Salt is the most essential ingredient in almost every recipe, yet it’s one that most cooks don’t think much about. You could up your game in the kitchen by upgrading what you reach for on the spice rack.
Years ago, I had a salt epiphany after hearing Mark Bitterman speak. He’s the Portland, Ore., and New York City-based “selmelier” who wrote the definitive, gorgeously illustrated resource book on salts from around the globe. The owner of The Meadow was challenging a group of chefs to give up their Kosher salt habit, saying this industrially produced ingredient added nothing to their beautiful creations. Most of the chefs were skeptical, but in the years since, I’ve noticed more pros going for a high-end finishing salt. Sea salt has been making a stronger showing on supermarket shelves, as consumers open up to alternatives to the stuff they’ve grown up using.
I’ve collected salt for a long time, filling my bulging pantry with a rainbow of salt from my travels. But these three are my go-to’s.
1) Sel gris
This salt gets its gray hue from contact with other minerals on the bottom of a setup used to hold sea water. As it evaporates, crystals form, and, with sel gris, those crystals are carefully raked until they form grains that are chunkier than sand but smaller than a peppercorn. It’s got a natural crunch and is often described as being a “moist” salt that’s ideal for seasoning grilled meats. Used in cooked dishes and sauces, it adds a complex, while not overpowering flavor.
2) Fleur de sel
This is the extra classy cousin of sel gris, the cream off the top. In the solar-powered evaporation process that forms the crystals, these “flowers” of salt are pulled off the top. They’ve got a mild taste and a delicate crunch that makes them a perfect finishing salt. I carry a tin of the stuff in my purse, just in case there’s ever a reason to season.
3) Smoked Paprika Salt
I’ve experimented with a ton of flavored salts, but this is my all-time fave for its ability to add so much character to dishes. Sprinkle some in a simple marinara and it turns exotic. Could-be-boring beans are transformed into a dish you can’t stop eating and it makes veggies take downright meaty. This one’s from Spain, and I found it at the awesome Spanish Table in Seattle (they also have stores in the Bay Area), but, in a pinch, you could try making your own version by combining smoked paprika and fleur de sel.