It's the only rock we crave to eat! Discover all the salty details behind our love/hate relationship with this essential yet often maligned mineral.

Salt Written in Black in Salt
Photo by Meredith

The Sea Inside Us

Elemental. Essential. Salt is the only mineral for which we have an innate craving. Good thing, because many chemical functions of the human body depend on a delicate, life-sustaining balance of water and sodium. Though we don't need a lot of salt to sustain us, and our modern diet gives us many more times the amount our bodies require, it is a necessary and essential ingredient.

Worth Its Salt

Before freezing and canning, there was salt. For centuries, salt has been critical in preserving foods like fish, meats, olives, vegetables, and cheese. Salt preserves foods by drawing off moisture; dehydrating food makes it less hospitable to harmful bacteria that would spoil it.

Historically, the food-preserving power of salt made it a commodity of tremendous strategic significance. Salt powered trade, fortified armies, built wealth, propped up economies, and preserved the food necessary to sustain large armies and urban populations.

In antiquity, Roman soldiers were paid, in part, with salt. In fact, the term "salary" comes from the Latin word for salt, salarium. Likewise, the word "salad" is derived from salarium, as is "salami."

What's the Difference?

Salt enhances aromas, dampens down the taste of bitterness in foods and helps reveal the essential taste of food. It makes a thing taste more like the thing it is -- a tomato more tomato-y, a steak more steaky.

Although salt is salt -- in the sense that it's all sodium chloride-- trace minerals found in sea salts and certain mined salts can change the color and flavor of salt. Refining takes away these individual characteristics. If you invest in high-quality salt, don't use it in your pasta-cooking water: reserve it for finishing a dish.

Gallery of Salt
L to R (top): Red Hawaiian sea salt, Kosher salt, Himalayan Pink, Black Hawaiian sea salt; (bottom) fleur de sel, smoked sea salt, Sel Gris, Garlic Salt | Photo by Meredith

L to R (top): Red Hawaiian sea salt, kosher salt, Himalayan pink, black Hawaiian sea salt; (bottom) fleur de sel, smoked sea salt, sel gris, garlic salt.

There are a number of different types of salt, including:

  • Table Salt: A standard condiment salt, refined into fine, uniform, dense grains with additives that keep the crystals from caking and help ensure a steady pour from salt shakers.
  • Iodized Salt: Table salt fortified with the mineral potassium iodide. Iodine deficiencies can lead to serious mental and physical impairment. In 1925, the U.S. government began fortifying salt with iodine, choosing salt because it is universally consumed.
  • Sea Salt: Salt that has been harvested from evaporated sea water. The large flakes are easy for cooks to pinch between their fingers, and the texture adds crunch and flavor when added at the table. Fleur de sel, "flower of salt," is one of the best known sea salts, harvested in France and renowned for its delicate flakes and fine flavor.
  • Kosher Salt: A coarse salt that does not contain additives. Kosher salt is used in traditional Jewish preparations to make meats kosher by drawing out blood from the tissue. Many cooks find that it has a superior flavor, and its larger grains and coarse texture make it easy to cook with.
  • Seasoned Salt: Table salt flavored with ingredients like dried garlic or onions. Hawaii produces salts that are mixed with lava and clay particles to produce attractive pink and dark gray salts. Some specialty purveyors offer smoked salts for added flavor.
  • Rock Salt: Less refined than other salts, grayish rock salt is often used for freezing ice cream and melting icy sidewalks.

VIDEO: A Tale of Two Salts

Table salt and kosher salt are the most commonly used salts in the American kitchen -- and they're often not interchangeable in recipes. So what's the difference between table salt and kosher salt in recipes? Chef John breaks it all down.

Some Frequently Asked Questions about Salt

What is the difference between kosher salt and sea salt?

Chemically, both kosher salt and sea salt are sodium chloride. They are both minimally processed. What is different about kosher salt vs sea salt is in the flake and texture. Sea salts are often flakier than kosher salts, with a coarse texture and crystals that feel more dense. Sea salts can be more expensive than kosher (Fleur de Sel, for example), which makes pricier sea salts excellent candidates for finishing dishes. So, what is kosher salt? Interestingly, the significance of "kosher" in kosher salt is all about its use in koshering meats; the salt is not itself "kosher," per se.

Can I substitute for kosher salt?

If a recipe calls for kosher salt, and you don't have it, you'll be fine with ordinary table salt or sea salt. But you'll need to convert it -- or you'll end up with a dish that's too salty. This isn't because table salt is "saltier" by nature; it's because table salt has very fine grains of a uniform size that really pack together into the nooks and crannies of any measuring space. Coarser salts leave room between the grains. For conversions, Morton Salt has this handy conversion chart that gives substitution ratios between table, kosher, fine and coarse sea salts, and canning and pickling salts. Regarding kosher salt vs table salt measurements, you would cut back a little when you're using table salt as a substitute for kosher salt. According to Morton's chart, 1.25 teaspoons of kosher salt translate to 1 teaspoon of table salt.

What is kosher salt vs table salt (a.k.a. "regular salt" or "ordinary salt")?

Table salt has smaller, very uniform, dense grains. Unlike kosher salt, which contains no additives, table salt will include anti-caking additives, which is handy in humid environments. Most table salt is also fortified with iodine (an essential nutrient that's added since the 1920s to help promote a healthy thyroid); kosher salt is not iodized. Kosher salt has larger grains; it's also a dense, very uniform salt. Table salt is particularly good for baking -- it gives you a reliable measured amount. Kosher salt is great for seasoning recipes you're cooking on the stove; the coarse texture makes it easy to three-finger pinch into dishes.

What is kosher salt used for?

Kosher salt is used for all aspects of cooking, from seasoning dishes on the stovetop, to salting pasta water, to making brines, to finishing dishes at the table. Kosher salt has no additives, and the size and texture of its grains make it easy to pinch between your fingers, which makes it popular in professional kitchens.

Is there a difference between kosher salt vs table salt sodium content?

All types of salt are sodium choride (NaCl). By weight, kosher salt and table salt have essentially the same sodium content.

What is the difference between kosher salt vs table salt for brining?

For the purposes of brining, there is essentially no difference. Both types of salt will dissolve into a liquid just fine. Table salt will dissolve even faster because the grains are finer. To make measurement conversions between kosher and table salt, check out Morton Salt's conversion chart.

What is the difference between Himalayan salt vs sea salt?

Himalayan pink salt is an unrefined salt mined from caves out of salt deposits that formed millions of years ago from ancient seas. So Himalayan salt is sea salt, but from ancient seas that are millions of years long-gone. Sea salt, on the other hand, is harvested, not mined, from existing oceans.

What makes Himalayan salt pink?

Trace amounts of iron oxide in the salt, which is left unrefined, give the salt a light pink color.

What are the health benefits of Himalayan salt?

The claims for health benefits of Himalayan salt, including assertions that Himalayan salt cures migraines, relate to the numerous trace minerals found in the salt, which are not found in table or kosher salts. However, specific health benefits of Himalayan salt over other salts have not been confirmed by medical science. So is pink Himalayan salt healthy? It is likely no more healthy or unhealthy than other types of salt.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that we limit our salt intake to the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon (2,300 mg) of table salt per day. Though most Americans get much more than this, the recommended amount is still more than three times what our ancient ancestors would have consumed by eating a Paleolithic diet. What has changed since then? For one thing, we've invented the salt shaker. But even so, less than 15 percent of the salt we consume is added in the kitchen or at the table. An astounding 75 percent comes from processed foods by way of the salt that is added to increase shelf live, improve taste, and add weight to the package.

How to Cut Back on Salt:

  • Limit the amount of processed foods you eat. When you can, cook whole foods, so you can control the amount of salt that goes into the recipe.
  • When you do buy processed foods, read labels. Check the salt content, and choose brands that contain less salt.
  • Give your tastebuds a chance to reset to a lower-sodium diet. If you're used to eating salty foods, cut back by degrees. Eventually, you might find you prefer your food less salty.
  • Watch out for foods that are cured with salt or highly salty for preservation: like olives, corned beef, and smoked fish.

For further information, please consult the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.