Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tour de Sel

These are several pigs and one chicken in my kitchen.

There are also some salt cellars, shakers, grinders, and pinch bowls.

And inside each one, I keep a different type of salt.

Why am I so obsessed with salt? Because salt has the magical ability to bring out and intensify the flavors of our food. That’s why even recipes for sweets and baked goods always call for salt. Without it, everything would just taste flat and bland. In fact, seasoning food correctly with salt is one of the most important skills of a good cook.*

And why must I have such a variety of salts? Because the taste and texture of each one is different. Some salts are refined, while other salts are harvested by hand and retain trace minerals that contribute to their flavor.

My general-purpose salt is kosher salt. It has a clean, crisp flavor, and it’s affordable, cheap enough even for pasta cooking water. I use it to season foods before or during cooking, anytime the salt will completely dissolve into the dish. The grains are large, making this salt easy to pinch and sprinkle over foods, and they remain visible on the surface of the food, which helps in gauging the quantity to use.

I like fine sea salt for baking, since it dissolves quickly.

Sel gris, or grey salt, is good for both cooking and finishing. This sea salt is quite moist, and its color comes from its high mineral content.

Fleur de sel, which is French for flower of salt, is relatively pricey and should be reserved for use as a finishing salt. The coarse, crunchy crystals add the perfect salty zing to seared* steak or French fries or salad. Fleur de sel does wonders for really any cooked meat, poultry, or seafood dish. I sprinkle it over food right before serving. There are several types of French fleur de sel, and my personal favorite is Fleur de Sel de Camargue.

The large, flakey grains of Maldon salt are shaped like pyramids. Maldon salt is also used as a finishing salt. I love the flavor and texture of this salt sprinkled over sliced ripe tomatoes or cucumbers, as it begins to melt but still retains some of its crunch by the time it gets to your mouth. Maldon salt comes from England and is inexpensive compared to many other finishing salts.

Smoked salt, as the name implies, adds plenty of smokey flavor to food. Generally speaking, it should be used sparingly.

Flavored salts are also fun to keep on hand. Chipotle salt is great for rimming margarita glasses. Truffle salt is lovely in, well, almost everything. And, even though I might be considered a food snob by some, I do think that Lawry’s Seasoned Salt is just right for burgers and chicken fried steak.

The only type of salt that I do not keep around is regular iodized salt. It has a harsh, metallic flavor that I just don’t want in my food.

But really, I don’t have that much salt in my kitchen.

At least not comparing to the mountains of salt in the salt flats of the Camargue.

*For information on how to properly season food with salt and everything you ever wanted to know about searing, plus dozens of fabulous searing recipes, look for my book Seared to Perfection in stores in the fall of 2010.


Bekki Callaway said...

Something I have always wondered, why do you salt the water before boiling pasta?


Lucy Vaserfirer said...

Good question. Adding salt to the water will season the pasta through and through and bring out the flavor of the wheat. If you don't salt the water, the pasta will taste bland, and even if you sprinkle salt on the pasta after it's cooked, it just won't taste the same.

Shaheen said...

I wish I had access to all the lovely salts in your pantry! Lovely post.

dlyn said...

I am interested in mail order sources for some of these - the smoked,fleur de sel and Maldon aren't available in my local [rural] area. Do you have any suggestions?

SteamyKitchen said...

After reading this, I just went and counted how many different salts I have. 38!!! I have a beautiful set in a bamboo box that my husband gave to me for my birthday.

Lucy Vaserfirer said...

Try The Meadow. I wrote about it in my post A Find.

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