While making a simple dinner the other evening I reached for the salt and was faced with a conundrum: Which of the six within reach to pick? Cajun or Kosher? Celtic or Cornish with lemon and thyme? Gray, pink, or black from the Dead Sea?
That got me thinking about why we love salt – and sometimes acquire it in an aspirational fashion, like designer shoes or handbags.
To start with, the stuff is elemental, essential to life. In the book Salt: A World History, author Mark Kurlansky notes that salt is “the only rock we eat.” (That’s a startling thought when you imagine trying to ingest a lump of granite or quartz.)
Salt flavors food, masks bitterness, and can improve sweetness. It makes food “taste more like itself,” according to flavor-seeker Samin Nosrat, whose book Salt Fat Acid Heat became a series on Netflix.
Throughout history, salt’s ability to preserve food contributed to mankind’s ability to travel and trade, and made us less dependent on finding fresh food as we explored and expanded our societies.
It’s a commodity that’s been vital to the world’s economy for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Rome and China. Armies have fought over it. When Moscow authorities raised taxes on salt in 1648, riots broke out. In 1930, Gandhi led thousands of Indians in a Salt March to protest the British seizing control over the salt trade.
Practically speaking, we need salt, or more accurately, sodium, to help regulate blood pressure and other bodily functions. Animals naturally regulate their intake by seeking out salty substances. It’s natural to crave it and we literally can’t live without it.
There are basically two ways to get salt: from blasting rocks or evaporating sea water. Crystals are mostly colorless; it’s the impurities that give Himalayan pink and Hawaiian black salts their vibrant hues. Refining and flavoring processes impart different tastes and textures, some subtle and some more dramatic. There are varieties as coarse as gravel and as fine as beach sand.
With a few mouse clicks, we can buy simple herb-blended salts, pricy truffle-flavored salts, and countless others. Ultimate Purple 9X Bamboo, roasted nine times, is touted as the most expensive in the world. If these aren’t intense enough, now we’ve got salt blocks, slabs, and bowls to cook our food on and in. And good old table salt is still cheap and plentiful.
Although it’s fun to curate a collection of flavors, developing a deep appreciation of salt is more than just following a trend. Think of it: The tomato on your plate is probably a few weeks old; the salt you scatter on it may have been formed millions of years ago. When we grind salt onto a slice of melon or fling a sprinkle into soup, we’re upholding timeless traditions. Even if we never sail across an ocean or lead a revolution, our explorations are well worth carrying on.