The impetus for this article comes from my skeptical nature and curious mind. I have always held the opinion that sea salt is sea salt. I know there is difference between common iodized table salt and sea salt, but how much difference could one taste between different sea salts.
When I worked in a kitchen shop, customers would often seek out very specific brands of sea salt. They could often be quite vehement about their feelings on the subject. In the course of one such discussion about a certain brand and the alternatives we kept in stock, a customer tried to tell me and my colleague that her desired special brand wasn’t sea salt. At the time, I didn’t know what to tell this person about the details of this particular salt, but I did know that if it wasn’t sea salt, it was mined salt. She swore it wasn’t either; maybe she thought it was manna from heaven, I don’t know. Now I didn’t like it when I couldn’t confidently state the facts of our products to our customers. In a fit of frustration from this incident, I determined to find out once and for all if one could tell the difference between one fine sea salt and another.
So first, I had to learn the differences between the various forms of salt available to the consumer.
Second, I wanted to buy these sea salts and set up a taste test.
Salt, the definition.
From Wikipedia ——–
Salt is a dietary mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride that is essential for animal life, but toxic to most land plants. Salt flavor is one of the basic tastes, an important preservative and a popular food seasoning.
Salt for human consumption is produced in different forms: unrefined salt (such as sea salt), refined salt (table salt), and iodized salt. It is a crystalline solid, white, pale pink or light gray in color, normally obtained from sea water or rock deposits. Edible rock salts may be slightly grayish in color because of this mineral content.
Chloride and sodium ions, the two major components of salt, are necessary for the survival of all known living creatures, including humans. Salt is involved in regulating the water content (fluid balance) of the body. Salt cravings may be caused by trace mineral deficiencies as well as by a deficiency of sodium chloride itself.
According to the Salt Institute, salt producers use three basic technologies to create salt for its many uses. Now-buried dried-up oceans of geologic ages past have left many areas with concentrated salt sedimentary layers which can exceed fifty feet in thickness. Two mining technologies exploit these underground deposits: conventional shaft mining where miners go underground to remove solid rock salt and solution mining where water is pumped underground dissolving the solid salt and then pumping out the salty brine which goes through evaporation to crystallize the salt. The third method extracts salt from oceans and saline lakes, growing salt crystals much as a farmer grows crops of vegetables or grain. Respectively, the products of these technologies are known as rock salt, evaporated salt (or vacuum pan salt) and solar (or sea) salt.
So this brings us to the products available for consumers to purchase. You will find table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt. These break down into two categories – refined and unrefined. The most common salts, available in supermarkets, are refined and come from the first two mining techniques mentioned above. They are iodized table salt and kosher salt. The salts in our tasting are from the unrefined category. These fit into the third harvesting technique, solar.
Table salt is simply refined mined salt, 99% sodium chloride. It typically contains added substances: anti-caking agents such as sodium silicoaluminate or magnesium carbonate, bleaching elements and iodine. The iodine is usually sprayed on as it moves along the conveyor belt after the salt has been processed into fine crystals. In lower-tech operations, iodine is sometimes added as a dry ingredient and physically mixed with the salt. Generally, iodized salt contains 0.002% to 0.004% iodine, supplied either as potassium iodide or potassium iodate. Iodine in refined table salt is used to prevent and remedy iodine deficiency. And yes, there still are iodine deficiency problems in the world. Iodine deficiency affects about two billion people and is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation. It can also cause thyroid problems, specifically endemic goiter. In many countries, iodine deficiency is a major public health concern that can be cheaply addressed by iodizing salt.
Kosher salt gets its name not because it follows the guidelines for kosher foods as written in the Torah, but rather because of its use in making butchered meats kosher. The term “kosher salt” is unique to North America; in England it is usually called koshering salt and in other parts of the world is known as, coarse cooking salt. Because kosher salts have larger, more irregular grains than regular table salt, when meats and vegetables are coated in kosher salt it does not dissolve readily. It is this inability to dissolve which helps to extract the blood from the meat. When using kosher salt in cooking know that the larger grains will not measure out equally by volume as table salt. The kosher salt grain size will vary between manufacturers, so look for conversion formulas on the packages. (This is another argument for weighing ingredients for cooking.) Kosher salt should be used as a salt where easy dissolution is not the goal. For example, do not use kosher salt in the dough or batter in baked goods, but use as a topping, for focaccia or pizza. It can be used in cooking meats and fish where a salty crunchy crust is desired. Kosher salt is mined from the same locations as table salt and made in much the same way as table salt but is raked continuously during the evaporation process. This gives it a lighter, flakier texture. Kosher salt does not contain iodine.
Sea salt is very simply evaporated sea water. Sea water is generally known to be around 3.5% saline. This evaporated remainder is made up of chloride, sodium, sulfate, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and minor constituents including trace amounts of iodine. However, the amount of iodine in sea salt is not considered sufficient to prevent iodine deficiency related problems. Sea salt is harvested in nearly every area of the world with coastal access and sufficient sunshine to efficiently evaporate the water. Areas which produce specialized sea salt (in no particular order) include the Cayman Islands, Greece, France, Ireland, Colombia, Sicily & Apulia in Italy, Maldon in Essex UK, and Hawaii, Maine, Utah, San Francisco Bay, and Cape Cod in the United States.
The fame of sea salt is based on its increased and more refined flavor elements, combined with a natural nutritional superiority. Most are naturally tinted with color from the 100+ trace mineral elements and appear in some form of gray or pink. Each regional producer creates fine crystal and/or coarse grain versions of their finished product. Some are dry fine crystals, some are moist and coarser. The confusion begins when trying to sort through the morass of choices.
Sea salt is more expensive than table or kosher salt due to the lower yields involved and in some cases greater manual labor in its production. The more manual or specialty treatment involved, the greater the cost. An example of this would be Fleur de Sel, from France. Fleur de sel, “Flower of salt” in the French, is a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans. Traditional French fleur de sel is collected off the coast of Brittany. The most notable and highly prized come from the towns of Guérande – Fleur de Sel de Guérande, Noirmoutier, and also Camargue.
Here is a partial list of the extensive sea or “gourmet” salt product offerings…
Celtic Sea Salt is the trademarked name for French Grey Sea Salt harvested from the pristine coast of Brittany, France so they are one and the same.
French Sea Salt is unrefined so it retains trace minerals (including naturally occurring iodine); this salt is also harvested from the pristine French waters.
Fleur de Sel, mentioned above, is considered the finest of gourmet salts. Lower in sodium chloride and higher in trace minerals.
Black Salt is a special type of Indian unrefined mineral salt. It is actually a pearly pinkish gray rather than black, has a strong, sulfuric flavor and is common in Indian cuisine.
Himalayan Salt is a fossil marine salt containing 94 elements including calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and iron; it is higher in sodium than chloride and is mined from the pristine mountains of Himalaya. It mirrors our body with trace minerals.
Redmond Salt is also called RealSalt and it is from ancient salt deposits deep within the earth mines of Utah. All natural pinkish in color with unique flecks of color, it contains over 50 trace minerals including naturally occurring iodine, calcium, potassium, sulphur, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, copper and zinc.
Maldon sea salt is made from seawater collected from England ’s Blackwater river estuary and evaporated in stainless steel saltpans mounted on an intricate system of brick flues that give the specific heating pattern required for the formation of Maldon’s massive yet parchment-fine flake crystals.
Turkish Black Pyramid finishing salt is combined with activated charcoal to impart color and a trace of organic flavor and body.
Add to this list smoked salt & flavored salts and you can begin to see why your head can swim with information overload.
What I wanted to ascertain was simple – can anyone tell the difference between theses various salts? And if so, what would be their favorite? I was not interested in asking people to describe the taste differences. I also chose not to ask people to rank them in order of preference. I had only a couple of minutes with people and chose to limit my demands on them to expedite my experiment.
Given the massive list of possible salt products, there was no way I could afford to get my hands on everything nor could I get anyone to sit still to taste a few dozen salts. I kept this list to 5 and as I was doing the tests, I could see I was pushing peoples limits with just that number.
What I decided to do was select sea salts that were the most readily available in a major metropolitan area of the U.S.. I also wanted to keep the salts of similar grain size and texture.
All of the salts selected would be used as finishing salts. Finishing salts are defined as those salts sprinkled on prepared food or dishes just before serving or just as an accent. For example basil, tomato and mozzarella, a green salad, a steak, literally any dish that was about to be served where the addition of salt would punch up or enhance the flavor.
You would not want to use these salts in boiling water, soups or stews. Absorption in liquids negates the minerality and refined taste of these sea salts.
Now the line up.
First, Fleur de Sel Camargue.
Second, Himilania pink Himilanyan salt.
Third, Sel Marin from France, fine grain.
Fourth, Baliene sea salt, also from France, fine grain.
Fifth, Hain sea salt, from Celestial Seasonings company.
I included Hain because I didn’t think most could tell any difference. I avoided regular table salt as it is a bit too blunt and crude by comparison, but during one tasting someone did taste table salt after tasting the sea salts and had an interesting reaction. The others, I found easily shopping around the various kitchen shops and markets. I do not want to debate why I excluded Italian or other salts. The idea was to determine if there was a difference.
So again, my initial opinion was that, there was a difference between sea salts and table salt, but no real difference between sea salts. I was highly skeptical that the high priced offerings would taste any different.
I polled people of both sexes, various races, ages and varying levels of culinary sophistication. All participants were from North America.
The results surprised me. Every single person in the test could taste a very clear difference between the salts.
And the overwhelming majority chose….Fleur de Sel Carmague as their favorite – including me.
I was shocked. The next favored salt was Himilania pink salt, then Sel Marin. None of the others were chosen as the favorite. An additional surprise was that around 7-10% of the people could barely tell the difference between the various salts and those people found the Fleur de Sel and Himilania salt very close in taste and still better than the others.
Fleur de Sel – 67%
Himilania – 27%
Sel Marin – 6%
The most common comment was that the Fleur de Sel salt was more refined and pleasing to the palate. It was less assaulting from a salinity perspective.
A surprising result was the Hain sea salt. While no one chose it as their favorite, they liked its taste. Based on the positive feedback, it would have finished third if I had asked people to rank them. I just threw that in as the “low end” taste element and it finished well, with nearly everyone saying positive things. As for the table salt tasting that I mentioned earlier. After the taste test was over, the person grabbed regular table salt from her cupboard and tasted it. Her face puckered up as the bitter, almost too tangy and tart salt taste hit her mouth. Table salt is great for boiling water, baking, soups, stews and the like, but not for use as a finishing salt.
In the end, what this experiment tells me is that, expensive, specialty salts can be different and better tasting. The question is whether that quality is worth the extra money. Remember, a little of these fine salts goes a long way. If you use it sparingly and properly, even the small containers last a long time. If the sea salt you have purchased is moist, keep it in a tightly sealed container to retain its moisture. From experience, I can tell you that the texture changes noticeably when moist sea salt is allowed to dry in your home.
Sea Salt Price list: based on average price
Fleur de Sel Camargue – $36 a lb. (sold in 4.4 oz containers)
Himilania – $25 a lb. (sold in 8.8oz containers)
Sel Marin fine – $15 a lb. (sold in 8.8oz. containers, moist, coarse style sold in 35oz plastic bag)
Baleine fine – $3.50 a lb. (sold in 26oz containers, blue is fine and red is coarse)
Hain Sea Salt fine – $1.50 a lb. (sold in 26oz containers)
I did not include salt from salt grinders. Salt grinders, with a few exceptions, use rock salt which is the same thing as kosher salt, just in very coarse form. If you want to provide your dining guests with a quality salt at the table use a fine finishing salt in a salt cellar. For cooking, use normal kosher salt. The extra cost and effort of grinding lower quality salt isn’t worth it to me.
Also, I want you all to know I am not against so called common kosher salt. If I had included kosher salt in this experiment, I believe it would have finished no worse than the Hain sea salt. I chose to leave it out because of the grain size and texture difference.
2nd Note: I answered some follow up questions in another article called Would You Like More Sea Salt
All links in this post are associated with affiliate partners who pay a commission to this site if you purchase products from them.