Confessions Of An Addict

I have two great fears in life — death and being denied access to a salt shaker.

I used to be self-conscious about this, stealthly shaking salt onto my buttered bread, backing down when a smug server would respond to my request with, “The chef has already appropriately seasoned the food.”  But I am no longer closeted or apologetic.   I wear my salt-love with pride and feel great kinship when I see a cook (or fellow diner) toss salt about with abandon.

The problem you see, with salt, isn’t salt, it’s processed food.  It’s where 80% of the salt we eat, is hiding.   But if you eat minimal amounts of processed food, you’re unlikely to have to worry.  Unfortunately, the government has led us to fear salt and begun proposing strict guidelines (no more than a half tsp/day) in an attempt to get tough on salt crime. But for cooks, this is culinary heresy.  Adding salt is one of the easiest ways to become a better chef and leaving it out – the surest route back to Lean Cuisine.

Two interesting “asides” about salt … with hot foods, salt makes the gaseous molecules separate from the food, causing  it to smell (and hence taste) more intensely;  with bitter food, salt’s been shown to cut the bitterness more successfully  than sugar.

As of what kind to use, here are the options:

  • Table salt: Highly refined, mined salt, often lower priced and usually contains anti-caking agents as well as dextrose (sugar), and iodide (added since the 1920’s to combat goiter.); half of all global salt production is from the sea, but in the US 95% is mined.
  • Kosher salt: Made by compacting salt into thin flakes; usually contains no additives or iodide. (The less refined salt don’t contain added iodide. Don’t be put off by the warning, “This product does not contain iodide, an essential nutrient.” You only need a tiny amount in your diet and you’re probably getting enough if you eat eggs, dairy products or seafood.)
  • Sea salt: Not mined; usually less refined; contains small amounts of natural iodide; but check for additives (the popular La Baleine, for example uses the chemical anti caking-agents E535 in their fine salt (not in the coarse) which I don’t think is good for us); Maldon (white and flakey) is one of the more popular though the most unrefined sea salts are often grey.
  • Fleur de sel: From Western France; highly prized crystals from the “flower of the salt” that form at the surface of the salt pans.

You only need one ingredient in salt – salt.  I avoid the ones with man-made anti-caking agents (though silicon dioxide, calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate are natural anti-caking), as well as iodide and other additives.  For cooking, I use inexpensive, un-refined “sea salt” and for post-cooking, Maldon or “fleur de sel”.  But even a mediocre salt is better than no salt at all, and the only other food I can say that about is bacon.

What’s been your response to the anti-salt movement? Any salts you love?

Photo: Pass the salt.  © Michelle Madden

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  • Jillian

    Dextrose in salt? As in sugar? Can you say more about this?

    • Michelle

      Yup as in sugar, but the amount is tiny. It’s used to stabilize the iodide, so if your salt has no iodide, it won’t have any added sugar. (The ingredients will say “dextrose” if it has it.)

  • Rita

    I just wanted to say I found your blog through Angry Chicken and I am an avid reader now. I love your blog.

    I use Kosher salt now. And like you, I don’t think it is evil. Take eggs for instance, remember when the government scared us off them for cholesterol yet didn’t attack other foods such as bacon that often goes with them (and I also love). I remember my father-in-law eating egg beaters with his sausage and bacon trying to please his doctor. 😉

    I can’t wait to see what you post about next!

  • organicgal

    If I ate at your house for dinner as an invited guest I would hope you wouldn’t salt the food to your taste. I find a number of “younger” cooks/chefs, in particular, at restaurants I’ve eaten at spouting the local/organic cry (which I like) overly salting their food…yuck! That said, yes…fear of salt is mostly unfounded. Apparently only a small minority of people are truly sentive to salt jacking up their blood pressure but I think there’s either no way to test (or reliable way), or they just can’t be bothered so they make a blanket statement to everyone. Doesn’t sound either scientific or in the direction of the new individually based medicine I keep hearing about. But of course if it’s some medication that costs a zillion dollars, yes, that will be individually made up for you. That said…salt away! Though, I do think pouring on salt before tasting food in a restaurant (which I’ve seen a lot) is a bit hasty…even though it might be the end result, it seems more open minded to give it a try before shaking away.

    • Michelle

      If you come to my house for dinner, I promise I will let you salt your own :) I do agree with you that some chefs can go overboard – the litmus test for me is, if i can taste the salt, its’ too much, but if the food simply tastes unbelievably flavorful, it’s the perfect amount. I think in general, amateur/home chefs, are far less comfortable with the shaker than they should be …

      • organicgal

        I thought you’d be considerate enough to do that :). I hear you re: the timidity of some home/amateur chefs and too little salt can be just as problematic as too much (ask my significant other about my overly salted eggplant…no, it did NOT rinse off…for my parmigiana…ugh…yet somehow still delicious). LOVED your salt info breakdown. Didn’t know about the La Baleine additive. Thanks so much!

  • Lucyna Banasinski

    I grew up on salt. Basically it was pretty much the only spice my mom really knew of considering she grew up on a farm in Poland during the war. Luckily I grew out of the bad habit or oversalting through help of healthy friends when i was young. Still loooove salt, but all within reason and one of my favorite: great bread with natural peanut butter with a sprinkle of Fleurs de sel…you contol the quantity, yumm!

  • Jenny Desmond

    Oh my, I love salt and use it on everything! Then again, we make most food ourselves, so I’m not worried about it at all. In fact, my Blood pressure is often unnervingly low. I once had a doctor prescribe me sodium pills but decided to ignore his presciption and just use salt.

  • Jake

    My wife and I love the Black Cyprus Sea Salt. It has charcoal added for the dramatic color and a softer flavor. The crystals are shaped like tiny pyramids which are so cool to use and really delicate which makes them easy to crush in your fingertips. We are a salt addicted household also and we do worry with all the cities campaigns and buzz, so we recently tried some no salt options for flavor. We and are totally in love with Chef Paul Prudhommes Magic Salt Free Seasoning. Its awesome and give lots of things a great depth of flavor……….I just add salt to it!

  • Sarah

    Himalayan salt is supposed to be a lot better for you than regular salt as well.

  • 6512 and growing

    I use kosher salt, which I mostly like for the big flakes that you can see. Glad to know it’s untainted with caking agents.

    I’m a big fan of salt, love how it brings out flavor, or maybe it just brings out salt.

    Happy salting,

  • jen

    It’s just like what Mary says to Mrs. Martini in “It’s a Wonderful Life”:
    “Salt… that life may always have flavor.”

    Salt is awesome. Since I eat very little processed food, I feel I can use it in all my cooking. I love Kosher salt! But I do want to try some of that fancy sea salt one of these days.

  • Heather

    From a fellow salt lover- Celtic Sea Salt is wonderful. You can buy it in a bag or shaker at Whole Foods. It’s great with chocolate, too!

    • Michelle

      Can you tell us more about how you use it with chocolate? I am a HUGE fan of salt+sweet and always looking for interesting ways to combine the two … I had a chocolate mousse-type dessert at “Flour+Water” in SanFran, and they had sprinkled flaked-salt on the top. My spoon had little down-time… Heaven ….

      • Heather

        Currently I’m addicted to apples dipped in caramel, let it dry a bit, then dark chocolate, then sprinkle a little salt. Last night I called it dinner…

        You can also pop plain popcorn, stir in some melted chocolate and sprinkle on salt as the chocolate is drying. Delicious.

  • debbiejl

    I absolutely LOVE salt… and thankfully have low blood pressure! I have been using Trader Joes Himalayan pink salt but I will now check for additives. Thanks!

    • Michelle

      Please report back to us as to whether it does! Himilayan salt is usually marketed as very pure and exotic (and carries a price tag that reflects this), so am curious as to whether TJs has thrown in any “additives”.

      • debbiejl

        I checked TJ’s Pink Himalayn salt and that is the only ingredient! Who knew we had to check whats in our salt? Thank you for the heads up.

  • sirenator

    finally! someone who understands me (dramatic symphonic music)! all my life i have been scolded for adding table salt to my food. while i admit i add it even to processed food, i do not eat much processed food. i remain convinced that some people crave salt because their body needs salt. i have low blood pressure. no guilt! and yes – save the good salts for post-cooking, otherwise you’re more or less wasting your money. and invest in a salt pig for your sea salt! – warm and fuzzy salt addict

  • Juliana

    Oh so much to say! My father in law drives me nuts when he starts salting his food before tasting it. I had no idea Baleine used an anti caking agent; off my shelves it goes and I’ll check in the future. I always drag bags of grey salt from Guerande when we come back from France and mill it at the table like pepper. Sea salt has naturally occurring iodine! The French expression for using salt is to ‘relever le gout’ or to uplift thé taste, so appropriate.

  • Emily Elizabeth – Kisses for Breakfast

    I can’t believe they put sugar in salt! I’m finding it in so many things lately. Lately, I have been using fine sea salt and like it so much better than regular table salt. It seems to have a more subtle flavor.

  • Karen Burns

    I’m with you on the Fleur de Sel.

  • Liz

    Mich – so glad you can feel free to salt your bread in public and confidently withstand the ridicule! Keep up the great posts.

  • Emily

    Michelle! Once again you have spoken directly to something I have been wondering about. I too, am a salt addict, and my grandfather (who was a diabetic and survived a couple of heart attacks) always smacked my hand away from the salt shaker when he came to dinner. I still ate & eat a lot of it, but I always assumed it would do terrible things to me later in life; I just can’t give it up! I have gotten really into pink sea salt lately. It feels a little hokey, “mined in the Himalayas” and all, but I’ve heard it is full of good things, even if I don’t know what they are…
    Thanks again for your awesome blog! I love it.

  • AmyR

    This past summer I fainted for no obvious reason and had lots of dizzy spells. A trip to my doctor with lots of testing resulted in an interesting course of action…eat more salt. Since I cook most of what I eat and consume little processed food, he thought I was deficient and suggested salting my food more than I had been doing. Seems to have cleared things right up!

    • Michelle

      One of the most interesting things I remember learning about salt is that it is such a vital mineral to our survival that we have a built in sensor (on our tongues!) to detect it in food. We don’t have a taste detector for vitamin C or iron or Omega3 – but we do for salt! That to me is fascinating. Without salt, we would cease to exist.

  • Geri

    Interesting about salt and all the horrors attributed to it. If you stay away from processed food and out of restaurants you would have to eat table salt with a spoon to get enough to hurt you. I also wonder whether you or any of your readers have ever seen anyone or picture of anyone with a “goiter,” not pretty. Putting iodine in salt was the remedy for a mineral deficiency in the same way that putting marmalade on your toast was the remedy for scurvie. You “probably” get enough in other foods? Talk to your doctor or your homeopathic healer. Plus recipes, particularly for baking are based on table salt and change significantly if you use “fleur de sel” or any other goofy over hyped thing like it.

    • ctb

      Yes, I’ve seen someone w/ a goiter. & I understand the condition can be a regional thing: more likely to occur in landlocked areas. I grew up eating lots of seafood – both fresh & canned, but some folks never touch fish – or a vegetable.

      I prefer sea salt myself.

  • ctb

    Another thing that happens because I don’t eat out a lot is that restaurant food can sometimes taste waaay too salty to me – to the point of spoiling the food.

    & I AM a salt lover – but there definitely such a thing as too much.

    I often do not salt – or only lightly salt – foods while cooking because IMPE it draws out too much moisture & can toughen things like meat & beans. I season @ the end, or on the plate.

  • Glenda Cognevich

    THANK YOU! Food without salt is not worth eating. There are many things that I could live without, but salt is not one of those things. I will no longer hide my addiction – long live salt!

  • Laura

    I am so happy to read this…I too LOVE salt, and put copious amounts of it on much of my food. It just makes things taste SO much better! And I’ve always reasoned with myself that it’s ok, because I don’t really eat much (if any) processed food, where I know a TON of salt is hidden(I looked at the label on some canned soup we have in the cupboard the other day…terrifying).

    I read an article once on CNN that said people who love salt may be “Super Tasters”–meaning they taste bitter things more strongly, and hence they prefer more salt.

  • Fred Belcher Jr

    The article and comments are enlightening….thanks. I will add that I switched from sea salt to Himalayan Pink salt crystals and haven’t looked back. There is some excellent material on the net (and at my website) on the awesome benefits of these salt crystals.

    Sea salt is getting to be like fish… accumulates toxins from the ocean and I don’t know of any that is not affected. I wrote to a major manufacturer of sea salt about how they eliminated toxins from their salt and never heard back from them.

  • Janelovrut

    I am with you – I looooveeee salt! I actually made it my one and only resolution on new years this year to stop using the salt shaker AFTER I cook and to most definitely stop using salt on my cooked veggies, and just get to know their flavors in their purest form. Except that didn’t really last because the salt enhances them so much. But I don’t eat many processed foods, if any on certain days, so I think my habit isn’t the worst in the world. This week I’ve been on the hunt for “popcorn salt” for my fiance’s birthday (yes I will buy the boy salt for his birthday and he will still marry me!). I can’t find it anywhere but online, but apparently its super fine salt that sticks to homemade popcorn so much better, and we make stovetop popcorn all. the. time. Also, if you haven’t had truffle salt – get some! It is THE BEST way to enjoy homemade popcorn, and the best $25 I ever spent.

    • Michelle Madden

      LOVE truffle salt!!! The other thing I do with it is sprinkle it on top of warm edamame still in its shell. You kind of suck it off as the soy beans pop into your mouth. Ahhh….