Salt is Salt – The Rest is Hype

March 25, 2006 20 Comments

All about Salt

Did you know that there is no difference between sea salt, kosher salt and regular table salt?

Well, that is except for size, shape, texture, added ingredients and PRICE.

Yesterday I was listening to Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane while in the car driving to the supermarket to find something for dinner. She was interviewing Robert Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and winner of the James Beard Foundation’s award for a food column he writes at the Washington Post.

He also wrote two books “What Einstein Told His Cook” and the sequel, “Further Adventures in Kitchen Science”. Both are available at Amazon. Just click on the links to learn more.

What is both fascinating and new information for me is that there’s essentially no difference between the various salts on the market.  Sodium Chloride is Sodium Chloride.

But the Gourmet marketing gurus have been telling us for years that sea salt has a more exotic salty taste and kosher salt has more flavor but according to the Professor, that’s all a lot of marketing hype.

Hmmm. I do like my sea salt and love to sprinkle it on my tomato and mozzarella with basil, and it does seem to taste better. Why?

According to the Professor, the difference is texture. Sea salt is composed of larger, flakier crystals and what you “taste” is the crunchiness of the salt texture not its flavor. When you bite into a larger crystal of sea salt, you get “shots of flavor.”

But when you cook with sea salt and it dissolves into the rest of the ingredients, there is no difference. NaCl = NaCl.

You may have also heard that sea salts contain more minerals than table salt. Again not true according to Wolke. The process of crystallization actually purifies the salt to its basic elements – NaCl.

What about kosher salt?

Kosher salt is no different than any other salt other than it usually has no additives, like iodine, and has large crystals with big surface areas. Because of its size and shape, kosher salt is used in the process of koshering meat to remove any residual blood to allow it to conform to Jewish food laws. By itself, kosher salt is not kosher.

Wolke says that chefs like to use kosher salt because the coarse crystals are easy to handle and measure out with their fingers. You can grab a pinch of it and have something substantial as compared to table salt.
Because the kosher salt has bigger crystal you actually have to use more kosher salt for the same saltiness. This can create problems when you are following a recipe that calls for 1 teaspoon of table salt or 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.

Here are a few conversions that might help.

1 teaspoon table salt = 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons table salt = 3 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt = 1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoon kosher salt = 1 1/3 teaspoon table salt

Last modified on Tue 17 December 2013 9:55 pm

Comments (20)

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  1. iPont says:

    If you are dealing with small amounts, like those mentioned above, then the conversions are okay. But according to the authors of “The New Best Recipe” (the same people who write Cook’s Illustrated), there can be a big difference between brands of kosher salt. I know that for Diamond Crystal kosher salt, they gave a conversion ratio of 2:1. That is, use 2 teaspoons of kosher salt if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of table salt. For a different brand of kosher salt (I think it was Morton’s), they gave a conversion ratio of 1.5:1 — the same one that you mentioned.

    Again, this really won’t make a big difference if you are measuring in teaspoons, but if you want to brine something and are using a cup or two of salt, then it can make a difference.

    Don’t you love how people go nuts over salt grinders? They don’t seem to understand that salt is a rock and it’s not any fresher if you grind it yourself. Love your site!

    • admin says:

      Hi iPont,

      Great comments about the difference in salts. I am one of those people who enjoy my salt grinder not because I think it is any fresher, it just reduces the size of the salt when I add it to finished dishes. I also like the feel of grinding the salt as I do grinding pepper. – RG

  2. Mike Chauvet says:

    The Prof is correct when it comes to basic table salt v kosher v sea, but there are literally scores, maybe hundreds of gourmet salt varieties. I’ve never actually used them, but I’ve seen them in gourmet stores and on Iron Chef. They are amost always colored due to impurities being left in the crystal structure.

  3. Colette says:

    Don’t make fun of my Salt Grinder! I love it! I know it doesn’t make salt fresher, but it’s what every gal needs…a gimmick! :)

  4. Colin says:

    Yes, I love the salt grinders for entertainment value. There’s a very well known spice brand sold here in Africa that recently added “Freshly Ground Atlantic Sea Salt” to their extensive product range. Now, no weekend meal with friends is complete without the hilarity of a discussion about the need to use such freshly ground salt on our food. Mock tantrums have ensued when one or other guests were forced to use pre ground salt to sprinkle over their plate instead of the freshly ground that their delicate palates favour. What a laugh. I wonder how many people find a ‘genuine advantage’ in freshly grinding their salt not realising they’ve being suckered.

  5. David says:

    Actually there is a significant difference in different salts. While it is true that NaCl is a constant, salts contain other chemicals and minerals in addition to NaCl. Sea salt has many minerals and other salts in it, table salt generally has iodine added, kosher salt is generally pure. And when it comes to cooking the way each salt dissolves can be quite important to overall taste of the final dish.

  6. Mike says:

    There’s a tremendous difference between certain types of salt and I agree with David…It’s true, NaCl is NaCl and it is a constant, but if a taste test was performed most people would agree there’s a taste difference in salt. Hey, H2O is H2O but there’s a difference in the taste from brand to brand and state to state!

    As for the gourmet salts, well, I have to admit, I use them. I notice a difference in taste when using higher quality and smoked salts used for finishing. If use directly in the cooking process there’s no diffeence, unless the smoked salts are used.

    For the record, I don’t consider sea or kosher salt as gourmet. I purchase both at my local supermarket for the purpose of cooking. Finer salts used for finishing which are more pleasing to the palet can be found and bought over the internet.

    Great Site!

  7. Diane says:

    I am commenting from a health stand point. I was told not to use salt because I was retaining an excess of water which caused my blood pressure to shoot up. My ankles looked like tennis balls! I stopped using table salt in cooking, on top of foods and little to no eating out. I was told by another Dr. I wasn’t getting enough salt and to buy sea salt. I use tons more (sea) salt than before and dropped 10 lbs and no more swelling. My blood pressure is great! I wonder what is in table salt that isn’t on the lable? or Why does sea salt work different in the body?
    Any answers?

    Thanks!

  8. Elisa says:

    I would like to know where I can buy Kosher Diamond sea salt. Please help thank you

  9. Crazy Uncle Mark says:

    Actually Mike is correct in that for sea salts the mineral content change the taste dramatically, as well as smoked salt.

    More importantly even though the professor is technically correct that NaCl is NaCl, the shape of the crystals, surface area, have a HUGE effect on rate of solubility and chemical reaction with the food – hence why kosher salt is used for rubs and other things – the surface area of the crystals behave differently when marinating, curing, smoking or cooking, so I think the professor was oversimplifying things a good deal, perhaps he did not do enough “lab” work on this one.

    Alton Brown did an entire episode on “Good Eats” called “eat this rock” which on Foodnetwork was Episode EASP03 , transcript available here:
    ((http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/GEFP/index.htm))
    Amazon will ship diamond crystal kosher salt.
    Good luck and happy cooking!

  10. Travis says:

    I just happened by this article in looking for unrefined salts. While I obviously protest to the professor’s claim that salt is salt, I will bet that he is referring to processed salts. Salts are refined in order cater to the industries that need it to be. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 7% of processed salt goes to the grocery store. More commonly it goes to make bleaches, acids (Hydrochloric and Muratic (meaning brine)), and explosives. Essentially, this process strips salt of 82 of its 84 natural ingredients leaving only sodium and chloride. At this point iodide is added (which is in such a small amount that it does not meet the daily required intake). The myth here is that processed salt is alright for human consumption. Unprocessed salt naturally balances the ph levels in the body. Processed salt is acidic and therefore increases the acidity in the body. Cancer thrives in acidic environments. Is it no wonder that cancer cases are so common these days? After knowing these facts taste is almost an after thought……LOL!

  11. RG says:

    Hi Travis,
    Thank you for the additional information about salt. You must be a big fan of one of my favorite authors, Harold McGee. I appreciate your taking the time to explain the science behind salt to me and my readers.

  12. Fitz says:

    Travis,

    You did not cite any sources for your post. When I search the internet for references, all I can find are sites trying to sell some unregulated “health” supplement. For example, http://bit.ly/96esUM (Don’t miss the section that equates basic ionic chemistry as a “process of attaining higher levels of consciousness” – as if rocks had sentience!) And here are a few fact checks on your post:

    You state that NaCl table salt is acidic. False. It is pH neutral – neither acid nor base. There exist acid salts, such as cream of tartar, but the name is a misnomer; some acid salts are actually basic.

    Where does this so-called “fact” of “84 natural ingredients” in salt come from? Which salt? Which location? Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it safe. Does it contain chromium? Lead? Mercury? Radium?

    Where does this myth that “cancer thrives in acidic environments” come from? There is zero evidence (other than internet rumor) that this is true. See http://bit.ly/9qJpjS

    Call me skeptical, but unless it’s tested, independently, repeatedly, by different people, and published openly, it’s conjecture. When coupled with selling something, it’s quackery.

    I prefer to treat my body with respect and not cram substances hawked by charlatans.

    -L

  13. carrie says:

    I found the conversion from Kosher to table salt but can you tell me what a conversion from Kosher to Sea salt would be. My husband bought sea salt and I would like to use it up. Thanks

    Hi Carrie, not that much difference. According to Morton salt:
    1-1/4 teaspoons of Kosher salt = 1 teaspoon of sea salt
    1 tablespoon + 3/4 teaspoon Kosher = 1 tablespoon + 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

    Hope this helps, RG

  14. Mr. Bob says:

    Wow, you are an idiot. That is like saying all sauces are the same, except for added ingredients.

    Mr. Bob, you’re delivery is a bit over the top, but I’m thrilled you have an opinion. – RG

  15. Bill says:

    Hey Mr. Bob? It takes one to know one. Sauces are a bad reference since they can be made from different ingredients. And one person used water taste in different areas as an example. Excuse me but H2O is H2O. All you taste is the minerals and chemicals that it may contain. The professor is correct. NaCl is NaCl in it’s pure form.

  16. Matt says:

    Salt is salt. I work in a grocery store and it is funny the fuss that people make about sea salt. It tastes the same as regular salt and there is no difference in nutrition. It is just another fad. The same people who are buying sea salt are the same ones who are buying Greek yogurt right now.

  17. Nikki says:

    “You may have also heard that sea salts contain more minerals than table salt. Again not true according to Wolke. The process of crystallization actually purifies the salt to its basic elements – NaCl”

    I was told by my nutritionist to pick out sea salt that was still off color not white because then it hasn’t been purified to remove the minerals. Based on that I’m confused about your statement: if its down to its basic structure, why does my celtic sea salt have a different color and 330mg of sodium per 1/4 teaspoon vs table salt at 590mg per 1/4 teaspoon. Plus, wouldn’t there have to be something else in it beyond the basic chemistry crystal structure NaCl to change it’s color? I doubt they would add dyes but if it’s all a marketing gimmick then that would still be a strong possibility, but it wouldn’t explain the difference in sodium content on the nutritional label. Please enlighten me! I’m never happy about falling for marketing gimmicks but I know my body reacts different to sea salt vs iodized salt noniodized salt and kosher salt.

    Also the salt grinder I use isn’t to make it fresher. It’s because I had issues with the already ground celtic sea salt. It appears to absorb a LOT more moisture than table salt because the salt shaker and bag of salt would stick together much worse than table salt. So, I started buying the less expensive, larger grain salt and grinding it because even if it’s stuck together, grinding it still gets it out of the bottle and onto my vegetables. I only mention this because the difference in physical properties between table salt and my celtic sea salt doesn’t add up if it’s both NaCl and NaCl only. How do they get away with this?

    Not being an expert in salt is why I referred to what I heard Robert L. Wolke say on NPR. I did a quick search and found this interesting article that was posted in the Washington Post on September 6, 2000 that may answer some of your questions. I will say that when you buy any kind of sea salt there is more to it than basic NaCl and that’s why it comes in various colors and has different tastes. I’m not saying that these additional minerals aren’t good for you or add another layer of flavor. I don’t know. I’m not a food scientist. I was just expressing what I heard Mr Wolke say that day.

    If you read part 1 from the Wall Street Journal article on salt, I think you will have a better understanding of what sea salt is and what is not. I’ve also provided a link so you can read part 2 and part three of the article. I hope this helps – RG

    Robert L. Wolke

    Please tell me about sea salt. Why are so many chefs and recipes using it these days?

    Boy, am I glad you asked that question! I’ve been waiting for a good excuse to vent my spleen on that subject. Stand back.

    There is so much nonsense out there about sea salt that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s easy to dismiss the assertions of some health-food faddists, who often require no evidence whatsoever before adopting a fervent conviction. Among the statements I’ve seen are that sea salt is “unrefined,” “organic,” “more natural,” “more healthful” and “a living food,” whatever that means. (Does it bite back?)

    Poppycock, all. ‘Nuff said.

    Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, it’s not quite as easy to dismiss the pronouncements of respected chefs and cookbook authors, whose statements tend to be accepted as gospel even when misguided. Their misguided statements tend to cluster around two supposed virtues of sea salt: its high mineral content (a claim made even more passionately by health-food addicts) and its superior flavor. I’ll address the mineral question in this column and the flavor issue in my next one.

    Those magnificent minerals

    If you evaporate all the water from a bucket of ocean (fish previously removed), you will be left with a sticky, gray, bitter- tasting sludge that is about 78 percent sodium chloride–salt. Ninety-nine percent of the rest consists of magnesium and calcium compounds. Beyond that, there are at least 75 other elements in very small amounts. That last fact is the basis for the ubiquitous claim that sea salt is “loaded with nutritious minerals.” But cold, hard chemical analysis tells the tale: The minerals, even in this raw, unprocessed stuff, are present in nutritionally negligible quantities. You’d have to eat two tablespoons of it to get the amount of iron, for example, in a single grape.

    Bowl of salt sludge, anyone? Not in the United States, because although people in coastal regions of some countries do use this raw material as a condiment, the Food and Drug Administration requires that food-grade salt be at least 97.5 percent pure sodium chloride.

    But that’s only the beginning of the Great Mineral Hoax. Because of how food-grade sea salt is extracted, the stuff that winds up in the stores contains about 10 times less mineral matter than the raw salt sludge. Food-grade sea salt is obtained by allowing the sun to
    evaporate much of the water, but by no means all of it–and that’s a critical distinction–from shallow ponds of seawater. When the concentration of sodium chloride in the ponds gets to be about nine times what it was in the ocean, it begins to crystallize out, whereupon it is raked or scooped out for subsequent washing, drying and packaging.

    The vital point that nobody seems to realize–or admit–is that this “natural” crystallization process is in itself an extremely effective refining step. Sun-induced evaporation and crystallization make the sodium chloride about 10 times purer– freer of other minerals—than it was in the ocean.

    Here’s why.

    Whenever you have a water solution containing a preponderance of one chemical (in this case sodium chloride) along with a lot of other chemicals in much lesser amounts (in this case the other minerals), then as the water evaporates away, the preponderant chemical will crystallize out in a relatively pure form, leaving all the others behind. It’s a purification process that chemists use all the time. The crystallized salt (called solar salt) that is harvested by solar evaporation of ocean water is therefore about 99 percent pure sodium chloride right off the bat. The other 1 percent consists almost entirely of magnesium and calcium compounds. Virtually all of those other 75-or-so “precious mineral nutrients” are gone. To get that single grape’s worth of iron, you’d have to eat about a quarter of a pound of solar salt!

    Even beyond that, some brands of sea salt are the result of subjecting the solar salt to the same further purification steps as mined salt, reducing their mineral content effectively to zero.

    Is “sea salt” sea salt?

    Let’s not forget that mined salt is also sea salt, because the underground salt deposits were left by ancient seas that dried up. It therefore has a very similar composition–minerals and all–to today’s sea salt. And how about this little-known fact: Your “sea salt” might not even have been taken from the sea, because manufacturers don’t have to specify their sources and according to industry insiders I have talked with, fibbing does occur. Two batches of salt may be taken from the same bin at the mine plant and one of them labeled for sale as “sea salt.” Well, of course it is. It just crystallized a million
    years earlier.

    Many sea salt enthusiasts deceive themselves by thinking that there are only two kinds of salt: mined salt in the shaker and sea salt in the fancy packages. Not only may the “sea salt” have come from a mine, but on the West Coast the salt in the shaker is most likely to have come from the sea. The point is that a salt’s characteristics depend much more on how the raw material has been processed than on where it came from. You can’t just generalize. There are probably a dozen brands of genuine sea salt with crystals of a variety of sizes, shapes and degrees of purity. Some are straight solar salt, while some have been purified further.

    The bottom line is that when a recipe specifies simply “sea salt” it is pure folly, and stems from a lack of knowledge, misguided political correctness or a thoughtless desire to climb onto a popular bandwagon. And you know what? It may make absolutely no difference anyway.

    That was a teaser for my next column, in which I’ll examine a few flavor fables. Do sea salts really make food taste better than mined salts? And if so, which ones are best? Don’t go too far away.

    The other two columns by Mr Wolke can be found at Sea Salt Shakedown – RG

    And about salt grinders, in his third column, Salt, the Final Episode, Mr Wolke says this about salt grinders,

    Pounding salt

    I can’t end my series of salty remarks without commenting on those classy salt mills and combination salt-and-pepper grinders that are sold in so-called gourmet shops. The idea seems to be that if freshly ground pepper is so much better than the powdered stuff in cans, then why not use freshly ground salt as well?

    That’s a (highly profitable) delusion. Unlike pepper, salt contains no volatile, aromatic oils to be released by grinding. Salt is solid sodium chloride through and through, so a small chunk is absolutely identical to a large chunk in everything but size. Other than its
    novelty appeal, the only virtue of a salt grinder is that it deposits coarse little chunks, instead of tiny grains, on your food, and the burst of saltiness you get when you crunch them can be fun.

    So go ahead and buy one if you wish, but don’t believe the hype about “the superior flavor of freshly ground salt” printed on the cute little card that comes with it.

  18. Brian says:

    What about the supposedly non-edible salts? Morton’s website claims that their water-softening salts cannot be used for consumption – is that true? There are many types of salts that are not comprised of Sodium and Chloride, so I don’t want to consume something deadly. Yet, I need to find a cheap source of bulk salt for crisis preparation. Can anyone tell me if rock-salt, solar-salt, water-softening salt, etc, can be consumed? thanks, Brian

    Great questions Brian and I look forward to some expert responses but I personally would not consume rock salt, solar salt, or water softening salt. – RG

  19. Kerry says:

    I was also wondering about that same thing, Brian. While I called their consumer line and inquired, I was told that there were no additives, but it couldn’t be called food-grade because it does not go through the rigorous standards of the edible versions. But I still don’t know what the heck the bottom line is on that.

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