats prior to searing or grilling creates a seasoned crust on the outside of the meats that helps lock in flavor. Consider using a salt grinder to help you control the texture.
  • Kosher salt has a coarse, flaky texture that makes it perfect for hand seasoning. It also dissolves better than table salt, so you can use less of it. If a recipe calls for table salt, use half the amount of kosher instead.
  • Fleur de sel has an exquisite, subtly nuanced taste. Use as a finishing touch to preserve and enhance a food’s flavor.

Eat Up!

Since humans naturally crave salt, no other seasoning approaches the satisfaction it provides. Salt — when used in moderation — accents the flavor of meat, vegetables, poultry, fish, seafood, soups, sauces and desserts.

  • Discover the many flavors of salt by hosting a salt tasting. Arrange small amounts of assorted sea salts on a large plate. Dip thinly sliced cucumbers into the salts and notice the different flavors.
  • Try smoked sea salt when cooking meat to add depth and flavor.
  • Lightly dust fresh-cooked new potatoes or sautéed vegetables with fleur de sel — crystals hand harvested from the surface of salt evaporation ponds. Use sparingly, because its bold ocean taste goes a long way.
  • Hawaiian pink salt adds a fresh flavor and finish to fish and seafood.

Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).

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