December 09, 2014

In recent years, salt has started to strut its diverse true nature in the American food market. For decades there were really only two salts in most homes: superfine refined table salt and equally refined coarse kosher salt. But these lab-pure examples of sodium chloride are stripped of the character of salt as it occurs in nature. Natural salts sing of their origins: Crystals from the volcanoes of Hawaii are jet black. Those from the sea have briny complexity. In Maldon sea salt from the United Kingdom, traditional harvesting techniques produce delicate pyramid-shaped structures with perfect crunch. And then there are dozens of flavored varieties: smoked, jazzed up with chiles, even blended with tangy, ground-up mezcal worms.

No one works harder to raise salt's culinary stature than Mark Bitterman, who sells more than 120 artisanal salts at The Meadow, with stores in Portland, Oregon, and New York. "You can't overemphasize the importance of salt," he says. "It's the most versatile and universal ingredient: Every culture has been making salt for at least 12,000 years. It's a nutritional necessity. And it's the most powerful food enhancer in cooking—more powerful than spice."

Bitterman doesn't buy the vilification of sodium by public health experts, and he'll e-mail you scholarly documents to support his arguments. Even the sodium-wary, though, will find that his approach to salt as a finishing agent makes sense. To him, salting early and often buries the virtues of salt in the dish: "You miss the fact that salt has its own voice, its own character," he says. A sprinkle at the end can be a game changer, raising flavor, adding melody, and delivering a playful crackle.

Bitterman recommends three finishing salts for every kitchen: sel gris, flake salt, and fleur de sel. Crunchy nuggets of sel gris cut through a rich steak and dissipate as you chew. The delicate shattering of flake salt echoes the crispness of lettuce while boosting its flavor. Fleur de sel is a workhorse in everything from baking to braising. Owning just three quality salts changes the conversation from "How much?" to "What works best here?" All are applied sparingly.

Learn how each works, Bitterman advises, and use them daily. "The worst news I can get from a customer is that they've had the same jar of salt for years."

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