Types of Salt: What’s the Big Friggin Difference?

by Pamela

types of salt, cooking salt, finishing salt, gourmet salt, sea salt, salt in cooking, spices

The use and types of salt go back thousands of years. This little crystal has been used for everything from currency to medicine and pretty much everything in between. As little as 10 years ago, most people were only aware of two kinds of salt: table salt and kosher salt (I’m not including pickling salt in here because this type of salt has a very specific use.). But in the past decade, we’ve seen an explosion of salts in the market place. Oh, table salt is still on the shelf, but now it’s sharing space with exotic types of salt like sea salt, smoked salt and Himalayan salt. So which salt do you use? Or have you been so confused by it all that you’re sticking to tried and true kosher and table? Hopefully this will help you.

I’m only going to cover six types of salt here because, quite frankly, this post could grow to be multiple pages (and head swimmingly boring) if I were to attempt to cover every gourmet salt that’s out there today. So for this post, and simplicity’s sake, I’ll just cover some cooking salts (those you actually stir into dishes) and finishing salts (those you sprinkle on to a finished dish to enhance its flavor). Confused yet?

Types of Salt

Let’s start with the basic table salt. This is the stuff most commonly found on the tables across America. It’s fine crystals are supplemented with an anti-caking ingredient (which is no match to the high humidity found in lots of cities…thus the addition of rice found in some shakers). The salt crystals themselves come from both Earth and water sources. Due to its small size, table salt gives many more crystals per measure than a course grained salt, like kosher salt. So in recipes calling for course grain salt, you should only use half the measure of table salt. (Table salt is technically a cooking salt even though it is also sprinkled on to food at the table shortly before being consumed.)

Types of SaltKosher salt. Another very popular cooking salt. I use this A LOT in my cooking (and in the recipes on this site). Kosher salt gets its name from its role in making meat Kosher according to Jewish dietary law. (There are also salts that are, themselves, certified as being Kosher.) Kosher salt is not as “salty” as its table salt counterpart. Kosher salt crystals weigh less (by volume) than table salt, but dissolves on the tongue much quicker. Chefs, and cooks, like to use kosher salt because the large sized crystals make it easy to grab a pinch of the salt and know how much they are adding to a dish.

Sea Salt. Sea salts (yes, there are many different types) are pretty much what their name suggests: salt that’s derived from the sea. These types of salt are harvested from sea water and created by the evaporation of the water, which leaves the salts behind. Sea salt is less refined than either kosher or table (although you can find sea salt that is bright white and finely crystalled just like table salt). Obtaining salt, through this evaporation process is more costly than mining, but also can leave trace elements in the salt crystals that give the sea salts interesting textures, colors and flavors. (Most sea salts are used as finishing salts – added just before serving to allow their flavors and/or textures to show through with the foods they are served on.)

Types of SaltSea Salt Flakes. This is the sea salt that is large, white and flaky. The most commonly known sea salt flakes are Maldon sea salt. This salt is obtained by evaporating the water to create a brine and then heated to form the flake like crystals. You’ll see this salt used frequently as a topping for chocolate desserts as its flavor is bright and crisp and the flakes give a nice crunch to the texture of the dessert. I used it to top this chocolate chip cookies recipe.

Types of SaltGrey Salt/Celtic Salt. This sea salt has a definite gray color to it which comes from the clay (which is rich in minerals and nutrients) that is found naturally in the region from which it is harvested.  You will also note that it is slightly damp. Grey salt comes in several different crystal sizes and therefore can be used as both a cooking salt and a finishing salt.

Types of SaltSmoked Sea Salt. There are salts that are smoked the good ol’ fashioned way (with wood and smoke) and through the use of liquid smoke. You get a much truer smoked flavor (and less bitterness) if you used the real smoked salts. This salt isn’t used quite as much as the others (it’s got a really specific purpose) but when you use it, it makes an impact. Using a smoked salt in a roasted dish, will give you a nice smoky outdoorsy flavor you wouldn’t ordinarily get by cooking in the house. A few sprinkles on a salad or piece of fish can also give you that nice slightly smoky flavor. Smoked sea salt is also a dual purpose salt: finishing salt and cooking salt.

Types of SaltHimalayan Salt/Pink Salt. The pink color isn’t some kind of marketing ploy, the salt actually gets its color from iron and minerals that naturally occur in the salt. Not all pink salt comes from the Himalayan Mountains. These types of salts are found from the Andes to Hawaii and lots of places in between. Generally found in slabs (thank you Food Network), to be used to cook delicate items on top of or to serve cold items on for an impressive presentation, it is also found in different crystal sizes. Depending on the size of crystal, this salt can be sprinkled over food, used to salt roast meats, in spice rubs or for grilling. The size of the crystals will determine if it’s used as a finishing or cooking salt (generally the larger the crystal, the more likely it would be used as a finishing salt.)

I hope this quick post makes you feel more comfortable going out and trying new salts and adding them to your collection. The great thing about these different salts is that they can add a whole new dimension to your dish without breaking the bank or taking up an entire shelf in your cupboard.

What are your favorite salts to use?

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11 comments

Bonnie Lawhorn December 8, 2013 at 1:45 pm

I’ve been told that unrefined salt is best to use. Where do you get unrefined salt?

Pamela December 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Hi Bonnie,
Unrefined salts such as Jurassic salt, Himalayan salt and sel gris have become pretty available even at your regular grocery store. But you can definitely find them at natural (and some) health food stores. Hope this helps!

Irvin @ Eat the Love June 5, 2012 at 2:10 am

I love salt and I love that you wrote this post! I have about 25 different salts in my cabinet, ranging from the everyday kosher and sea salt to specialty salts (Alaea Red Hawaiian, Himalayan Pink, Cypress Black) to the flavored salts (bamboo, cabernet, truffle) and a number of smoked salts. Mostly though, I reach for fine sea salt, which I have sitting on my counter in a salt well out of habit and laziness. I should really put out some of my other salts to use.

Barbara | Creative Culinary May 26, 2012 at 8:12 am

I seldom use table salt anymore; I’ve replaced it with a finer grade of sea salt but I’ve run the gamut. I’ve got the smoked salt (rarely used), pink salt, gray salt and Maldon which does seem to end up mostly on cookies or brownies because it’s so pretty. I give some credit to Michael Chiarello for the salt craze; I don’t think that guy did a show when he was on Food Network that didn’t mention gray salt!

Jill~a SaucyCook May 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Thanks for a fabulously informative post! I tend to use sea salt, kosher salt and Himalayan pink salt, as I prefer the subtlety they impart as opposed to table salt. I also love flavored salts and found some great ones at the Vail out door market last year. I know they were made by a couple of women here in Denver and I may just have to hunt them down or drive back up the hill!!!

Pamela May 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Thanks Jill.

Now you should try one of the smoked salts. Just for a little variety.

Dominique May 24, 2012 at 7:30 am

Fleur du sel !

Belinda @zomppa May 24, 2012 at 4:09 am

What a wonderful, informative post! There is so much to learn (and try) – thanks for laying it out so beautifully!

Pamela May 24, 2012 at 7:37 am

Thanks Belinda, I just hope it makes a little more sense to everyone now. It’s frustrating when something as simple as salt gets so complicated.

Maureen @ Orgasmic Chef May 24, 2012 at 1:32 am

Himalayan, kosher, maldon flakes and sea salt. My neighbor makes dozens of flavored salts that I’m dying to try.

Pamela May 24, 2012 at 7:38 am

Lucky you! Flavored salts are a lot of fun to play with in the kitchen. They’re right up there with flavored sugars. Maybe I’ll tackle those one day.

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