Without salt, food just tastes bland and uninteresting. Chef Chris Koetke shares the best salt to use to enhance your cooking and grilling experience.
Sodium Chloride. Salt. NaCl.
Call it what you want—salt is an essential part of cooking. It’s one of our five basic human tastes. Without it, food tastes bland and uninteresting. The reason is simple: we are wired to like salt.
In the first professional kitchens I worked in during my teens (now over 30 years ago), salt was salt, out of a 25 lb. bag. We never thought anything more about it. Then, several years later, when living and working in France, I learned about some specially harvested and expensive salts with names like fleur de sel or sel gris. We used these salts sparingly on certain dishes where the salt was proudly called out in menu descriptions.
Despite what I experienced in France, there was really no discussion of salt in the US. Then, several years ago, salt exploded. People started talking about salt like they do wine. An increasingly wide variety of different salts in different shapes, sizes and colors showed up on the market. Despite warnings of over-consumption of salt by some in the nutritional community, salt today is basking in the culinary spotlight.
The Heyday of Salt
There is now a plethora of gourmet salts on the market. I divide these salts into unflavored salts that derive their flavor from naturally occurring minerals in the salt harvesting area and flavored salt to which additional flavors have been added. Unflavored specialty salts have real differences in flavor, texture and color. Examples include: fleur de sel and sel gris from France, known for their ocean-like flavor, pink salts including the very popular Himalayan pink salt, an assortment of sea salts and black salts.
Flavored salts are increasingly common and cover a wide flavor spectrum with combinations of herbs, citrus, wine reductions, spices and chiles. One unique flavor that bears a special mention is pungent smoked salt—the best of these salts are flavored with real smoke.
With every culinary trend come good ideas founded on creative inspiration and bad ideas founded on a lack of understanding. This is where I have definite opinions about the current state of salt as well as how it’s used and misused. When it comes to most culinary preparations, I am not particular about the salt I use. The reason is quite simple: The difference in flavor with most salts is subtle. When it is mixed into a preparation, these flavor differences are lost and any textural differences are dissolved away. Additionally, adding most flavored salts to a preparation is pointless. It is often easier to add salt and a desired flavor profile separately so you have complete control over both flavors. The exception to this is smoked salt that can impart some interesting flavors to different preparations.
When it comes to grilling, with the exception of smoked salt, I do not advise adding specialty salts to marinades or even to the exterior of the foods before grilling.
When To Use Finishing Salts On The Grill
That said, I am a huge fan of finishing salts. The concept of a finishing salt is that it’s added to cooked food just before serving. This is where you want to use those unique salts as they retain all of their flavor and different textures. For instance, fleur de sel or sel gris is perfect sprinkled on grilled fish just off the grill. A sprinkle of flavored salt on different grilled meats or vegetables adds a unique flavor pop. Finishing grilled foods with pink or black salt also adds a pleasurable visual component to the dish. The crunch of a finishing salt adds sparkle and a burst of flavor!
Himalayan Block Salt
I also want to mention the particularly cool and popular pink Himalayan salt sold in block form. These blocks are really fun to use on the grill. For instance, a slab of pink Himalayan salt can be heated on the grill and transferred to the dinner table where thinly cut pieces of beef or seafood can be quickly cooked on the scorchingly hot surface—all while seasoning the food at the same time. If you don’t want to cook tableside, leave the block on the grill where the food can still be cooked directly on it. One advantage to leaving it on the grill is that the salt will not cool as you cook on it. And, if you don’t want to use these beautiful pink slabs for cooking, you can simply put a smaller chunk on the table with a hand-held grater for your guests so that they can season their food. This is what I do in my home. It’s way cooler than a salt grinder.