TFCookingHow to choose the best salt for cooking, according to chefs
TFCookingHow to choose the best salt for cooking, according to chefs

How to choose the best salt for cooking, according to chefs

“Salt is easily the most important thing chefs keep in the kitchen,” says Robert Hartman, chef de cuisine at Saint Theo’s restaurant in New York City. It helps bring out the natural flavors in food, and was once considered incredibly valuable thousands of years ago. In fact, salt was so treasured that Roman soldiers were often paid in it — the term “salary” is derived from this very practice, says Hartman.

There are many types of salt on the market, and each offers a unique composition, flavor profile and texture that will indicate when and how to use it best, though ultimately, your taste buds are the final decision maker, experts told us. We spoke to chefs to learn more about how to cook and bake with different types of salt, as well as how to identify your favorites and where to buy them.

SKIP AHEAD Table salt | Kosher salt | Sea salt | Maldon salt | Fleur de Sel | Pink Himalayan salt | Smoked salt | Flavored salt | How to properly season with salt

What is salt?

Salt is a crystallized condiment composed of sodium and chloride minerals. It’s a naturally occurring substance that’s either mined from rock-salt deposits or harvested from seawater. All salt is based on the same chemical formula, but there are many varieties, each of which has a unique shape, crystal size, taste, color and mineral composition, says Alain Verzeroli, culinary director of Le Jardinier, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City.

We add salt to food because it brings out and boosts the natural flavors in ingredients. “Try slicing up a tomato, tasting a piece without salt and then tasting a piece with a sprinkle of salt on top,” says Ken Arnone, a master certified chef and the corporate chef for food brand Colavita for over 20 years. “You’ll immediately be able to tell that the flavor of the tomato is more intense with salt added to it.”

Which type of salt to use for cooking and baking

If you’re following a recipe, it should typically tell you what kind of salt to use. If not, or if you’re experimenting in the kitchen, it’s important to choose a salt that aligns with your cooking or baking goals, says Arnone. 

Below, we break down a few of the most important salt types experts want you to know about. Under each type, we rounded up chefs’ picks, Select staff recommendations and highly rated options. In certain cases, we included various options because there are so many on the market, and chefs recommend trying a few to figure out which is your favorite. But in other cases, we only included one product because chefs consider it the best or most popular in that category.

Olivia Ott / NBC News

Table salt

Table salt, which is mined from salt deposits, has very small crystals that are fine in texture and uniform in shape, says Verzeroli. These qualities help it dissolve quickly and make it easy to measure, so it’s the best choice for baking, experts told us. You can also use table salt for general seasoning while cooking if you like the taste.

Manufacturers often incorporate anti-caking agents into table salt to prevent crystals from clumping together, says Rollyn Angela, chef de cuisine at Flor de Sal restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton’s Dorado Beach Reserve in Puerto Rico. Some also add iodide to table salt, a nutrient that the thyroid relies on to make certain hormones, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Morton Iodized Salt

This is textbook table salt from one of the most prominent brands you’ll see when shopping for groceries online or in stores, according to our experts. It contains anti-caking agents and iodide.

Kosher salt

Kosher salt granules are large in size, coarse in texture and irregular in shape, giving its crystals a lot of surface area. This makes it easy to pick up with your hands and control distribution while sprinkling it over food, says Shawn Matijevich, the lead chef-instructor for the Institute of Culinary Education’s online culinary arts and food operations program. Kosher salt takes longer to dissolve compared to table salt since its crystals are large in size, so you can easily see spots you missed when you season vegetables, fish and meats, says Arnone. Our experts recommend using kosher salts for brines because of this.

All of the chefs we interviewed say kosher salt is their preferred variety for any type of savory cooking. It doesn’t have additives like iodine (which some people find metallic tasting), instead it has a nice, clean flavor, says Matijevich. Despite its name, not all kosher salt is Kosher certified. Instead, it’s called kosher salt because its large crystal size has long been preferred by chefs in the Jewish community for koshering meat, a process that involves drawing blood and other impurities out of raw meat. Only kosher salt that has the OU Kosher certified logo on its label is kosher certified.

Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt

“I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt for all of my cooking purposes at home or in the restaurant,” says Hartman. And if he had to estimate, Matijevich says Diamond Crystal is the type of kosher salt 90% of professional chefs use because of the clean flavor and since its crystals are so easy to pick up with your hands. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt is kosher certified, according to the brand.

Sea salt

While table salt and kosher salt are mined from rock-salt deposits, sea salt is harvested through evaporating seawater. It’s minimally processed, which means it retains more of its natural minerals compared to table salt and kosher salt, giving it a more intense, prominent taste, says Angela. Sea salt has a coarser grain than table salt and it’s softer than kosher salt, which means it’s crunchy and dissolves slowly, says Verzeroli.

Arnone recommends using sea salt as a finishing salt, meaning one you sprinkle over dishes right before you serve them. This allows you to see the crystals on food — especially if they’re colored — get the full intensity of its flavor and enjoy its crunch. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook with sea salt — just do so intentionally, says Arnone. “For example, if you’re making a beurre blanc sauce to go over seafood, you might want to capitalize on that sea flavor and incorporate sea salt into it,” he says.

There are different types of sea salt, which come from a specific region — certain ones are not better than others, what you like comes down to a matter of personal preference. Some are also colored due to ingredients they’re mixed with or minerals they naturally contain. For example, sea salt that’s black in color is usually mixed with activated charcoal.

Maldon salt

Maldon is a company based in Maldon, Essex (United Kingdom) and it harvests its sea salt flakes from a small body of water in the coastal town. Like any type of salt, Maldon’s accentuates the natural flavors of food, but experts consider it special due to its pyramid-shaped crystals that are large, delicate and thin. Maldon sea salt also has an extra crunchy texture, making it an ideal finishing salt, experts told us.

Other brands sell sea salt flakes, but Maldon’s are generally the most highly regarded among experts and home cooks alike. They’re so popular that many people refer to sea salt flakes as “Maldon,” similar to how some refer to tissues as “Kleenex.”

Maldon Sea Salt Flakes

“For a finishing salt, I always choose a natural, high-end salt with bigger crystals like Maldon,” says Verzeroli. I think of it like jewelry for food since it essentially accessorizes a dish. You can sprinkle it over a sliced roast before serving it, or make chocolate chip cookies, caramels and chocolate bonbons extra special by adding some on top.

Maldon salt is available in an 8.5-ounce carton, as well as a 20-ounce bucket, which I highly recommend investing in. I sprinkle the sea salt flakes over pretty much anything I cook, so buying the bucket ensures I don’t run out for months. It’s also a great gift for hosts and aspiring bakers — pop a bow on top, add a card and you’re set.

Fleur de Sel

Fleur de Sel is very similar to Maldon sea salt and also has delicate pyramid-shaped crystals. But it’s harvested by hand in parts of France off the Atlantic coast, resulting in an ultra-clean, mineral-rich, very salty taste, says Hartman. “This type of salt is a favorite of many culinary professionals as a final finishing touch just before serving a dish to guests,” says Angela. “It has a delicate, light crunch and, when used in correct amounts, elevates the flavor of a meal.”

Pink Himalayan Salt

Himalayan pink salt is harvested in areas near Pakistan’s Punjab region and has minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, giving it its pink hue, says Angela. Compared to sea salt, it’s milder in taste and has an earthiness to it. You can cook with pink Himalayan salt like you would table salt or kosher salt, and some people favor it because it has minerals they want to incorporate into their diets, like magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc, says Matijevich.

In addition to ground pink Himalayan salt, it’s available in blocks you can use as a cooking surface or serving tray for meat, fish and vegetables, says Angela. The blocks evenly distribute heat and infuse a bit of salt into the ingredients resting on top of them, lightly seasoning food. Pink Himalayan salt blocks are also reusable, and you can typically cook with them in the oven, on grills, over stove tops and over open fires.

Smoked salt

Smoked salt is almost always sea salt that’s undergone a cold smoking process, says Arnone. Sea salt’s large crystal size helps smoke stick to it better than other types of salt. You should exclusively use it as a finishing salt to preserve its taste, and you can sprinkle it over almost any food to introduce an additional flavor element, says Arnone. He particularly likes using smoked salt to enhance vegetarian and vegan dishes, but you can also add it to meat you don’t want to spend time smoking, or as a dry rub to create depth of flavor. 

Maldon Smoked Sea Salt Flakes

Maldon, one of our experts’ favorite brands, smokes its sea salt flakes over English oak wood. You can purchase the flakes in a 1.1-pound tub or a 4.4-ounce carton.

Flavored salt

Flavored salts have spices, herbs or dried fruit zests incorporated into them, and using them lets  you season food while adding complementary flavors to it, experts told us. For example, you might see salt mixed with garlic powder, lemon zest or herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano. You can buy flavored salt or make small batches of it at home by following recipes available online and in cookbooks.

You typically would not use flavored salts on a regular basis, but it’s handy to keep one or two at home that pair with foods you commonly eat. Those who frequently barbeque may find a salt flavored with rosemary and black pepper useful for adding to dry rubs, meat and poultry, says Arnone. I always keep garlic salt in my kitchen to sprinkle over vegetables and fish — ingredients I use to make dinner almost every day.

How to properly season food with salt

There’s no perfect science to seasoning food with salt since a lot of it has to do with your taste preferences. But here are a few expert tips to keep in mind while cooking.

  • Temperature impacts how “salty” your food tastes. If you’re heating something that you’ll ultimately serve cold, you’ll likely have to season it a bit more than food you cook and serve hot, says Arnone. That’s because as food chills, the salt flavor becomes more muted than it was while the food was hot.
  • Practice broadcast seasoning, which involves holding your hand a few inches away from food while sprinkling salt over it, thus evenly covering the surface, says Arnone. Otherwise you do not evenly distribute salt, you may end up with some very salty spots and some “bald spots,” or areas that don’t have any salt on them.
  • Season your food at every step. Instead of only adding salt once during your cooking process, do so little by little during every step of the process until the dish matches your flavor preferences. “If you season all at the beginning or all at the end, you’re going to have the propensity to under or over season,” he says. Take a meat and vegetable soup, for example. You should salt the meat while it’s searing, the vegetables as they’re sweating and the broth as it’s coming to a simmer, says Arnone.
  • Try using a combination of salt types in a dish. “Let’s say you’re seasoning french fries. I’ll first use some table salt to season them just after frying so the salt melts with the heat, and then I’ll finish them with some Fleur de Sel,” says Verzeroli. He follows a similar process for seasoning roasted fish, meat and poultry.
  • Always taste your food as it’s cooking. There’s no other way to know whether you over-salted, under-salted or hit the target, says Arnone.
  • At first, less is more. You can easily add more salt to a dish, but taking it away is very challenging and sometimes impossible, especially for beginner home cooks, says Arnone.

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Ken Arnone is a master certified chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He’s served as the corporate chef for food brand Colavita for over 20 years and is paid as a consultant to develop recipes and work on other culinary initiatives.
  • Shawn Matijevich is the lead chef-instructor for the Institute of Culinary Education’s online culinary arts and food operations program. Prior to joining the ICE, Matijevich was a chef in the Navy for five years and worked in fine dining at restaurants around Washington, D.C. and Virginia. He has over a decade of culinary experience.
  • Rollyn Angela is the chef de’ cuisine at Flor de Sal restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton’s Dorado Beach Reserve in Puerto Rico. 
  • Alain Verzeroli is the culinary director of New York City’s Le Jardinier restaurant. It received a Michelin star in 2019, the year it opened, and has maintained its star every year since.
  • Robert Hartman is the chef de cuisine at Saint Theo’s restaurant in New York City.

Why trust NBC Select?

Zoe Malin is an associate updates editor at NBC Select who covers the food and beverage space, who has recent  stories on olive oil, honey, nonalcoholic wine and spirits, and coffee subscriptions. For this article, she interviewed five experts about different types of salt and rounded up highly rated options, expert picks and NBC Select staff recommendations.

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