(Editor’s note: This is the first in a new epicurean series in which we will be featuring our epicurean blogger and local food expert Amy Huggins Gaw.)
If you were asked to pass the shaker of bleached sodium, refined sugar and E-554, what would you do? Would you know to reach for the table salt? Chances are the salt in your shaker has been mined from an underground cave, heavily processed to remove metals and debris, bleached to pearly whiteness and then tossed with a pinch of sweetener and a healthy dose of sodium aluminosilicate, or anti-caking agent E-554 for short.
If you have a pinch pot of sea salt, pass that instead. There are notable distinctions between freshly harvested sea salt and mined-from-the-earth salt and the main difference occurs during the processing. When naturally occurring, high-salinity water is evaporated and packaged as sea salt, nothing else is added and nothing is removed. You take home pure salt, lightly garnished with trace amounts of locally occurring minerals that our bodies need as much as the flakey crystals or crunchy rocks of sodium. We do not need sugar in our salt.
The texture of sea salt is quite distinct and usually not suitable for the shaker. Because no anti-caking agents have been added, sea salt is often a wet salt that can easily be dried (and redried) slowly in a low temperature oven. This can be helpful if you live in an area with high humidity and like to pinch the sea salt with your fingers to sprinkle on your food. Some sea salts have a long time to form before harvest and develop a hard, solid appearing structure and are available in rock form. These salts are best used with a grinder. Do take care to empty and clean them several times a year to prevent rust.
Taste is often the main reason people choose sea salt instead of table salt. I have often heard sea salt described as briny and explosive. This is because the crystals taste like the water from which they come and, when introduced to food, induce salty explosions in your mouth, usually in tiny concentrated pockets. Table salt is very finely processed and the intention of the food scientist is to manufacture a product that will coat your entire mouth with salt, so every single bite tastes all-over salty.
Taste is subjective, of course, so have fun sampling salts for yourself and remember to read the labels before you buy; table salt is no longer just salt. If your taste test results are like mine, you will begin to carry a supply of sea salt in your handbag. Keep your eyes open for an oh-so-hip, salty stashbox.
Amy Gaw, Epicurean Contributor
Learn more about Outer Banks SeaSalt.