Salt 101

Welcome to Salt 101

Calling someone the “salt of the earth” means that they’re genuine and dependable. Saying that someone is “worth one’s salt” means that they’re competent, deserving of the position that they’re in. But asking someone to "take something with a grain of salt” means that it should be viewed with a bit of skepticism and "rubbing salt in a wound" means making something worse. Why is that? Why do we use salt in so many idioms and nearly every dish? Today, I’m adding a pinch of "salt to the soup" with a TLDR breakdown of the history and importance of salt, followed by a few of my favorite picks.

The history of salt

The earliest evidence of salt production dates back to 6000 BC in, what is present-day, Romania, but documentation around its benefits and many use cases didn't become popularized until the days of Ancient Rome.

Salt as money

During this period, salt wasn't just a seasoning, but a symbol of power, luxury, wealth, and a national currency. It was such a commonly bartered monetary value that for long stretches of time Roman soldiers were paid for their heroism in the seasoning. This is where the word “salary” was born, from the word "salarium" and the Latin word for salt—"sal." During the spice trade, other spices began to be used as currency, garnering the name "black gold" (in comparison to salt's "white gold") for their value and profound impact on building the global economy. It was so valuable that in the early 1800s, even beef was cheaper than salt.

Salt wars and the era of exploration

The power of salt continues into the medieval times where conflict erupted over who got to control the salt mines and trade routes. These were the “salt wars.” These roads played a crucial role in the exchange of goods and ideas, providing a prime precedent for the era of exploration and adventure that was spurred by the quest for salt and other spices along the Spice Trade Route.

During these years Europe and Africa, which were otherwise too distant to connect with Asia, were linked through the exchange of spices, thus shaping the global economy as we know it.

The search for spices played a significant role in colonization. European powers, such as Portugal and Spain, sought out new trade routes to obtain valuable spices directly from their source in Asia, leading to the discovery of new lands and the acquisition of new territories along the way.

Salt taxes

Throughout history, governments have always imposed heavy taxes on salt. These salt duties, were used as a significant source of revenue for the state. Some rulers even established salt monopolies, controlling its production and distribution for personal gain. As such, salt has had a hand in shaping our governments as well.

The culinary and cultural significance of salt

Salt has done more than just shape history and the economy, though. It’s also saved lives—acting as a preservation agent that keeps food fresh and edible for longer stretches of time—was used as medicine in Ancient Egypt and in many Ayurvedic practices today, and, of course, enhances flavors—an unsung hero of the culinary word since it’s found in nearly every dish.

Salt in religion

Salt has long held symbolic value in numerous religions and cultures, as well. In many societies, it symbolizes purity, longevity, and hospitality. The phrase "worth one's salt" actually originated in ancient Rome, since salt was associated with the idea of incorruptibility. In Christianity, it's used as a symbol of purity in religious ceremonies.

Salt in wellness

Halotherapy, or salt room therapy, is a wellness treatment that involves spending time in a room filled with salt-infused air. It is believed to have respiratory benefits and even improve your skin texture and barrier health.

Fun facts about salt

Before we dive into my favorite salt brands and flavors, let's conclude with a sneaky bit of salt trivia to sprinkle into your next dinner table conversation—

1. Apparently, saltwater taffy, like brownies and sticky notes, was created by accident. The popular American candy originated in the late 19th century when a candy store owner's shop was flooded with seawater during a storm. The shopkeeper decided to market the salty taffy as a novelty just to get rid of the excess of "unusable product," and it accidentally became a hit!

2. Salt, like vinegar, can help prevent boiled eggs from cracking when you drop them in the pot. It can also be used to test if eggs have gone bad! Place your egg in a bowl of salt water. If the eggs float, they are rotten, but if they sink, they are fresh.

3. Salt can provide you relief after a bee sting. Just wet the area and sprinkle!

From the salt shelf

Maldon Flaky Sea Salt

Maldon Variety Pack

The classics are classic for a reason. Maldon knows flaky sea salt. I make sure to keep both on hand always. The smoked option is a bit polarizing in the culinary community, but I find it a fun flavor addition that adds a bit of depth and earthiness to eggs, meat dishes, or stews. For dishes that are lighter and more fresh, stick with the basics.

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Osmo Salt

Osmo Black Truffle Salt

Osmo *knows* flavor. The brain child of MasterChef's, Nick DiGiovanni, he calls these salts his "secret weapon." Never having explored the world of flavored salt until recently, I was skeptical while reading the list of names promising to "pack a punch," sure that the flavors would overpower the delicate balance of my dish. After experimenting with the Roasted Garlic, Smoked Hickory, and Creamy Pesto pots, I was hooked and have been a loyal convert ever since. From rimming cocktail glasses to enriching salad dressings, seasoning steaks, sprinkling over a crudités platter, and so much more, Osmo's flavors have become tantamount in rounding out most of my recent kitchen experiments. Lately I've been adding the Black Truffle Salt to my lunchtime caprese salad or sandwich, the Umami Mushroom over popcorn, and have been adding the large Black Flaky Sea Salt to lighter dishes to add some drama to the presentation.

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Le Saunier Fleur de Sel

Le Saunier Fleur de Sel

Unlike sea salt which is harvested through a process of letting salt water to sit in large basins until water evaporates and only the salt deposits at the bottom are remain, the French Fleur de Sel is harvested from the salt that floats to the water's surface. These flakes are thinner and more fragile and account for the higher price tag. I savor this salt like gold, using it in situations where I really want to taste the delicate flavor. This is the salt that I use to top a radis beurre (radish with butter).

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For more on salt, check out this video with the TLDR fun facts to drop into your next dinner table conversation!