Salt grinders - how do they work
October 23, 2017 1:20 PM   Subscribe

It seems we’ve always had problems with our salt grinders eventually not, well, grinding. What are we doing wrong? Our current grinder is not cheap (it was about £35 for a set), wooden, the kind with a handle at the top that you wind like this (Those are not ours) but we’ve had problems with the kind you twist the top end of as well. Are we just buying bad ones or is it the problems the salt or what?

The problem ends up with us grinding and grinding and nothing comes out even if the well is completely full. This probably happens after about a year of daily use. Furthermore, with our current one the little dial on the grinder itself, the one you adjust the coarseness with, is stuck firm and if I try to spin it, it actually winds the handle. We buy ordinary rock salt from the grocery store, I don’t think it’s a particular brand. We’re in the U.K. where Morton’s salt is not a thing.

If I can fix the one we have I’ll take that as well.

We have no problem with the matching pepper grinder.
posted by like_neon to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Open up the mill. Discard the contents.

Clean the mill and grinding mechanisms with a small dry brush. Wipe the body of the mill with rubbing alcohol. Air dry all parts for at least 24 hours.

Add dry rock or sea salt to the salt mill. Include a few grains of rice to absorb any moisture.

Lubricate the threaded part of the mill, lightly using cooking oil and fingers. Prevent salt corrosion and increase the ease of assembly.

Adjust for the desired coarseness of salt by tightening or loosening the screw that connects to the grinding mechanism. Reassemble the mill. Test by turning the grinder knob.

Store the salt mill in a cool, dry place.
posted by redorangeyellow at 1:27 PM on October 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

Salt is basically little rocks, so it's understandable if the grinding mechanisms wear out after a while.

The positive aspect of salt being little rocks is that, since it's not organic material, it doesn't go stale, become rancid, or lose flavor over time like, say, herbs or peppercorns. So, you don't gain any advantage by storing it in larger granules and then grinding it as you use it; it's fine to buy pre-ground salt and keep it for a long time.

You could use the other mill for fenugreek or another seed-type spice.
posted by amtho at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, the main thing about salt mills is that there is no reason for them to exist and they are actually worse than having a salt cellar or salt shaker. The reason we have pepper grinders is that the oils that make peppercorns taste good are volatile and go stale/rancid fairly quickly. This is apparent in how much better smelling and better tasting freshly-cracked pepper is compared to pre-ground. With salt, on the other hand, there is no difference.

I know this isn't exactly the answer to the question you posed, but I am merely suggesting that unless you really use the adjustable coarseness setting with frequency, you will be better off ditching the salt grinder altogether. Also, depending on what the mechanisms are made of, it's possible that the salt is causing corrosion.
posted by slkinsey at 1:50 PM on October 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Grinding salt doesn't actually improve it, in some cases it can make it worse (wide crystals like sea or kosher salt can hit the tongue better). I'd recommend just using a good salt shaker or cellar on the table and re-purpose the grinder for a spice that benefits from grinding. I use mine as second type of pepper grinder.
posted by Candleman at 1:51 PM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

After a (thankfully) short tenure working in a retail shop that sold nothing but salt, I learned that most salt+pepper grinders sold together were routinely bad at one or the other. A good pepper grinder will be destroyed by salt, and a good salt grinder will do an awful job grinding pepper. They're often sold in pairs, but ought to be bought separately, for sure. A quality pepper grinder can easily be handed down a generation or two, while a salt grinder just won't. make. it.

There's nothing wrong with your salt. Salt is a pernicious chemical that is the natural enemy of most metals, especially those that are particularly good at grinding it. It also gets stuck in gears really easily (just like sand), and is just generally problematic in almost all mechanical devices. Salt is waaaaay harder on the actual metal parts inside your salt grinder than pepper is in it's counterpart.

redorangeyellow's post is a great breakdown on how to clean a grinder. Nothing will keep you from having to maintain the grinder, but if you find one with ceramic burrs instead of metal (usually stainless steel), they'll last much, much longer and require (slightly) less maintenance.

The best salt mill I ever saw was one in similar construction to these. Instead of a burr set, this one relied on a central piston that was more of a rasp, and the walls housing it had little teeth as well. Instead of a circular turning action, you get a back-and-forth pump action. Controling the grind was harder, but they lasted muchmuchmuch longer, and required just the occasional clean out (since none of the actual moving, operational parts touched as much salt).

But as a few others have sugested, they're not necessary, and we've ended up keeping our pepper in the mill, and our salt in a 'cellar' (ours is just a ceramic jar with a cork lid.).
posted by furnace.heart at 1:54 PM on October 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

The shape and size of salt fragments absolutely alters perceived saltiness. Here is just one of many scientific studies that report on experimental evidence.

This is of extreme interest and the topic of much research, because making lower sodium food taste as salty as higher sodium counterparts is potentially worth billions of dollars.

So all those saying grinding salt has no effect are only correct if they can somehow buy salt with exactly the same grain size distribution as comes out of their grinders (unlikely).
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:57 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

While we are shredding conventional salt wisdom/marketing in these responses let me just add that kosher salt is not intrinsically any better than fine salts despite the general consensus amount chef types that it is the only viable salt.

Does the shape of salt have some noticeable effects in some applications? absolutely - as when finishing a steak or baked good and you want noticeable crunchy flakes, bust out that maldon. Does this explain kosher salts popularity? not really. Initially intended for salting large cuts of meat by drawing out the water, the coarser crystals sit on the surface of the meat and create small pools of liquid. but what about nearly every other application?

kosher salt is popular because it is easier to grab, chefs like seasoning by feel not by rote measurements, and you simply cannot pick up and control a pinch or two or three of fine-ground salt as well as the larger bits of kosher salt.

for me, this is the worst part about using salt grinders (in other peoples kitchens/homes) I have no idea if a quarter turn is grossly insufficient to season my dish/plate or if it will turn it inedible from over salting.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:02 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

So all those saying grinding salt has no effect are only correct if they can somehow buy salt with exactly the same grain size distribution as comes out of their grinders (unlikely).

But I don't think most home cooks have any idea what that grain size would be when they buy a mill (they're not labelled for grain size!) and actually aren't aiming for any particular one. They just think they're "supposed" to grind salt "to taste fresher." So grinding salt doesn't have the sought-for effect. For most people, it's literally just the industry-encouraged result of confusion between salt and pepper.

That said, subjective preference is everything in cooking. It might be silly to spend money on a mill when you wouldn't reliably prefer home-ground salt to not in a blind tasting, but people spend thousands of dollars on wine that they probably couldn't distinguish from a $40 bottle in a blind tasting, so in the scheme of things, a mill isn't that pointless a purchase. If operating it is an annoyance, though, you can set yourself free!
posted by praemunire at 2:14 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Counterpoint to the "salt grinders are useless" wisdom: While salt flavor is not improved by grinders, and some kinds of salt are worse (you can't get the nice flake crystals from a grinder), it does nicely avoid the problem of "hand shook; got half a teaspoon instead of a light sprinkling." But that's about all - salt grinders can do even dispersal better than a lot of shakers; they don't make for better salt.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:15 PM on October 23, 2017

Many grinders have metal mechanisms, which are good for pepper, but no good for salt. That might be why yours is gumming up -- a salt grinder with a ceramic mechanism should last longer.
posted by Pwoink at 2:15 PM on October 23, 2017

They just think they're "supposed" to grind salt "to taste fresher."
Maybe, but that's not what I grind salt.

It doesn't matter whether the user intends to go for any particular grain size, what matters is that the home-ground product has a demonstrably different grain size and size distribution. Of course everybody gets to prefer whatever they want, but numerous scientific studies show that grain size and shape alter perception, and for that reason alone, "salt shakers have no effect" is demonstrably false, unless, as I said above, you can buy salt exactly how it comes out of your grinder, which I have never seen.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:34 PM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Re: salt grinding, I have to say that I came into this thread skeptical of the value of a salt mill but this Stackexchange thread may have turned me around. The top rated answer has extreme close up photographs of the shapes of different kinds of salt: ordinary table salt, sea salt, and freshly ground salt. The contrast is greatest between table salt and freshly ground salt: table salt is extremely regular cubes, while freshly ground salt is a random assortment of different shapes and sizes. I can see how the taste perception between the two might be quite different.
posted by crazy with stars at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

It doesn't matter whether the user intends to go for any particular grain size

If you care about the user getting value for their money, it certainly does! Since the average user does not know what grain size or distribution would be ideal for his or her purpose, and does not know whether the mill would actually achieve that (I mean, do you honestly believe that the average grinder in a five-dollar bottle of salt is precision-engineered?), or the complete opposite, purchasing a mill is a roll of the dice, not the relative assurance of greater pungency you actually do get with a pepper mill.

The user doesn't understand the method to obtain a (supposed) result and doesn't even know if the item purchased can execute that method = ripoff for the user. As I said, not the greatest scandal in the history of mankind, not exactly the most expensive placebo ever purchased, but there's a reason people who actually might have some appreciation for possible variations in intensity of saltiness due to grain size or shape--that is, pro high-end cooks--don't tend to use salt grinders.
posted by praemunire at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am so confused. Why would someone need to know anything about the exact grain size (or shape, or any food science really) to understand that they like salt grinder salt more than industrially ground salt for many applications? That coarser salts are more useful in some applications, and finer salts in others? Preference is preference. True, it may be placebo/con, but we have lots of evidence to the contrary, including physical mechanisms.

Many grinders, including OP's, are adjustable. So you can change the dial until you like it the best, even if you don't know what size that is, beyond "this position on this grinder". And yes, each grinder will produce something slightly different, but they all produce something very different from industrially ground salt, as demonstrated by the photos linked by crazy with stars above. Even if you match the mean grain size, you can see that the size distribution and shapes are different with the home grinder.

Food science has shown us that both size and shape of salt grains affect flavor and saltiness. The mechanism is in part differential dissolution rates. This is not some esoteric application: the first example I cited above is about potato chips.

As for high end pro cooks, I suspect some do use salt grinders at home, but that's not really relevant. Another group of people have good reason and ability to use sizes and shapes of salt to their advantage:industrial chefs. The food scientists over at Pepsico/Lay's have been altering shape of their salt to make it saltier in consumer goods for a while now.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:58 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you want salt crystals on your grilled Brussels sprouts, put on Maldon salt which comes in flakes. The Fm3m cubes seemingly do not apply here, Maldon salt is vaguely hollow-pyramidal. The surface-to-volume ratio of Maldon salt makes it melt on your tongue faster than the usual cubic product. It provides a sudden surge of saltiness.

If OTOH you want the taste of sea salt, you want something like Sel Marin, île de Noirmoutier, which is varying but small grains that come out a bit "fluffy", intermediate between the Maldon salt's sudden surge and Morton's reliable cubes. Fleur de sel is hard to make and it is something like Maldon salt but more irregular. Any salt called "sel gris" is a pain because it cakes, but you get the pleasure back in the eating because it somehow has more depth.

There's a lot of hype about salt these days. The pink Kirkland "Himalayan Salt" calls itself "the purest salt in the world" and BS, pure salt is colorless: but I like it for fun, I call it "pride salt".

Grinding salt with stainless or ceramic grinders gets you a variable result depending on the mill's age, ferocity of grinding and factor X which is a mystery.

Diamond salt - in comparison to Morton's - is much finer and I like it when the salt needs to present itself fast, but not as fast as Maldon.

If you are dissolving salt in water, it doesn't matter except for trace flavors that you will never get with salt in those squat cylinders on the grocery shelves.
posted by jet_silver at 9:17 PM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow Metafilter, I knew you would come through and help us overthink a grinder of salt.

The household consensus is to get on Team No Salt Grinder. I think we've just mindlessly gone with 'matching' salt and pepper grinder sets in the past. But upon further discussion, my husband reminds me that his mum (my hero for all kitchen gadgetry) actually has matching S&P dispensers and the pepper is a grinder but the salt is actually just a shaker but they look similar when standing together. I should have gone to her first, but the knowledge imparted here was worth it.

I already love and use Maldon but I just dispense it out of the box and we also use "normal" table salt to salt pasta water and that's also just out of the cardboard jar. So now I'm obsessed with the idea of a little trio of salt cellars so that we stop storing our salt options like savages.
posted by like_neon at 2:06 AM on October 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I know you've decided against the grinder, but in case anyone with a similar problem comes across this question, I still wanted to answer. I have no idea where I read this, and of course I can't find the article. But the issue with salt grinders tends to be moisture. When you grind pepper over a steaming pot of food, it's fine. But when you grind salt, the salt reacts with the moisture from the steam and can get caked on and corrode the grindy parts. So moisture tends to make the salt grinders fail before their pepper counterparts.
posted by thejanna at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2017

So, I didn't see this answer... My salt grinder failed when the outer part of the grindy part broke free from the inside of the mill. The outer part of the grindy thing is supposed to be fixed to the mill, the inner part of the grindy thing is what gets turned by the twisting/cranking of the mill. When the outer part of the grindy bit lost its grip on the body of the mill, presto, no grinding. Turning the crank just caused the whole grindy part to spin in the body of the mill.

I just had to take it apart and re-epoxy the outside bit of the grindy part to the body of the mill and re-assemble.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:57 PM on October 24, 2017

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