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Salt Differences
January 12, 2006 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What are the functional differences between regular salt, sea salt and kosher salt? Why are sea and kosher salts specified in some recipes?
posted by Raybun to Food & Drink (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Flavor: Regular and kosher salt are the same. Sea salt has more than just NaCl which adds some flavors - very, very subtle. I think I can taste it, but I am not sure how I would fare in a double blind taste test.

Size: Kosher salt has large grains which are nice for things like salt encrusted baking. Once dissolved in liquid there is no difference with other salts. Sea salt frequently comes in larger grains which makes it easier to grind. The main advantage of grinding salt is that it is less likely to get moist and stick and you get good control of how much comes out.
posted by caddis at 4:53 AM on January 12, 2006


I also think that a difference is that most regular table salt has iodine in it.
posted by willmize at 5:16 AM on January 12, 2006


This Ask Yahoo! does a pretty good job explaining ...
posted by clearlynuts at 5:25 AM on January 12, 2006


There is a very nice guide to salt here.
posted by pracowity at 5:27 AM on January 12, 2006


that ask yahoo article is a bit odd - for a given mass of salt, larger crystals have a smaller surface area, not a larger one. imagine brealing a large crystal into smaller pieces - each time you break it you keep the area you already had and add more where the break is.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:28 AM on January 12, 2006


larger crystals have a smaller surface area

Well, strictly speaking, if you have a one pound solid block of salt, and a one gram grain of salt, the single pound will have more surface area. As such, you also have more potential surface area, using your method, andrew.

The larger the crystal, the more surface area you have, crystal-per-crystal. Obviously, two smaller crystals with the same mass as one larger crystal will have a higher surface area, since there are more facets and more surfaces exposed, but if you consider one large crystal versus a smaller, singular crystal, the number of "surfaces" will remain equal—just the relative area of each surface will change.

From the article: "It has big crystals with large surface areas." Append "per crystal" to that and each of the following sentences: "This size and shape allows it to absorb more moisture than other forms of salt," per crystal? I suppose if you're talking about moisture absorption, the fact that the salt will itself dissolve if the crystals are smaller is a big issue... Correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by disillusioned at 5:40 AM on January 12, 2006


I have heard that because life evolved from the sea, the amounts of trace minerals and things in sea salt approximate the solution in human blood. Does anyone know if that's true? I use sea salt because I figure if you need 3 molecules a day of something, it's in there. I just figure it's healthy, and it tastes better to me, but I use the grinder, so I'm sure that makes a difference. If it weren't for the size of the crystals, I don't suppose I could tell by the taste.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:05 AM on January 12, 2006


They also pack differently, so a tablespoon of kosher salt is not the same amount as a tablespoon of regular salt. Since recipes usually specify regular salt, this can be an issue.
posted by smackfu at 6:07 AM on January 12, 2006


as i said: for a given mass of salt...
posted by andrew cooke at 6:11 AM on January 12, 2006


although the point about using large crystals to absorb water (rather than dissolve and so make things salty) is a good one, i think.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:12 AM on January 12, 2006


this slate article includes a blind taste test and a good quick run down of different types of salt
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 6:26 AM on January 12, 2006


Kosher's better for margaritas :) Big crystally grains.
posted by lampoil at 6:35 AM on January 12, 2006


I like to use kosher salt whenever I want texture. For instance, when roasting vegetables in olive oil, or when sprinkling lightly on fresh tomato slices.
posted by Miko at 6:46 AM on January 12, 2006


I have heard that because life evolved from the sea, the amounts of trace minerals and things in sea salt approximate the solution in human blood.

You're certainly closer with sea salt than with pure NaCl. That's why I use sea salt for baking... I like to imagine it makes the yeast happier (though the presence of all that flour probably makes this totally insignificant)
posted by rxrfrx at 6:48 AM on January 12, 2006


There's an excellent article in It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten, the food columnist for Vogue, about different kinds of salt. He has a couple of different double-blind tests done and finds (to his disappointment) that most people cannot tell the difference between fancy salt and regular salt when dissolved in a (I think) 1% solution. However, when solid, the differences between the shapes and sizes of the crystals result in a different flavors.
I seem to recall that the fancy salt solution that was made from a very high mineral concentration salt *was* actually distinguishable, but I'm not sure. Anyway I highly recommend this book, as well as anything else by Steingarten. He is also the snarkiest Iron Chef America judge ever.
posted by librarina at 7:27 AM on January 12, 2006


I like to imagine it makes the yeast happier
Salt doesn't make yeast happy; it inhibits its growth. More salt = longer rise times. But actually, bread is one of the only places I can really tell the difference between sea and table salt. An equal amount of sea salt makes it taste a lot more salty to me.
posted by transient at 7:35 AM on January 12, 2006


Here’s posted by JackarypQQ at 8:06 AM on January 12, 2006


Salt doesn't make yeast happy; it inhibits its growth.

Thank you captain science.

If you read my entire comment, the context of "happier" is that of sea salt in comparison to kosher salt, not in comparison to no salt.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:10 AM on January 12, 2006


digging into the source for "Here's" above i see.....

Here’s the transcript of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" episode about salt.

- hilker

Like what transient said, don't cookies thing your house at even if really like taste will saltier that said differences for always been sea better table easier bake kosher can be baked with figure out right amount because stringy air pockets dissolve differently make you have weigh rather than spoon are a couple other different kinds they're harder gray is mined more left in pink or red volcanic rocks ground
into there s also from mines which tastes great and has tons trace amounts of minerals but ve only ever seen it the one time i went utah trying to find purple salt makes me sad.

- JackarypQQ

[i think every other word is missing from the second paragraph; i'm not sure i have the name of the poster right, or even if there are two mangled together; in the hope this helps jessamyn, and also because that second para is pretty cool]
posted by andrew cooke at 8:17 AM on January 12, 2006


(it seems a post by me, and a post by hilker got fused together)

I think the reason plain sea salt tastes better than plain table salt is the anti-caking agent in it. But if double blind tests say there's not really a difference, than I don't know.
posted by JackarypQQ at 8:19 AM on January 12, 2006


Yeah, I guess my earlier post is kind of dead. The whole thing shows up in my recently posted comments so I'll just repost it.

Like what transient said, don't make cookies with sea salt! Even if it's the only thing you have in your house at the time, even if you really like the taste of sea salt. It will be saltier. With that said, the differences for me have always been: sea salt tastes better than table salt, but table salt is easier to bake with, and kosher salt can be baked with but you have to figure out the right amount because it has stringy air pockets in it which make it dissolve differently and make you have to weigh it rather than spoon it. Also there are a couple other different kinds of salt but they're harder to find, gray salt is mined and has more minerals left in it, pink or red salt has volcanic rocks ground into it, and there's also purple salt from Utah salt mines, which tastes great, and has tons of trace amounts of minerals, but I've only ever seen it the one time I went to Utah. Trying to find purple salt makes me sad.

Also I didn't realize that gray salt is just less processed sea salt, so ignore that part. I thought that there had to be at least one kind of readily available kind of salt that was mined. Oh well.
posted by JackarypQQ at 8:25 AM on January 12, 2006


Recipes that call for fresh garlic to be sauteed will often also call for Kosher salt. Other kinds can make the garlic go funny colors. It is not unhealthy to eat bright purple garlic, but most folks will be disturbed by its appearance.
posted by copperbleu at 8:26 AM on January 12, 2006


Minor difference: Since kosher salt is finer-grained, it dribbles through my fancy-schmancy salt grinder that was made to use sea salt.
posted by gimonca at 9:05 AM on January 12, 2006


Kosher salt is finer-grained than what, exactly? It's coarse.
posted by youarenothere at 9:42 AM on January 12, 2006


apparently gimonca thinks "sea salt" refers to those big chunks of salt you need to put through a grinder. the rest of us use "sea salt" to refer to the finely crystallized salt that comes in a cardboard cylinder labeled "sea salt."
posted by rxrfrx at 9:47 AM on January 12, 2006


I buy thick grains of sea salt which I put through a grinder not finely crystallized salt that comes in a cardboard cylinder labeled "sea salt."
posted by caddis at 11:24 AM on January 12, 2006


if the difference is size/texture, what's the point of buying big grains and then grinding them into little ones? are the big grains lower priced (i know nothing about sea salt - just curious)?
posted by andrew cooke at 12:50 PM on January 12, 2006


Scanning electron photomicrograph of a grain of kosher salt.

The caption explains that where a grain of ordinary table salt is a single cubic crystal, a grain of kosher salt is instead a stack of many tiny cubic crystals with nooks, crannies, and in general a higher surface-to-volume ratio. The caption further surmises that this is what allows it to absorb moisture and be excellent for curing meat.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:08 PM on January 12, 2006


right, but as people seem to be saying above, kosher salt is coarse.

the caption to the micrograph says: With its large surface area, it can absorb more moisture than a similar sized cubic salt crystal. but the problem is that "non-sea" salt is not similar sized crystals, but smaller ones.

maybe i'm mistaken. i'm just trying to make sense of what people are saying...
posted by andrew cooke at 1:16 PM on January 12, 2006


There's a pretty exhaustive discussion of this in What Einstein Told His Cook. Bottom line is that there is no difference in the chemical makeup (NaCl is NaCL and those savory seawater trace elements are almost completely eliminated in processing). The difference is in size of grains (kosher and sea salt grains are larger), which translates to texture and how much salt you're actually getting.

In a spoonful of table salt, the grains will nestle closer together and you get more salt than in a spoonful of sea salt (the grains don't fit together as well, so you get more air in the spoonful). If you have a recipe that calls for sea salt that will dissolve during the cooking, you shouldn't substitute an equal amount (i.e., one teaspoon for one teaspoon) of table salt since the result will be saltier than planned. The opposite is obviously true, also.

If you are sprinkling the salt on prepared food, the larger grains of sea and kosher salt will provide an "explosion" of salt on your taste buds not provided by table salt.

Bottom line: if you're following someone else's recipe, then follow it strictly since they've done much of the experimenting for you. If you're creating your own, think of how you're using the salt to determine which to choose.
posted by forrest at 1:23 PM on January 12, 2006


i'm just trying to make sense of what people are saying...

No, you're trying to make sense of the underlying plausibility of the phenomenon that people are trying to describe to you.

I agree that it doesn't make much sense prima facie. Apparently a salt crystal is somewhat hygroscopic, though, and can adsorb (not absorb) a little water before dissolving totally. If you look at that kosher salt crystal, you can see that it's very lattice-like; a water molecule could be adsorbed hygroscopically at the outside edge of the crystal, or it could migrate its way through the airspace and be hygroscopically adsorbed near the center of the crystal. A crystal that was a simple cube can only hygroscopically adsorb water at its surface, so in essence there's a large mass of salt below the surface of the cube that doesn't get to participate in water adsorption.

I use the word 'adsorb' in favor of 'absorb' purposely; by the time the salt crystal is 'absorbing' water, it's dissolving, and presumably rendering all these distinctions moot.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:19 PM on January 12, 2006


ikkyu2 is correct, they adsorb, and the larger crystal size allows this without dissolving. Once they dissolve the adsorption is undone. Big crystals can take in more water or blood without dissolving. Bigger crystals could take even more but then you reduce the surface area in contact with the moisture and prolong the process. Kosher salt grains are the right size for adsorbing the blood quickly and efficiently.
posted by caddis at 5:49 PM on January 12, 2006


apparently gimonca thinks "sea salt" refers to those big chunks of salt you need to put through a grinder.

The ones that come in the carton that is clearly labelled "sea salt", yes.
posted by gimonca at 7:57 PM on January 12, 2006


Gourmet salts, note the many coarse sea salts, and the relative lack of coarse salts that are not sea salts.
posted by gimonca at 8:16 PM on January 12, 2006


A crystal that was a simple cube can only hygroscopically adsorb water at its surface, so in essence there's a large mass of salt below the surface of the cube that doesn't get to participate in water adsorption.

again - at this point i start banging my head against a wall - you are assuming that the crystals are about the same size. however, people are saying that kosher crystals are larger. if you look at the image of the kosher crystal you can see how it might be broken down into small cubes. maybe those small cubes are what "normal" salt is? if so, then you could make normal salt by breaking that grain up. and in doing so you would get a larger surface area to adsorb water.

No, you're trying to make sense of the underlying plausibility of the phenomenon that people are trying to describe to you.


actually, no. what i was doing was using politeness to cover my increasing frustration that people are talking out of their arses and not engaging their brains.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:16 AM on January 13, 2006


I am not sure what you are complaining about Andrew. I think you are saying that normal table salt would work just as well to adsorb liquid from meat as kosher salt, perhaps even better. Unfortunately, it dissolves too easily. The whole idea is to adsorb the liquid into the undissolved salt. The larger kosher salt crystals dissolve less and adsorb more. While I think normal salt would draw out the liquid it would likely also leave the meat too salty.
posted by caddis at 8:48 AM on January 13, 2006


I'm with you, andrew, but kosher salt crystals aren't *that* big. They'd need to be the size of rock salt, and they aren't.

For what it's worth, I've been skeptical that the curing of meat actually involves this sort of adsorption as an important part of the process. I'm not sure I really believe it.

Arse-talking is a perpetual problem around here; I also frequently bang my head against the wall when I see it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:04 PM on January 13, 2006


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