It's tough out there, so get your culinary kicks where you can.

By David McCann
April 13, 2020
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When I was growing up, there was only one salt. It came in a round blue box with a metal pull-out spout. There was a drawing of a girl in a yellow dress holding an umbrella and pouring salt behind her as she walked. The slogan read “When it rains it pours.” This was plain old iodized table salt, containing both iodine (to prevent those nasty goiters we’re all prone to) and an anti-caking agent so it was free-flowing, even during a deluge.

This was salt. We didn’t question its taste because there was no reason to. Salt was salt. My, how the world has changed.

In the early '80s when I moved to New York and began working in the Food & Wine Test Kitchen, when salt was required, there was no round blue container. Instead, the cooks reached for a large red-and-white box of something called kosher salt. I vaguely knew what "kosher" meant. In my experience, it had something to do with butchering animals, and foods that were OK to eat at Passover, and even having different sets of pans and dishes. But I had no idea what these things had to do with salt. (I've since learned that it has to do with dry-brining meats in a process called koshering.) So I tasted it, and the proverbial light bulb over my head flashed on. This seemed unlike any salt I’d ever sampled—clean, pure, chunky, and tasting not at all of chemicals. Little did I know this was just the edge of the rabbit hole and I was about to jump in feet-first. (I would have said tongue-first, but that’s just gross.)

In the intervening years, I have tasted more salts than I would ever have thought possible. There are of course sea salt made simply by evaporating seawater (and yes, where you get your seawater matters to the taste) and fleur de sel, which is a remarkable subset of sea salt containing only the first top gorgeous layer of the evaporated seawater. This is the salt you sprinkle on top of a finished dish at the table so the glorious crunchy flakes remain whole and provide a crisp explosion in your mouth. There is also grey salt—another sea salt with lots of minerals and some residual moisture—as well as the lightly sulphurous black salt from Nepal, beautiful Himalayan pink salt, and the list goes on and on.

I'm not even mentioning all of the new flavored salts, which includes anything from garlic to citrus to mushroom. One of my kitchen colleagues gave me some homemade porcini salt that I put in everything from eggs to pasta to sauces.

Perhaps my favorite, at least for the past few years, is deeply, darkly smoked salt. I have a cold smoker at home so every few months, I smoke a batch. You haven’t lived until you’ve added a bit of smoked salt to a few rashers of dull supermarket bacon.

I have a really fun suggestion, and yes, I have done it back in the days when people could actually assemble in person. Get some friends who love food and exploration, and task everyone to bring (or in these times, mail) a small container of their favorite salt. (Give everyone a specific salt so you don’t end up with multiple containers of the same salt.) Buy some good baguettes, unsalted butter, and maybe even some good bottled water, and set up a salt tasting. I know I know, but trust me. When you taste them side-by-side, the differences will either be subtle or wild, but you will taste differences in both taste and texture. You will not detect iodine or chemicals. Salt will be revealed as the gold our ancestors knew it to be, not just something to be poured into pasta water, or onto popcorn.

Save the great flaky sea salt—especially fleur de sel—for finishing dishes. Use other strongly flavored salts to cook with. And replace your round blue box with kosher for baking, cooking, and daily use. When it rains, it does not pour, but the world of flavors and textures opening up before you makes that totally irrelevant.

Read more from David McCann at thisoldchef.com.