We won't be revisiting this guide to update it with additional tests, so we're archiving it.
When it comes to salt, there’s no need to break the bank. For everyday cooking and baking, we would recommend Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt ($2.65 for 3 lbs.) for its purity, consistency, low cost, and overseasoning-proof crystal shape. For finishing dishes, we recommend Maldon Sea Salt Flakes ($5.69 for 8.5 oz.) because the unique flake shape provides a pleasant, clean pop of salinity when sprinkled over foods.
We won't be revisiting this guide to update it with additional tests, so we're archiving it.
These picks are the result of ten hours of research through articles from books, trusted publications, and blogs, enthusiast forums, as well as chats with chefs, bakers, and food writers from different parts of the culinary spectrum. And though it wasn’t totally unanimous, these were the two picks that we tallied the most nods for, with consensus from the supporters on why they’re great.
Salt is the easiest, cheapest way to improve nearly everything that comes out of the kitchen.
It’s one of the tongue’s five key tastes. Food scientist Harold McGee tells the New York Times that salt increases “the volatility of some aromatic substances in food, and it enhances our perception of some aromas, so it can make the overall flavor of a food seem more intense.” In baking, salt can help with the volume and gluten structure of rising dough. When added to boiling water, it keeps green vegetables bright. We like salt so much that we also devote countless articles and bookshelf space to advising its reduction in our diet.
Most savory recipes call for adding salt and pepper to taste, because palates and salt types differ. This can be frustrating for new cooks—how do you know the right amount to use? Seasoning your food to your liking means establishing a long-term relationship with your salt of choice—knowing how much your fingers can grab, watching how evenly it distributes over your food, and learning, with practice, the right amount to use for your taste. Once you have that tactile memory for a particular type of salt, it can be hard to adjust to a different one.
Most people are already familiar with the tiny cubes of Morton’s iodized salt, which is very cheap and widely available. Then there are a few brands of refined kosher salts, finely granulated sea salts, less refined, chunky sea salts from around the world, delicate, translucent flake salts, and expensive fleur de sel, which the New York Times calls “the crème de la crème of salt.”
But salt is usually just a supporting player. We talked to Dan Barber, chef/owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan, NY and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY, who says, “I think with the best salts, you’re not tasting the flavor of salt but bringing out the flavor of the thing you’re seasoning.” A multi-purpose salt should not mask the flavors of your dish. It should work equally well for seasoning meat or for dispersion in pastries.
Whether you’re still a kitchen amateur or a seasoned pro (ahem), you’ll likely need a lot of salt. If you’ve already gotten used to something different, adjusting to Diamond Crystal’s volume and lighter salinity may take some time. But since it’s so cheap, we recommend that you buy a box and try it out.
If you want to take your presentation to the next level, adding the Maldon Sea Salt to your arsenal will add a little zing to your finished dishes (and make you look like a connoisseur).
The pros may keep several types of salt in their pantries, but they’re generally sticking to their one true salt for multi-purpose use. And for many of the chefs and food writers I spoke to, that is Diamond Crystal kosher salt, widely touted as “the industry standard.”
As Serious Eats’s J. Kenji López-Alt recently explained, “The biggest reason why chefs love to use kosher salt is that it is much easier to pick up between your fingers and thus gives you tighter control over your seasoning.” The term “kosher salt” often refers not to a religious blessing, but to a coarse crystal shape meant to aid “kashering,” the Jewish practice of drawing blood and other impurities from meat. (Think of savory cured pastrami, corned beef, and salty lox.) Kosher salt provides distinct advantages when it comes to manual dispensation. The qualities that make salt good for kashering–large crystals, textured enough to stick to food and cover it without dissolving completely into the meat–also make kosher salt easy to grip and spread on any food.
The two most widely available kosher salts are Diamond Crystal kosher salt and Morton’s kosher salt. Between the two, Diamond Crystal is the clear favorite among the pros. This may be because, teaspoon for teaspoon, Morton’s is actually much saltier than Diamond Crystal.
Both Edward Schneider of the New York Times’ Diner’s Journal and Jill Santopietro of Chow explored this phenomenon. Both writers were Diamond Crystal devotees and had dishes ruined by the heavier Morton’s. Diamond Crystal kosher salt crystals, formed with the patented Alberger method, are lighter and flakier, “like several upside-down pyramids stacked one over the next to form a crystal,” Santopietro explains; Morton’s kosher salt is created when dense salt cubes are crushed into heavy flakes between rollers. (You can see the difference in crystal shape in these photos.) Schneider weighed a cup of Morton’s kosher vs. a cup of Diamond Crystal and found that “a tablespoon of Morton’s kosher salt is the equivalent of 1.85 tablespoons of Diamond Crystal.” Just check out the nutrition labels: a ¼ teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt has 280mg of sodium, whereas the same amount of Morton’s has 480mg of sodium.
That fluffy shape helps protect against overseasoning, which can’t be corrected as easily as undersalting, making it a good choice for noobs as well as pros. Cookwise author Shirley O. Corriher tells Chow’s Santopietro, “Major restaurants use Diamond Crystal because if they have some kid who throws too much salt into a dish, he’s less likely to oversalt it.”
Chemically, there’s not a huge difference between Diamond Crystal and the dozens of other salts you can find at high-end grocery shops. All salts, whether they are hand-collected from the surface of French salt marshes, boiled down from brine wells, or dug from rock salt mines, are mostly sodium chloride. Some of the less refined salts, like Himalayan pink salt or moist, French gray salt, get their colors and flavors from trace minerals such as iron oxide, calcium, magnesium, and sulfates. These notes are most prominent when large salt crystals are used to finish a dish, and less prominent when the salt is mixed in.
A lack of additives, such as iodide and anti-caking agents, also set Diamond Crystal apart from some other brands. In fact, in his essay, “Salt Chic,” from It Must Have Been Something I Ate, a chemical analysis sent in by Jeffrey Steingarten found that, among the 13 salts he tested, Diamond Crystal “contains the least amount of nearly everything other than sodium chloride.”
Morton’s kosher salt contains the anti-caking agent yellow prussiate of soda (which also goes by the less friendly chemical name, sodium ferrocyanide.) Free flow is important to Morton’s identity—their famous slogan, “When it rains, it pours,” refers to their salt’s ability to pour, even when it’s humid. According to the Salt Institute, a trade association, yellow prussiate of soda is “the most frequently used additive” for this purpose.
Morton’s iodized salt, the inexpensive table salt in the iconic blue cylinder, contains potassium iodide, a nutrient which was added in 1924 to help prevent goiter, a condition that was more prevalent when we got most of our food from the iodine-deficient middle U.S. (Goiter is no longer a big problem in the U.S. since we get our food from all over the world, including coastal regions where iodine is more prevalent in crops. Taste of Home explains that “we also get iodine from seafood, dairy products, and drinking water”; however, iodized salt remains a key way of introducing the nutrient to the diet in other parts of the world.) It also contains calcium silicate as an anti-caking agent.
But Harold McGee reported in the New York Times on two studies that show that people can taste the difference between salts; in the Journal of Sensory Studies, Stephenie L. Drake and MaryAnne Drake’s panel tasted salts dissolved into distilled water and “noted a total of 10 different tastes and smells in the salts, many fewer than the wine-like profusion of qualities celebrated by salt specialists.” And the Culinary Institute of America’s Chef David Kamen and Dr. Christopher Loss tested the flavor of salts with foods (chicken stock, bratwurst, and mashed potatoes); McGee reports that the panel prefers the taste of the sea salt over the kosher salt. McGee also says, “Considered together, the two studies suggest that it would take an unusually sensitive palate to be offended by the taste of ordinary salt, or to notice a difference in foods prepared with different salts. So there’s probably no need to rewrite all those cookbooks or throw out the kosher salt.”
Three of the chefs I spoke to dismissed iodized salt for its chemically, unpleasant flavor. David Lebovitz calls it “bitter-salty”. And there’s no doubt that pure salt is better for pickling, since additives can affect the color of pickles and the clarity of pickling liquid. (But that’s probably an edge case in most kitchens.)
Diamond Crystal kosher salt’s fluffy crystal does not lend itself as well to dry ingredient distribution.Price matters with an ingredient as heavily used as salt, and the cheapest salt is less than 1/100 the price of the most expensive salt we considered. Diamond Crystal kosher salt is a bargain — a 3 lb. box should set you back about $2.65, or about 5.5 cents per ounce. Though Morton’s Iodized Salt in the iconic navy cylinder is even cheaper, at about 3.8 cents per ounce, a fancy Fleur de Sel de Guèrande can go for $4 per ounce.
The reviewers point to one major drawback — Diamond Crystal kosher salt’s fluffy crystal does not lend itself as well to dry ingredient distribution. Baking recipe gurus like Dorie Greenspan, Rose Levy Berenbaum, and Perelman say that they use a fine grained salt for recipes that include salt measurements. In Cook’s Illustrated, table salt performed the best in the biscuit test because its smaller, denser crystals were more evenly distributed. Perelman used to test her recipes using Diamond Crystal kosher salt, but changed after hearing many complaints. “I can’t tell you how often readers would tell me that something was too salty,” she says. In order to save her readers from ruin, she started using table salt to test her recipes.
In many professional kitchens that bake in large volume, bakers weigh salt rather than measure by volume, which provides consistency and leeway on crystal density; in the case of Blue Hill, they’re using a fine French sea salt in their breads and pastries. But Ben Mims, pastry chef at Bar Agricole in San Francisco and former Food Editor at Saveur, says that he uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt in cakes and pastries that he makes at home without issue because he understands the right amount to use. “If you use 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, you would need to use half the amount of fine salt,” he says. He also offers a tip for dissolving the big crystals of kosher salt in baking. “Say I’m making a cake, I incorporate salt by putting it in the butter with the sugar and creaming it,” he says. Another modification to try is to crush the crumbly Diamond Crystal kosher salt crystals with the back of a spoon before measuring so that the volume and granule size more closely matches that of fine salt.
Not everyone is a fan of kosher salt. Mark Bitterman, author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral and Salt Block Cooking, owner of specialty salt shop The Meadow, and self-professed salt freak, told us, “Our palate is super attuned to the artificiality of refined salt. We just don’t recognize it because we’ve been raised on it our entire lives.” He calls kosher salt cheap and industrial. “What I’m saying is anathema to what every chef will tell you. Every chef will tell you to use kosher salt, and every chef will give you a lot of reasons why, but the funny thing is they’re all wrong,” he says. Bitterman advocates instead for people to have three kinds of salt in the house — fleur de sel for finishing, sel gris for all-purpose use (including for pasta water), and flake salt for delicate dishes like salads. As for the expense, he argues, “it will still only cost you about a penny per serving. So it’s still cheaper than the olive oil you use to fry your vegetables in. It’s cheaper than a slice of cucumber.”
Dan Barber of Blue Hill prefers to use French sea salt for its “less aggressive salinity”, though he will fall back on kosher salt when his preferred salt is not available.
Cook’s Illustrated recommends Diamond Crystal kosher salt for its “clean, sweet flavor” on tenderloin. Martha Stewart praises Diamond Crystal’s “clean flavor great for both cooking and baking”. Bon Appetit offers Diamond Crystal its Seal of Approval: “Its coarse flakes are just right for pinching (unlike fine table salt), it’s easy to see where they land, and they dissolve quickly.” It’s also the salt of choice in the Serious Eats test kitchen and the Saveur test kitchen.
After much experimentation, Brandon Pettit of Delancey and Essex in Seattle settled on Diamond Crystal for his pizza and pretzel doughs. “If we could have only one salt, it would be this one,” he explains. “I feel like it has a clean taste, dissolves easily, is uniform in size, and easy to feel in your fingers.”
You might be surprised to learn (as I was) that though we associate Thai food with fish sauce, Northern Thai food has traditionally been salt-based, as the region is quite far from any source of fish. While Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Pok Pok in Portland and New York City, uses salt pumped and refined from ancient Thai brine wells when cooking in Thailand, he says readily available Diamond Crystal kosher salt is what his kitchens use for all-purpose needs Stateside because “it’s consistent. If you weigh a cup of that, it’s always going to weigh the same every time.” After all, he says, “It’s not wine, it’s salt!”
We’ve established that, once dissolved, the difference in flavor between the $4 an ounce salt and the 3.8 cents an ounce salt is difficult to distinguish. But flavor and crystal shape make a big difference when salt sprinkled on top of a dish just before serving. Mark Bitterman told us that he advocates for people not to use more salt during the cooking process, but to use better salt as a sort of condiment for greater flavor impact. “At the end, fling a finishing salt on the top of your food, and now you have the salt playing off your mouth and your food, and they’re going to dance together,” he says.
Chefs use this technique, too. Andy Ricker might finish with regionally appropriate Vietnamese rock salt, which he pounds with rock sugar and chiles in order to create a specific moist texture that sticks to the green mango he serves in a Vietnamese dish.
There is one salt that wins consistently high marks for taste with nearly everyone when used at the end of cooking. “My favorite, favorite, favorite is Maldon Sea Salt,” says Deb Perelman. “If I’m making myself an egg, I finish with it.”
Maldon Sea Salt Flakes are harvested traditionally in the estuaries of Essex, England. The thin, translucent flakes look like thin shards of ice atop finished dishes. Because there’s a lot of surface area to the crystal, it hits the tongue with a crisp pop of salt, which complements meats, crisp vegetables, or chocolate and caramel desserts well. Though the salt is considerably more expensive than Diamond Crystal kosher salt, it can be used sparingly.
Brandon Pettit finishes the pretzels at Essex with Maldon. He also sprinkles it on vegetables and salads at Delancey in Seattle, “when you don’t want to mess up the texture with grey salt.”
Chef Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde in New York tells Time Out, “I really like Maldon for finishing. It melts really well and isn’t outrageously expensive.”
Martha Stewart (video) praises its “very intense flavor…I love this on sliced tomatoes.” Bon Appetit also gives Maldon its Seal of Approval. They rave, “When it comes to Sea Salt, Maldon is in a class of its own.” Cook’s Illustrated says, “This hand-harvested salt won the tenderloin test by a clear margin because tasters judged the delicately crunchy flakes to be a perfect match with meat.” New York Magazine compares the pretty flakes to “sequins”, and critic Adam Platt calls it “easily my favorite” in a taste test. Among Slate’s panel of judges, “It won big in the finger taste test, where its ‘extreme texture’ had a ‘gentle flavor.’”
It’s not as cheap as Diamond Crystal. An 8.5-ounce box will set you back about $6. But a standard box can last a very long time if you’re only using it to add a little sparkle before you bring something to the table.
Fleur de sel de Guérande ($10 for 4.4 oz), a moist, chunky salt rich in magnesium from the Brittany region in northwest France, is hand-raked from the top layer of the salt marsh. It scored high marks for its smooth, clean flavor with Slate and David Lebovitz. In “Salt Chic”, Jeffrey Steingarten claims to carry a small walnut box filled with fleur de sel from nearby Île de Ré. It’s a worthy addition to your cabinet if you can stomach the steep price, though Dorie Greenspan urges you not to use it “when you’ve got lots of bold spices in a dish — it’ll get swamped.”
Fleur de sel de Camargue ($11.50 for 4.4 oz) is harvested on the other side of France, off of the Mediterranean rather than the Atlantic. It performed well in the Cook’s Illustrated test, but some found it to be “gritty”.
La Baleine fine sea salt ($3.33 for 26.5 oz) was praised by Cook’s Illustrated for its “clean, sweet, mild flavor”, but those powdery granules can be difficult to sprinkle evenly with the fingers. It is a little less salty, by volume, than table salt, at 540 mg of sodium per ¼ teaspoon compared to Morton’s iodized salt’s 590 mg. While La Baleine doesn’t have iodide, it does have an added anti-caking agent.
Morton’s iodized salt ($1 for 26 oz.) is the cheapest and most widely available of the top brands. It won praise from Cook’s Illustrated testers for its even distribution in a biscuit, but some chefs consider its taste bitter and chemically.
The Esprit du Sel Grey Sea Salt ($10 for 14.3 oz.), harvested near Île de Ré in France, is cheaper than fleur de sel de Guèrande but comes from nearby salt marshes. Its grey color comes from the clay in the ponds, adding a minerally flavor that Brandon Pettit says pairs well with the dark chocolate in the cookies he serves at Delancey. But its moist, dense texture and assertive mineral flavor can be too heavy for liberal finishing.
Diamond Crystal kosher salt and Maldon Sea Salt are pantry essentials for both serious and learning cooks. The $9 you’ll spend on these two boxes of salt won’t make you a better cook right away, but they will help you learn to season like a pro. If you’ve got the money, expand your salt selection by all means, especially for high-impact flourish when you serve.
Originally published: May 29, 2013