Salt shaker

Shaking out the sodium chloride

By
February 24, 2009

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of our newest column, Ask Hank.

When using kosher salt (versus table salt) for cooking, should I adjust the amounts called for in recipes? It’s easy enough to adjust to taste in savory dishes, but what about for baking, where precision matters? Is sea salt like a kosher salt to be used in cooking, or a finishing salt? And what about so-called finishing salts?
— Susu B., Brooklyn, New York

According to Thomas Keller, no slouch in the kitchen, mastering the use of salt is “the single most important skill in cooking.” It goes into just about everything we cook, and it’s been called “the only rock we eat.” Although salt has a bad reputation from its abuse in processed foods, we shouldn’t fear it. Salt is so important that it’s at the root of the food words sauce, sausage, and salami, and even non-food words like salary and salacious. So, Susu, your quest to understand salts is a worthy one.

Salt for recipes should be measured by weight, not volume.

The good news is that all culinary salts are nearly chemically identical, so you don’t need to fret about using the right or wrong salt for a particular job.

I don’t remember seeing my mom use it, but kosher salt has become popular in recent years. Alton Brown features it on his television show, and it is the go-to salt in professional kitchens due in part to its purity of taste (some table salts contain iodine, and most contain anti-caking additives).

It should really be called koshering salt, because it is used in the processing of kosher meats. Regular table salt is kosher, too — at least, the box I have from Safeway says so.

I like kosher salt because it’s easier than table salt to pinch between your fingers; its texture is great for pasting garlic and clinging to fried potatoes; and, let’s face it, it’s cool to use what the chefs and TV stars use.

Diamond Crystal kosher salt seems to be the preferred brand in professional kitchens. If you want to avoid additives, look for Diamond Crystal and its single ingredient, “salt.” Morton’s kosher salt includes “yellow prussiate of soda” (which I guess sounds more palatable than “sodium ferrocyanide decahydrate”) as an anti-caking agent, but I can’t taste any difference between Morton and DC.

Kosher salt is a good all-around performer.

I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t inform you that Morton does not recommend using its kosher salt in baking recipes (except as a topping on, say, pretzels). I called their consumer-affairs line to ask why, and they said it’s because kosher salt takes longer to dissolve than table salt.

I’m not sure that’s true. Harold McGee says that table salt takes “the longest” to dissolve, and I’ve used both Morton and Diamond Crystal in many baking recipes and never had a salt-related problem.

So I’ll continue to bake recklessly, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Assuming the recipe you want to make uses volume measures (such as teaspoons and tablespoons) rather than weights, then yes, you’ll probably need to adjust the volume when using kosher salt in place of table salt.

Table salt is made up of small cubic crystals that pack together tightly, while kosher salt particles are larger and coarser and take up more space. Consequently, a teaspoon of table salt will contain more salt than a teaspoon of kosher salt.

How much more depends on the brand. Morton kosher salt takes up 25 percent more space than table salt, so you’ll need to add an extra 1/4 teaspoon per teaspoon of salt in the recipe. Diamond Crystal takes up twice as much volume as table salt, so you’ll need to use double the amount given in recipes.

As for sea salt, let’s include it in the category of finishing salts, since there’s significant overlap between them. There are countless varieties of finishing salts, but the major groups, from a cooking perspective, seem to be flaky sea salts, coarse sea salts, mined aromatic salts, and aroma-added salts (e.g., smoked, mixed with clay).

I’ve collected a few of these as gifts or impulse buys over the years. They are all significantly more expensive than table or kosher salts; the celebrated French sea salt Fleur de Sel de Guérande, for example, retails for $25 to $50 per pound, compared with around $1 per pound for Diamond Crystal kosher. Whether these fancy salts are worth the money depends on how you use them.

As the name implies, “finishing” is definitely the right way to think of these salts, because a little goes a long way when they’re added to the surface of food before serving. In addition to a burst of salt taste, they can add desirable texture, pleasing color contrast, and occasionally extra aroma.

I like to add a sprinkle of “crunchy salt” (I have a 250-gram container of Halen Mon flaky sea salt from Wales that’s lasted years) to savory dishes. Aromatic (smoky, sulfurous) salts can also be fun, but aren’t as broadly useful, so I wouldn’t spend a ton of money stocking up on them.

Because diluting these expensive salts in recipes doesn’t make much sense, use the cheap stuff for cooking and save the fancy salt for showtime.

So, if you’re looking for one salt to buy, kosher is the best all-around performer. You can use it in all of your recipes and put a cellar on the table for individual seasoning. And in a pinch — groan! — it’ll even do double duty as a finishing salt.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees. Email questions for the Ask Hank column to AskHank@culinate.com.

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1. by James Berry on Feb 25, 2009 at 12:30 PM PST

Welcome Hank!

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 25, 2009 at 12:36 PM PST

Great column, Hank. I can’t wait to read further installments.

Two notes. First, another great baking book that includes ingredients by weight and goes well beyond bread is Flo Braker’s new Baking for All Occasions. Great stuff.

However, I’ve had trouble measuring salt by weight. I’ve owned two digital scales, and neither has high enough resolution to accurately measure a small amount of salt (say, less than two tablespoons). So I actually get more consistent results using measuring spoons.

3. by giovannaz on Feb 25, 2009 at 1:12 PM PST

I’ll second Matthew’s recommendation of Baking for All Occasions--great book.

Interesting about baking with kosher salt--I always use it--but never adjust the volume amount, and I haven’t noticed under salted cookies or cakes (something I tend to notice in baked goods).

4. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 25, 2009 at 5:19 PM PST

Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible is also meticulous about offering measurements by volume and weight (in metric, even!).

5. by Bruce Harrington on Feb 26, 2009 at 5:59 AM PST

Some salts have a different crystal structure due to the manner in which they are evavorated (solar, steam, vacuum). More cubicle shapes may bounce off in sprinkling at the table. Kosher salt has a more pyramid-like shape and “clings” to food better.

6. by Eugenia on Feb 27, 2009 at 9:49 AM PST

I’m not a huge baker, but I’ve always used Diamond kosher and haven’t noticed any salt issues. Where I do notice salt issues: I run out of Diamond and use sea salt. I’m so used to pinching the exact amount of kosher salt I can’t naturally adjust to seasoning with the other stuff. :)

Once, for fun, we did a salt taste test with Diamond and Morton kosher salt, Morton regular, and a beautiful pink-speckled sea salt out of Utah (Real Salt). The degree of “saltiness” and taste are so different. It’s worth it to test out the flavors!

7. by Chris Musser on Feb 28, 2009 at 11:29 AM PST

Celtic sea salt, as well as other salts, like Real Salt, contain other minerals besides sodium. Since I want my food to be as nutrient-dense as possible, and still taste delicious, I use unrefined Celtic sea salt for most of my cooking and baking and a less expensive refined sea salt or kosher salt for brining, blanching, salting cooking water for pasta or potatoes, etc. Kosher is easier to pinch than the more finely ground sea salt, so I keep an open cellar of that by the stove for sprinkling. We only rarely have salt on the table, but if I think something needs a bit more salt, I put the cellar of kosher on the table.

8. by anonymous on Mar 4, 2009 at 8:27 AM PST

The reason iodine was added to salt is that it helped prevent goiter. It was the easiest way to distribute a simple preventative to the masses.

9. by JudithK on Mar 4, 2009 at 4:36 PM PST

I worked with a Sicilian chef who insisted that Sicilian sea salt was saltier than other sea salts and therefore you used less salt by volume. I just did a little googling and he may have been correct that salt from the Mediterranean or Tirreno Sea may actually have a higher salinity. That being said, it’s safest to taste what are you cooking instead of just relying on a recipe!

10. by Laura Sabo on Mar 10, 2009 at 6:40 PM PDT

Hank -- this article was worth its weight in salt! Keep up the good work and look forward to reading your column.

11. by Leta on Mar 20, 2009 at 5:09 PM PDT

I know I can’t prove it, but I just read this article today, I swear. I’m convinced we have been following parallel paths and we have two choices: we can be rivals, or we can combine our evil genius and rule the world! What’ll it be?

12. by Hank Sawtelle on Mar 23, 2009 at 10:32 PM PDT

SO busted:

http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/01/04/119-sea-salt/

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Ask Hank

Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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