So, now we’re on to Part Three of the Pantry 101 series. We’ve covered oil and vinegar, and now it’s time to talk about salt! Salt is (in my opinion) the most important seasoning one can keep in a pantry. Usually when a dish is missing something, salt is the answer.
Retailers seem to be realizing this, too, because most grocery stores and specialty markets have entire sections dedicated to salt. Gone are the days when we were simply choosing between buying Morton’s table salt, with the sweet umbrella-clad girl, or store-brand varieties. Now, there is a whole menagerie of flakes and crystals to select from.
Much like oil, different salts can be added at different times during the cooking process to create unique flavor profiles. Depending on your level of culinary inquisition, you may find yourself needing only the “essentials,” or creating an entire salty shrine in your pantry to the world’s oldest seasoning.
Table salt: Table salt is the ubiquitous cardboard cylinder found in nearly every kitchen. Table salt is a good source of iodine and can add quick flavor to meals at any point in preparation or enjoyment (from flavoring pasta water to adding a few quick dashes to sweet corn). Keep table salt on hand for basic seasoning purposes.
Kosher salt: Kosher salt is my preferred briny seasoning. The molecular composition of Kosher salt makes it a grainy flake rather than a faceted crystal (like table or sea salt). Because of this, it “sticks” better to food (especially meat) when you cook it. Kosher salt can also be added to any point of the cooking/baking process. It dissolves quickly and is great for dressings and sauces. Kosher salt comes in a variety of grain sizes – go for coarse. (PS – Kosher salt isn’t really “Kosher” but is given that moniker because of it’s use in the meat curing process.)
Both table and Kosher salt are relatively cheap, so don’t feel bad about keeping them on-hand in larger quantities. You will use them often.
Sea salt: I keep sea salt at home, mainly because I like the extra salty punch I think it lends to certain dishes. I use it mainly at the end of the cooking process (ie: to finish a dish), and some of my favorite applications include on freshly made potato chips or french fries, paired with a good olive oil on air-popped popcorn, or on top of homemade caramel (heck. yes.). It comes in about a bazillion forms, and selecting which to use depends mostly on preference and application. (I keep two types on hand, just to keep things lively.) It can come both as a “crystal” or in flat flakes (like Maldon). The flakes dissolve quickly, while the crystal stay solid for an extended period of cooking. Use the crystals early in cooking and the flakes towards the end (or to finish a dish). Fleur de Sel is also technically sea salt, though it has a uniquely delicate flavor that is awesome on veggies, especially salads. It’s definitely the champagne of salts, so use it sparingly and only on special dishes.
Roasted or colored salt: Also known as specialty salts. Besides being pretty to look at, these salts can add depth to a dish that traditional salts may not. Roasted/smoked salt, aka salish, is available in most supermarkets and easily found due to it’s nearly black color. It’s smokey and is particularly delicious blended into soft butter and spread on crusty toasted bread (soft scrambled eggs optional, though preferred!). Other colored salts include Himalayan pink salt, black Hawaiian volcanic lava salt, gray sea salt, red salt mined from deep beneath the ocean… these salts are undoubtedly tasty in the right usage, but you kind of have to experiment to get the right combination.
The “Intended Purpose” Varieties
Pickling salt: The name says it all. This variety is extra salty (highly concentrated) and can overpower food when used in place of kosher salt, et, al., but is perfect for making pickles, sauerkraut, and other preserved foods. It’s also good for making brine for meats, but just be sure to regulate the amount of salt added because of it’s exceptional potency. I always have a box of pickling salt in my pantry, simply because of all the pickling I tend to do. Look for it in most groceries stores on the bottom shelf of the baking aisle.
Rock salt: The only purpose that I’m aware of for using rock salt in the kitchen is for some ice cream makers. Otherwise, it’s great for your driveway and sidewalk to break up ice.
The “Don’t Waste Your Time” Money-Suckers
Flavored salt: Salt that already has a bunch of seasonings and spices mixed into it is a gigantic waste of money. It’s highly specialized, therefore doesn’t sell quickly, typically has a ton of non-caking additives combined into it, and can be pricey. Gross. They never really taste that great. A better option is to make some yourself, which is super-easy and cheap (two of my favorite adjective)! Herbed salt or citrus salt are good gateway options to the “darkside” of DIY spiked-salt.
Like any other pantry item, salt should be kept in a cool, dry place. I try to store my salt in glass or plastic containers (if it comes in cardboard), because the humidity of Northeast summers can sometimes cause my salts to cake-up and stick to the box. If that happens to you, just use a wooden spoon or dull knife (butter knife) to break-up the compacted salt – the flavor will not be altered. Another trick is to keep some dry rice in your salt shaker – it helps to keep clumpy table salt at bay.
I keep my Kosher salt in a salt pig (pictured above), but any kind of salt well or cellar (or for table salt, a shaker) works just fine for easy accessibility. Salt grinders are also available (like pepper grinders/mills), which work great for larger salts.
What ways do you use salt? Do you have a particular attachment to a brand or variety of salt? Table salt is a wonderful abrasive (I use it on halved lemon to scrub everything from cast iron to porcelain) and can be used to slough off dead skin in a homemade body scrub. Do you throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder if you spill some (I do)? Share your stories and ideas!