Few food condiments have as long and storied a history as salt. This ancient staple of civilization was so valued for its ability to preserve food that it was used as currency and inspired cross-cultural trade and even war. Yet, in modern times, salt has become a ho-hum commodity.
That is changing. In the past couple of years, cooks have rediscovered salt, and it is once again a coveted prize. Dozens of exotic varieties are now available -- from shimmering Indian Kala Namak to clay-tinged red Hawaiian sea salt. Gourmands are willing to pay as much as $80 a pound for such rarities, versus about 30 cents a pound for common table salt. What's more, the rainbow-hued grains often come in smart packaging, making them a gift guaranteed to spice up any kitchen.
SLIDE SHOW: GOURMET SALTS
BRITTANY'S TEMPERATE SHORES
Unlike common table salt, which is mined from the land and then refined, the best specialty salts are "harvested" from seawater that's allowed to evaporate in the sun. The process preserves the minerals that lend each salt its distinctive appearance and flavor. Indeed, much like wine, sea salts can evoke the place they are from, whether the temperate shores of Brittany or lava-laden Hawaiian islands.
Salt comes in a variety of sizes and textures, and different salts serve different culinary purposes. The coarser grains impart a dramatic crunch and burst of flavor to a dish, while fine-grained and mildly flavored salts are used for a more subtle effect. Some salts are more like flakes. SaltWorks, a Redmond (Wash.) purveyor (seasalt.com), sells Murray River Pink Flake salt from Australia that looks like peach-colored snowflakes and has a delicate flavor to match.
Most sea salts come with a description of where they're from and how they're harvested. For example, the Il Buco Handcrafted Italian Wooden Sea Salt Box, a trio of Sicilian sea salts, comes with a booklet of handmade paper describing the salts. You'll learn that the Fiore di Sale, or flower of salt, is gathered by Sicilian saltmakers from foam that forms on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and then left to dry in straw baskets under the intense sun.
Perhaps the most versatile sea salt is Fleur De Sel from France. Called the caviar of salts, it has a full flavor and high mineral content. For something more exotic, try red Alaea Hawaiian salt. Kala Namak, or "black" salt, from India, is actually dusty rose in color and has an unusual sulfurous flavor.
Smoked salts can impart an earthy flavor to dishes. SaltWorks offers a proprietary blend called Fumée de Sel, which is smoked in oak barrels that were previously used to age Chardonnay. Napa Style infuses its salts with herbs such as coriander and garlic.
With so many types to choose from, companies are packaging sea salts together in sampler sets. That might be the best way to introduce someone to the new world of salt.
By Amy Cortese