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Food Focus: Salt

Ask a chef to choose the most indispensible ingredient in the kitchen, most would likely say “salt,” As important to civilization as to chefs, salt underlies what we do and who we are. Whether used for preserving food, trade and currency or simply seasoning, references to salt are as old as recorded history. Salt, still a hot topic, earned much publicity earlier this year when the USDA updated their Dietary Guidelines. Since excess sodium consumption can be an issue for individuals with an increased risk of heart disease, it now restricts sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day for the following groups of individuals:

– Anyone aged 51 and older
– African Americans
– Patients diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease

A 1/4 teaspoon of table salt contains 590 mg of sodium. Americans typically consume about 3,400 mg of sodium daily, far exceeding the government-recommended amount of 2,300 mg per day.

The amount of sodium and seasoning power contained in one teaspoon of salt depends on both the type and grain size of the salt. A teaspoon of kosher salt has less sodium than a teaspoon of table salt since kosher salt crystals are larger and less dense than finer-grained table salt. In recipes, table salt, kosher and both fine and coarse grain sea salt can be substituted equivalently up to 1 teaspoon.

Varieties

Iodized table salt, a fine-grain refined salt, contains the additive potassium iodide, or iodine. Iodine was originally added to table salt in 1924 as a preventative for hypothyroidism. The finer, free flowing crystals make it the ideal all-purpose salt, especially for at-the-table seasoning, marinades and general cooking and baking.

Kosher salt, a coarse-grained variety, is the preferred salt of restaurant chefs for its pure flavor. Used by observant Jews for koshering meats and poultry, it’s also the salt of choice for preserving, canning, pickling and brining. Because the crystals take longer to dissolve, kosher salt is the best option for meat and seafood rubs and grilling.

Sea salt, available in both fine and coarse grain, is unrefined and generally obtained through the evaporation of seawater. While both grain sizes work well for seasoning foods and cooking, coarse grain is best used in rubs or as a topping for bagels, soft pretzels and breadsticks. Fine grain is better for baking, marinades, and sprinkling on popcorn, fries and corn-on- the-cob. Its flavor-enhancing minerals make it a natural choice for seafood recipes.

Gourmet salts can also add just the right zing to a dish. Known as  “finishing salts,” just a few grains sprinkled over any dish can transform it with unique flavor. Available in the Deli Department in select stores, varieties include Salish salt, a dark sea salt which is smoked over Northwest Alderwood; Sel Gris Velvet, a delicate grey French salt that melts on the tongue and Murray River pink flake salt from central Australia. Its peach color comes from red algae in this mineral-rich water basin.