Modern industry, according to Kurlansky, claims some 14,000 uses for salt (others have said 40,000) — and they probably don’t include keeping away spirits and enhancing virility. Or mummification, for that matter. But preservation was certainly among the most important early uses for sodium chloride. “More than a gastronomic development, the salting of fowl and especially of fish was an important step in the development of economies” in the ancient world. The pursuit of salt determined trade routes, led to the establishment of cities, served as the foundation of dynasties, and fostered exploration and exploitation. Salt cod and corned beef not only allowed lengthy sea voyages, they also served as staples for conquering navies.
Yet now we take salt entirely for granted, failing even to recognize place names that testify to the mineral’s early importance. (Salzburg is not important only because of Mozart; the name means “salt town”.) It’s thus hard for many to wrap minds and tongues around the notion of $30-per-pound (or more) fleur de sel, having gotten used to paying $.39 (or less) for an entire cylindrical box of the stuff that pours when it rains. Both granular (table) salt and kosher salt are the product of mining (or of forcing water deep into underground salt deposits to create pumpable brine); kosher salt’s irregular shape is produced by compacting table salt between rollers. The same flaky shape that is useful for drawing out blood in the koshering process also reacts assertively on the tongue due to its larger surface area.
Though produced through different methods (most, though not all, of the following salts are produced through skimming brine ponds flooded by the sea), shape and texture account for much of the legitimate, though snobby, appeal of the high-priced sprinkle. With kosher salt as a baseline, here’s what I did: I sampled each of the following several salts straight, then on a sliced ripe tomato, taking into account texture, “saltiness,” other flavors such as mineral and, in once case, smoke. Here are the results.
Kosher salt: a noticeable but not challenging texture with a good, tongue-coating, overall saltiness; it enhanced the taste of the tomato without adding any notes of its own.
Maldon: Available at Central Market, this British salt is preferred by many chefs for its delicate, crystalline flake. It seemed to evolve on the tongue, becoming more mellow with time, and it enhanced the tomato taste while still retaining a pleasant crunch.
Okinawan Sea Salt : This Japanese sea salt (available from Chefshop.com) is snow-flake powdery and is extracted from seawater pumped from 60 feet beneath the surface. It’s said to contain more than four-dozen trace minerals, any one of which I defy you to identify, but the result is a quickly dissolving, very salty sensation that lingered even on the tomato. Use sparingly.
Sel gris natural: Available in bulk at CM, this coarse, beige-grey salt, harvested from brine ponds, offers more complexity than straight salt, though on the tomato it seemed to fade out. Perhaps best sprinkled on salads, cooked fish, or vegetables just before serving.
Fleur de Sel le Guerandais: Brought to me from France, where it is the first “bloom” skimmed from salt ponds, this was one of my favorites — both delicate and assertive, long-lasting, and complex. (A 5.5 oz. jar of a similar salt is $11.99 at Whole Foods.)
Murray River Mineralized Salt: From Central Australia (and CM), this small-flake salt with an apricot blush was another favorite, offering modest mineral notes while playing nicely with the tomato. To emphasize the color, use as a finishing touch on light-toned (and flavored) foods.
Bolivian Rose: One of eight salts available in bulk in Whole Foods’ spice department (a good place to sample several types), this pale-pink, mined salt is distinguished by a moderately large crystalline shape and a delicate flavor that is kind to the tongue and lingered on the tomato.
Alaea Red Sea Salt: This Hawaiian salt (from ChefShop) is deep terracotta in color and is produced from seawater trapped in tidal pools that have been inundated by red clay washed from volcanic mountains. The texture is aggressively coarse and flat, the taste is more than a little minerally, and the crunch lingers long on tomatoes. Good for finishing grilled meats or fish such as salmon.
Cypress Black Lava Flake: The color is the thing with this salt, available at Whole Foods —it’s truly black and dramatic, but tastes less assertive than it looks. Use for drama and surprise on pasta or other light-colored and reasonably flavorful foods.
Salish Alderwood Smoked Salt: (Whole Foods) Wow — you can smell this one coming a mile away. Overwhelming straight (and on the defenseless tomato), it might be good for brining or finishing off barbecue after grilling.
The roller-coaster ride of flavors doesn’t end here; a Jurassic salt from Utah is available at Central Market, and CM has a new line of flavored salts, including a truffle-infused version at $19.99 for 3.5 oz. Clearly, you don’t boil your pasta with these tony versions, nor do you bake or cook with most of them (you don’t throw them over your shoulder, either). Apart from the kosher, which is truly universal, the rest are worth their salt as a finishing touch. If I were you, I’d splurge for fleur de sel, and keep some Maldon at hand. The rest are whimsy — and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.