I keep my kosher salt in an Israeli style pottery canister with a spring locked lid. It was a mishloach manos from my synagogue one Purim. I always feel like a kitchen alchemist when I reach for it.
Recently I was lunching with a business colleague in a casual Beverly Hills restaurant whose menu made a smug reference to its use of imported fleur de sel. My colleague said she’d been given some as a gift and it tasted wonderful.
The discussion rattled some of my assumptions about this elemental ingredient. Is hand-harvested French sea salt at $1.42 an ounce the best choice for the savvy gourmet in the kitchen? Or is it lunacy, when coarse kosher salt costs me 6 cents an ounce?
Why is kosher salt different from all others?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Because salt never spoils or decays, it is symbolic of the eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God. As salt adds flavor to everything it comes in contact with, so our bond with God adds meaning to every moment of our lives. A Jewish table is considered to be an altar. Having salt on the table brings to mind the days of the Temple when salt was offered with every sacrifice. It’s a Jewish tradition to dip bread (not just challah and not just on Shabbat) in salt before eating it because of its symbolic link to God.
- Kosher salt is used to make meat kosher. Technically, it should be called “koshering salt.” It is shaken over the meat to help drain the blood from the meat as required by the laws of kashrut. Its coarser and more open grain stays on the surface of meat and draws out the blood more effectively than other types of salt.
- Kosher salt is raked during processing. This gives the grains of kosher salt a structure that looks like stacked cubes. The larger, more open surface area means that it can absorb more moisture than a regular, single cube-like grain of salt.
- Grains of kosher salt take up more space than an equal weight of regular table salt. This is because kosher salt grains are larger, irregular and vary in size. Many brands of kosher salt have usage tips for compensating for this. (Morton Coarse Kosher Salt recommends using its salt teaspoon for teaspoon to replace table salt up to amounts of a quarter of a cup. If you’re using more than that, Morton recommends adding an extra tablespoon of coarse kosher salt per quarter cup of salt called for.)
- Kosher salt – like pickling salt – doesn’t have iodine in it. (Iodine is often added to salt to prevent goiters.) While the iodine doesn’t affect the flavor of canned or pickled foods, it causes the brine to become cloudy. Food pickled or brined in iodized salt has a grayish, unappetizing appearance. (Pickling salt — in contrast to kosher salt — is fine grained to dissolve faster.)
- Kosher salt typically has no additives such as anticaking agents that keep salt from clumping in humidity. (Morton Coarse Kosher Salt, however, has ferrocyanide to prevent caking.) Such agents include tricalcium phosphate, calcium or magnesium carbonates, fatty acid salts (acid salts), magnesium oxide, silicon dioxide, calcium silicate, sodium aluminosilicate, and calcium aluminosilicate. There are growing concerns about the effects of aluminum compounds, although both the European Union and the U.S. FDA permit their use. (The lack of anticaking agents is another trait that kosher salt shares with pickling salt.)
- Kosher salt is not generally recommended for use in baking where there is only a small amount of wet or liquid ingredients being mixed with dry ones. Without enough liquid, the coarser kosher salt won’t dissolve well. The resulting baked good may be gritty.
- The coarseness of kosher salt helps it cling to the rims of bowls or cocktail glasses.
- The flakiness of kosher salt grains helps it dissolve faster than table salt. This makes it easier to spread the salt through food more quickly during preparation. This is one reason that chefs prefer cooking with kosher salt. Some chefs say it also has less after taste.
- It’s easier to see how much you’ve added to a dish when cooking because kosher salt is coarser.
The following recipe for preserved lemons is from the Morton Salt website, which offers an extensive list of recipes that use coarse kosher salt.
12 whole fresh lemons
3 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Slice 6 lemons and place in large bowl. Toss with Morton® Kosher Salt and sugar. Cover; set aside. Process (with hand-held or electric juice machine) remaining six (6) lemons into juice. Arrange sliced lemons in wide-mouth jar. Pour lemon juice over slices. Cover jar tightly and store in refrigerator at least 3 days before using. Turn jar upside down on occasion to incorporate flavors. Lemons can be stored in refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.
You can use 1 tablespoon finely chopped lemon slices in marinades for chicken, fish or vegetables, mixed with two cups cooked rice or couscous or on top of grilled vegetables. The preserved lemons can also be used in vinaigrettes for salads or other grilled vegetables.
Could my taste buds appreciate fleur de sel, hand harvested from the salt marshes around Guérande, Noirmoutier or Carmargue? I’m sure. But when I cook, it’s the vegetable, fruit, chicken or fish I want to stand out — not the celebrity salt.