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a wooden spoon with chunky sea salt

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.

Thai-Cured Gravlox

Serves eight

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds salmon fillet, bones removed, skin on
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, finely minced
  • 2 tbs. peeled, grated ginger root
  • 1 tbs. ground star anise
  • 1 tbs. ground, Szechwan peppercorns
  • 2 tbs. soy sauce
  • 4 tbs. coarse sea salt
  • 3 tbs. light brown sugar
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tbs. sake or Mirn rice wine

Directions

  1. Drape plastic wrap over a glass-baking dish. Cut salmon in half lengthwise, and place in dish, skin side down, side by side.
  2. Heat a small sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add sesame oil, minced lemongrass, ginger, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns.
  3. Sauté for two to three minutes to soften lemon grass and to cook ginger. Place mixture into a bowl to cool.
  4. Add salt, brown sugar and cilantro to lemongrass mixture, and stir to combine. Sprinkle mixture over both sides of salmon.
  5. Fold one side of salmon on top of the other with skin side up, and wrap plastic wrap snugly over the entire salmon.
  6. Place a board over the fish and weigh it down with a heavy object. Refrigerate fish for 24 to 36 hours, turning every 12 hours.
  7. To serve, separate the fillets, and carefully brush off the salt, sugar and cilantro mixture. Cut into very thin slices with a sharp knife.

Sea Bass Baked in Salt Crust

Ingredients

  • 2-pound whole sea bass, cleaned, dorsal fin removed, leaving head and tail intact
  • 3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 sliced orange
  • 2 tbs. fresh basil leaves, about eight to 10 leaves
  • 6 egg whites
  • 2 1/2 cups course salt

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with  parchment paper or lightly greased aluminum foil.
  2. Rinse fish thoroughly under running cold water. Pat dry inside cavity and skin of fish, and rub both the inside and skin with olive oil.
  3. Season inside cavity with fresh-ground black pepper, and fill cavity with basil leaves and orange slices.
  4. Using a mixer, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gently fold in salt.
  5. Spoon half of the salt  mixture lengthwise in the center of the prepared baking sheet. Place the fish on top.
  6. Spoon the remainder of the salt mixture over the fish to cover it completely.
  7. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
  8. Remove from oven, keep warm, and allow to rest at least five minutes before removing crust.
  9. Crack, remove, and discard the salt crust. Fillet the fish by peeling off and discarding the skin. Using a sharp knife, cut away the fish head and tail. Remove top fillet of fish by inserting knife between fish fillets and gently lift top fillet of fish, exposing bones. Insert knife under bones near head of fish and gently pull the bones up and away from the fish, exposing the bottom fillet. Lift bottom fillet, turn over, and peel away skin.
  10. Serving suggestions: Serve with boiled or roasted new potatoes seasoned with smoked sea salt, and fruit- or cheese-seasoned arugula salad for a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures.

This article has been updated. It originally appeared online on January 1, 2008.

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