According to Alize Green's Field Guide to Herbs & Spices, salt is "the only mineral, nonbiological food humans regularly eat." We actually crave it, and there's a good reason for that. In addition to enhancing the flavor and preserving the freshness of our food, the chemical components of salt—chlorine and sodium—are essential nutrients that keep our bodies hydrated and our nerves firing efficiently. Salt is, quite simply, necessary for life.
It seems we humans have understood the importance of salt for millennia. Since at least 6000 BC, people have pulled it from sea and land, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the peaks of the Himalayas. When people clink glasses and toast "to your health" in Italy and Spain, the words they use (Salute! Salud!) come from the Latin for salt.
Throughout history, salt has been used to appease the gods and repel evil spirits, to seal deals and pay debts. It has sparked revolutions, inspired coups, and – as one of the earliest forms of food preservation—it made exploration and trade possible across vast distances around the world. Roman soldiers were paid with money to buy salt (giving us the word salary), and victorious armies sowed it into the ground to prevent vanquished peoples from growing crops. Special roads were built to transport it in Italy and also in Africa, where it was once worth its weight in gold.
Whatever part of the world you trace your early ancestors to, it's safe to say that they would be stunned to find shakers of salt sitting (unguarded!) on restaurant tables, and large boxes of it sold for next to nothing at the grocery stores of today.
And such an astonishing variety! Beyond common table salt, there's a dizzying array of options—flakes and grains and crystals in colors from snowy white to pink to black -- each with its own, unique properties (and passionate devotees). Many are still produced with the same artisanal techniques that have been used for centuries. Here are some of our favorites:
Kosher Salt: A kitchen staple for commercial chefs and home cooks, alike. Beyond the fact that it's approved for Kosher diets, what makes this salt so popular is its versatility. Its big, pyramid-shaped crystals adhere nicely to meat and are easy to pinch and toss into the pot. But they also crush easily between your fingers, for light, even sprinkling. Kosher salt is less processed than table salt and contains no anti-caking agents.
Himalayan Pink Salt: Before the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian plate collided and thrust skyward to form the peaks of the Himalayas, they were beneath an ancient sea. Salt harvested from those mountain-top deposits has a soft pink hue – caused by dozens of trace minerals—and a bold flavor that allows you to use less. Himalayan pink salt works well in a grinder, but we also like to sprinkle a few gorgeous whole grains atop hors d'oeuvres or scatter them around plated food right before serving.
Gray Sea Salt/Sel Gris: Since the Middle Ages, people on the Atlantic coast of France have harvested salt by evaporating seawater in shallow pools called salt pans, and using wooden rakes to carefully gather the crystals. Sel gris gets its soft gray color from the mineral deposits at the bottom of the salt pan. Moister and more dense than Kosher salt, sel gris is beloved by chefs as a finishing salt for meats and other hearty foods and even for baking.
Fleur de Sel: The same process that produces sel gris also creates fleur de sel (flower of salt). The difference is that these light, delicate crystals are carefully hand-skimmed from the surface of the salt pan, rather than raked from the bottom. Their mild flavor and snowflake sparkle make these crystals wonderful as a finishing flourish for eggs, salads and desserts (especially chocolate or caramel).
Hawaiian Black: While other colored salts come by their tints naturally, Hawaiian Black salt gets its dramatic hue from the addition of activated charcoal. Drawn from the sea, and evaporated under the Hawaiian sun, it's mineral-rich and gets a slightly smoky note from the charcoal. This salt is best sprinkled on food after it's cooked or on cold dishes, to appreciate the color as well as the flavor.
Smoked Salts: Smoking salt over a wood fire is a method that dates back to the Vikings. Gourmet spice shops offer sea salt smoked with apple, alder, cypress, mesquite, hickory and a range of other woods, each with a unique flavor profile. They add the perfect smoky note to BBQ sauce, chili and other hearty foods, and they're also wonderful sprinkled on popcorn or roasted nuts. A game-changer in guacamole.
Flavored Salt: Flavored salts are nothing new, but American pantries seldom contain any other than the ubiquitous garlic salt. Now, don't get us wrong, we love garlic salt, but we highly recommend branching out. How does smoked onion salt sound? How about salt with lavender or rosemary? Lime salt on the rim of your margarita? We've even seen pinot noir salt (it's purple!) and a deep red salt favored with powdered dried caterpillars (think we'll pass on that one). By far one of the most delicious is tartufo nero salt – infused with the luxurient, umami-rich flavor of black truffles. Just the merest sprinkle upgrades humble French fries, scrambled eggs or popcorn to gourmet status.
A tip from our designer: Pair food with salt and bring a dish of it to the table as a design element. Two favorites shades: pink and black.