With today's penchant for artisan cheese, brand-name doughnuts and boutique chocolate, is it any wonder that one of the most basic ingredients in the world — salt — is now a gourmet item?
We're not talking about the inexpensive blue box that says "When it rains, it pours." At Sur La Table cookware store at the Gateway, you can shell out $15 for about a half-tablespoon-size packet of Sea Star Natural Light Grey Crystals, boasted to be "Unbleached, hand-harvested from the salt marshes of the sea of Brittany in France, completely pure, sun dried — all natural."
Among health food stores, upscale markets and fancy food mail-order companies, you can find Mediterranean sea salt, pink Hawaiian sea salt, salt from a Welsh island and nearly as many salt grinders as pepper mills.
But the best-tasting "natural" salt is made right here in Utah, according to the American Tasting Institute, which awarded its prestigious Gold Medal to RealSalt of Redmond, Utah.
The San Francisco-based Institute used a panel of chefs for a double-blind taste-test of about 20 different brands of natural salt. The Institute taste-tests food and beverages, and the top product in each category can use the group's Gold Medal on its products, for a licensing fee. Other Gold Medal winners include Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Orville Redenbacher popcorn. (If the product doesn't elect to use the endorsement, it is still the winner; no other competitors can use the endorsement).
RealSalt, which is pinkish with dark reddish-brown flakes, also had the best-tasting seasoned salt in the natural category, said Marc Oldham, the Institute's senior vice president. To be called "natural," the salt had to be "minimally processed with no additives or preservatives," Oldham explained.
Top honors in the "regular" table salt category went to Morton. Although Morton has processing plants in Utah, the salt from the Great Salt Lake is used for water softeners, de-icing roads and chemical processing, according to The Salt Institute, a group that represents salt companies. The company's table salt comes from San Francisco or underground salt mines around the country.
A 4.75-ounce jar of RealSalt costs around $1.99, compared with 50 cents for the 26-ounce box of Morton's regular stuff.
So what's the difference? Can you really taste it?
"More than you would think," said Oldham, "especially when you line them up and do a comparative taste-test. You will find 25 different flavor profiles. The natural products contain more minerals, so there's not such a strong salt flavor. Some of the chefs' comments were that they were not as harsh and overly salty — a much more palatable flavor."
Salt (sodium chloride) comes either from the sea or mining deposits left by prehistoric salt lakes. Regular salt has an additive to make it free-flowing, so it doesn't clog up in the salt shaker. About 75 years ago, American manufacturers began adding iodine to table salt as a health measure, although un-iodized salt is also available.
Lack of iodine in a person's diet can result in a condition called goiter, or hypothyoidism, where the thyroid gland becomes enlarged. Insufficient iodine during pregnancy can result in stillbirths and congenital defects, and lack of iodine impairs mental ability. In iodine-deficient areas of Asia and Africa, hypothyroidism is still a problem.
The iodine and additives give regular salt a bitter aftertaste, said Scott Blackerby, chef of Bambara. His restaurant uses RealSalt in its cooking and has it in the guests' salt shakers.
"It has a nice, sweet, sea taste," said Blackerby. "It enhances the natural flavors of the food. It's about six or seven times more expensive, but you don't seem to use as much. It dissolves quicker in applications, so your tendency to season correctly is right on. We used to use kosher salt, and the large crystals would take longer to melt, so we would tend to oversalt. We would season it, then taste it, and add more salt."
RealSalt makes a difference if you're grilling meat or sautéing, he said. "But if you're just boiling pasta, it might not be as important. It's like the difference between using extra-virgin olive oil and regular olive oil. There are times that it matters and times that it doesn't."
Other local chefs who use RealSalt are Franz Kubak of the Salt Lake Hilton and David Jones of Log Haven.
The Redmond mine, near Salina in southern Utah, is hundreds of miles away from the Great Salt Lake. But the salt deposit may have come from a sea that covered both areas during the Jurassic period, said Jason Nielsen, the company's business director. The mine is massive, spanning 80 to 100 feet from floor to ceiling.
If RealSalt becomes the Tommy Hilfiger of the seasoning world, it won't be an overnight journey. Redmond has actually been in business since 1956, selling salt for livestock and de-icing roads, said Nielsen. The company didn't make a food-grade salt until 1976. For years, RealSalt was mainly found in health-food stores. But it's now locally available at the Smith's and Albertson's grocery chains, as well as Wild Oats.
It contains no additives or preservatives and is not heated during processing, said Nielsen. It retains the naturally occurring trace minerals that are lost during the processing of regular table salt, he said. RealSalt naturally contains some iodine, but none is added.
But the actual nutritional value of the trace minerals in "natural" salts is negligible, contends Richard L. Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, based in Alexandria, Va., which is a non-profit organization that represents salt manufacturers.
"It's a matter of taste," he said. "If you can taste the difference and want to spend the money for the taste, that's fine. But the amounts of trace minerals you would get in the small amount of salt you use at the table and in cooking is so minute that one vitamin pill would be a year's supply."
Redmond has has shipped its salt to Japan, where some restaurants are more salt-conscious. Nielsen said he dined at a high-end restaurant where he was presented with a tray of five different salts and a tasting spoon, so he could choose the salt with which he wanted his dinner seasoned. "But in the grocery stores here, the salt is on the bottom shelf," he said.
But salt wasn't always taken for granted, according to "The Food Lover's Companion," by Sharon Tyler Herbst. It was a valuable commodity in ancient times, since the human body requires it for regulation of fluid balance and since it was needed in food preservation. It was sometimes used as a method of exchange, and Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their pay.
Here are some of the different salts you may encounter:
Kosher salt is an additive-free coarse-grained salt, used by Jews in the preparation of meat. It is also used by gourmet cooks who prefer its texture and flavor. (RealSalt is certified kosher.)
Sea salt is made by evaporating sea water, usually a more costly process than mining. It comes in fine-grained or larger crystals. Various sea salts include:
— Celtic or French sea salts are often gray or off-white due to the natural minerals and lack of processing. It is harvested along the Atlantic coast and the coast of Brittany and is naturally dried to retain the trace minerals. Some French sea salts are moist; others come in a coarse crystal form.
— Hawaiian sea salt contains iron oxide from Hawaiian red clay. It comes in large pinkish crystals.
— Baleine Sea Salt is a brand name for a naturally evaporated white salt from the French Mediterranean coast.
— Halen Mon Anglesey Sea Salt is a brand-name for a salt made from sea water near the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. It is best served from a bowl, as the lack of additives means it can become slightly damp and clog salt shakers.
Rock salt is not as refined as regular table salt. It comes in chunky crystals and is the type used for making homemade ice cream in crank-style ice-cream makers.
Pickling salt is a fine-grained salt used to make brines for pickles and sauerkraut. It contains no additives, which would cloud the brine.
Sour salt (or citric salt) comes from acidic fruits, such as lemons and limes. It's used to add tartness to traditional dishes like borscht.
Seasoned salt is regular salt combined with other flavoring ingredients (such as onion salt and garlic salt).
Salt substitutes, frequently used by those on low-salt diets, are products containing little or no sodium.