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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Know Your Salt - Part 1

When I first dived into the Gourmet and artisan salt world (now an obsession!) it opened up a new world of taste and flavour.  Many people are surprised by the delightful variety of fine artisan salts now available.  Each has special uses and properties. Many have an interesting history too.

Let's have a look at some of the common salts and terminology:

Finishing Salts versus Cooking Salts

A finishing salt is used to enhance both the flavour and the appearance of a finished dish. There are many types of finishing salts and when you get it right (or wrong!) salt can make or break a dish.

The gourmet and artisan salts we will talk about in this post are finishing salts with unique characteristics to bring to your food.

A cooking salt is used in the cooking process.  We suggest a good quality sea or rock salt for cooking when necessary, but don’t use too much so we can finish with salt too.

Natural Sea Salts for Finishing

Sea salt is a general term for salt harvested from the sea.  Sea salt varies in nutritional quality and taste, depending on the methods used to process it and the sea from which it is harvested. For example, there are different flavours and chemical composition from the Atlantic versus Mediterranean oceans.  

Some inexpensive sea salts sold in grocery stores have had many of their minerals removed.  For health and flavour, choose a top quality sea salt variety, such as one of the flake salts or Sel Gris (Celtic salt).

French Fleur de Sel

Sunny day harvesting fleur de sel in the salt fields of Guerande, France
Harvesting fleur de sel from the salt ponds in Guerande
Fleur de Sel is considered one of the most versatile finishing salts. The name is French for “Flower of Salt”.  Fleur de Sel crystals form naturally on the surface of salt evaporation ponds right next to the ocean and are harvested using traditional Celtic hand harvesting methods by Plaudiers. So natural, it has no further processing and is moist and fresh.  

Gourmet cooks still prize the Fleur de Sel that comes from the Geurande, Camargue, I’ile de Ré and Noirmoutier regions of France, which are often called the caviar of salts.

Fleur de Sel is used in specialty foods and as a subtle finishing salt.  Used as a finishing salt it gives your food a delicate salt flavour and crunch, which adds more than it detracts from fine foods.

Having had a fair amount of exposure to award winning French pastry chefs, I know this is the only salt they will use.  Perfect for the numerous salted caramel recipes that have emerged in the last few years.

French Sel Gris

Sel Gris is an unrefined “moist” sea salt, primarily harvested on the Brittany coast. As the name implies, this salt is grey. The uninformed may frown at the idea of grey salt, but this salt obtains its colour by absorbing the minerals found in the clay lining of salt ponds.  Many health experts recommend Sel Gris (also known as Celtic salt) because it is harvested in a natural way that retains its minerals. Wooden tools and traditional Celtic methods are used to harvest this mineral-rich salt by hand.  Most people don’t realize that Sel Gris comes from the same salt ponds as Fleur de Sel – Sel Gris from the bottom of the pond and Fleur de Sel raked off the top.

Gourmet cooks are enamored of this salt.  Its naturally occurring coarse crystals make it perfect for finishing steaks, chops, and roasts as well as rich vegetable dishes.  It is great as an all round cooking salt.  Sel Gris is also available in finely ground varieties.

Italian Sea Salt

Also known as Trapani, Sale Marino, and Sicilian Sea Salt, Italian sea salt is harvested from the Mediterranean along the Sicilian coast. This natural salt is rich in potassium, iodine, magnesium, and fluorine and has slightly less sodium chloride than ordinary table salt.

Italian sea salt brings out the flavour of meats and casseroles without being overly salty.  Its light taste is perfect for salads.

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In the next post we will explore other salts such as Flake Salts, Hawaiian Sea salt, Smoked and Flavoured salts, Kosher salts and more.

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