So I recently wrote a post (okay maybe a month or so ago) about the difference between salted and unsalted butter. Now I had one follower ask me, “is there really a difference among the salts? Can’t I use sea salt if it says table?”
I used to be one of those people who when a recipe called for salt, I used whatever I had on hand thinking that it wouldn’t matter what I used as long as it was salt.
Believe it or not, there are a few differences that can have a substantial impact on how well your dessert turns out and at the very least how it tastes. Salt actually accentuates the flavor of baked goods, particularly the flavors of butter and flour as well as chocolate. In bread baking, salt helps the gluten hold more water and carbon dioxide in the dough.
Breaking it down to the bare bones, all types of salt are derived from saltwater…Yes even table salt. Most of the world’s salt is harvested from salt mines or by evaporating sea water. All variations of salt are sodium chloride (NaCl), elements that are essential for all forms of life as well as cooking/baking. It has a variety of functions from enhancing tastes, suppressing bitterness, as well as preserving foods as salt tends to hinder bacterial growth.
Now most recipes call for table salt, but some recommend sea salt or even kosher, but is there actually a difference between the three when it comes to baking?
Table salt consists of fine, evenly shaped crystals, which makes it denser than other salts. It’s typically harvested from evaporated seawater and mined from underground salt deposits from older bodies of seawater that have since dried up. Table salt is usually about 98% sodium chloride, with about 2% by weight of an anti-caking agent, such as calcium silicate, that is applying during the purification process. Most table salt also has added iodine, usually potassium iodide (or another iodine source) is added as this is an essential nutrient that helps maintain a healthy thyroid. Table salt also tends to be a little denser from the evaporation method used.
Despite all this information, this type of salt is generally used (as its name implies) for seasoning purposes at the table, not generally for cooking due to its texture.
Of all the salt types, sea salt is actually the least processed. Crystallized flakes are obtained from evaporated seawater and can be classified as unrefined or refined. More expensive types are processed via pen-air solar evaporation versus the quicker vacuum evaporation process that may contain residual minerals that alter the color.
“The unrefined sea salt is unwashed and therefore may appear grey in color from sediment and clay impurities. Unrefined sea salt is also coated in trace minerals, algae, and even marine bacteria that can tolerate high levels of salt. All these may contribute to a more complex flavor. Of course, if you look at the amount of salt you actually sprinkle on a large grilled steak, for example, whether or not those trace impurities really contribute much flavor to your food is up for debate.” The darker the sea salt, the higher its concentration of “impurities” and trace nutrients will be.
Now before you put on your disgusted face and throw out your sea salt, you might want to know that these “impurities” actually contribute to the flavor and can enhance the added favor!
On the other hand, refined sea salt is washed and purified of those trace materials and contaminants, making it similar to table salt. Overall, sea salt may have a flaky texture, especially depending on the method used to collect and dry it. The unevenly shaped flakes don’t stack up evenly and are therefore less dense.
Sea salt is often less ground than regular refined salt, so if you sprinkle it on top of your food after it has been cooked, it may have a different mouth feel and cause a more potent “flavor burst” than refined salt.
So now that you know the basics of the other two, let’s explore kosher.
With table salt, it usually contains an anti-clumping agent as well as iodine. Kosher salt usually doesn’t contain either of these things. The biggest difference lies in the size of the grain.
If you were to explain the three difference types of salt under a microscope, you’d a key difference in the size and shape of the grains.
Table salt consists of very fine grains that are milled to look like little cubes while sea salt is composed of irregular shaped crystals. Kosher plays the big man on campus by remaining in larger grained sizes that are less process and therefore more random. Its larger flakes don’t compact together as neatly, so a pinch of salt is a little coarser and not as dense as say table salt. It is actually designed this way (and ironically named as well) for its purposes in koshering i.e. applying salt to meats to draw out the blood and juices.
As described before, because table salt is so small and finely grained, it absorbs into the meat easier, creating a seasoning effect whereas kosher salt, being larger grained salt, can be more thoroughly washed off after removing the surface blood and doesn’t make the meat too salty.
Tip of the day: Just because it says kosher salt doesn’t mean it’s actually kosher. To be certified kosher, look on the box or container to see if there is K or a U that has been circled. If so, its official.
So technically speaking, kosher salt is more versatile and probably the best choice for cooking as it can be used for seasoning ast all stages of cooking, especially with meats.
So what you’re saying is….
So I know you’re probably thinking that this is all great information and all, but you still haven’t answered the question of what should I use when it comes to baking.
Now before I answer that, I wanted to let you know that there is a salt conversion chart provided by our lovely friends at Morton’s that can help determine what amount to use depending on the type of salt you have available. It is available here: Morton Salt Chart. This can be extremely helpful if you just run out of your desired kind or just want to use one or the other, but want to guarantee the right amount for your recipe.
So that being said, which salt is best for baking? Truth is whatever you like best. Depending on the sensitivity of you palate, most people tend to think they all taste the same. Personally, I like sea salt for most of my cooking as I like a heavier salt presence to bring out flavors, but also take into consideration my husband’s lack of like for salt. Most recipes I do, I tend to tone it down a bit for him, but don’t skimp on flavor with help from the sea salt.
Bottom-line, whichever type of salt you enjoy, do so in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams a day.