When I was a child there was only one salt dilemma in the family kitchen: not to mix it up with sugar – and vice versa – when I was cooking. It had been known to happen when I baked unattended on boring Sunday afternoons. The fallout was horrendous. We used regular table salt; I don’t believe there was any choice in the supermarket.
Today the dilemma is much bigger: should I use table salt, river or lake salt, sea salt, rock salt, pink salt, or the myriad other coloured salt on the market? Is it best to use chunky crystals, rough flakes, or fine grains? Why are there four varieties of salt in my pantry? And are gourmet grains worth their salt, or are they a rip-off?
Salt is composed of sodium chloride. Approximately 85 percent of salt is sodium chloride, the remainder is trace minerals, including calcium and magnesium. Thousands of years ago salt was a valuable commodity that was fiercely traded. It has been used for medicinal and religious purposes, and is used universally for flavouring and preserving food. It holds superstitious value for some: a pinch thrown over the left shoulder is said to blind the devil.
The Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel summarises the purpose of salt in the diet:
“A small amount of salt is important for good health – it helps to maintain the correct volume of circulating blood and tissue fluids in the body.”
However, most people consume much more salt than they need for good health, much of it via commercial and processed foods, such as bread, cheese, tinned goods, sauces and spreads. Too much salt increases the risk of health problems, including high blood pressure, strokes, and coronary heart disease. The National Heart Foundation recommends 1 ½ teaspoons of salt per day, maximum, for adults, or 1 teaspoon per day maximum for individuals with high blood pressure.
Not all salt is the same. It undergoes different levels of refining to purify it, which removes dirt, grit and natural moisture and improves its storage and handling characteristics. Refining salt gives it a consistent, pure-white appearance, partly because it strips out coloured minerals. During the refining process chemicals and additives such as iodine and anti-caking agents may be added. The latter prevents the grains clumping together due to the natural moisture found in salt, and moisture absorbed from the environment. The industrial refining process also rips out trace minerals.
Sea salt is produced by the solar evaporation of seawater. It usually undergoes little processing and it contains trace minerals. For this reason it is often marketed as a natural, healthier choice. It is generally more expensive, too.
Rock salt deposits are usually the remains of inland seas that evaporated millions of years ago. It is either mined from underground, or from surface deposits. Underground deposits can also be flushed out with water. Salt is not mined in Australia.
Table salt comes from the same original source – seawater or salt lakes – and is typically bright white because it has been purified and processed. Table salt often has anti-caking agents added to it to stop the grains from clumping together. It is ground into fine grains, again for consistency. It has a sharp taste.
Iodised salt is table salt that has been fortified with the essential mineral iodine. Iodised salt was introduced to counter disorders related to iodine deficiency, including thyroid gland problems and a form of mental retardation in infants due to iodine deficiency in pregnant women.
River or lake salt is harvested from saline lake waters, underground brines, and dry river and lake beds. It is usually unrefined, so contains numerous trace elements, which add colour and a mineral flavour. It is marketed as a natural, gourmet salt and commands a higher price. Pink river/lake salt is produced in Australia.
Pink salt is the most common of the natural-coloured salts that have taken the culinary world by storm in recent years. Popular varieties found in Australia include:
- Mount Zero salt is hand harvested from the Pink Lake near Dimboola in Victoria. Mount Zero Olives and the lake’s traditional owners, the Jardwadjali community, working together to hand harvest the salt. When moist, its pink hue comes from a red pigment, carotene, which is secreted from the algae in the water. The lake evaporates over summer leaving a crust of salt. This salt contains trace elements of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulphur, phosphorus, boron, iron, zinc, and manganese. It also contains beta-carotene. The salt loses its pink hue when it dries and looks grey in colour. It has a rounded flavour.
- Murray River salt is harvested from underground saline water in Victoria’s Murray Darling River region. The soft pearly pink colour comes from minerals in the water. This salt has the added advantage of reducing salinity, which is one of Australia’s major environmental issues leading to a reduction of agricultural land. It contains trace elements of magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, iodine, and sulphate. It has a soft mineral taste.
Other coloured salt varieties include Hawaiian Alaea (reddish-brown), Persian Blue, and Kala Namak (black).
- Crystals are a good bed for roasting vegetables and displaying oysters. These crystals look good in grinders. It’s not the best salt to use directly in cooking because it takes a long time to dissolve.
- Flakes are good for sprinkling on or finishing a dish just prior to serving. They look pretty in a finger dish on the table, which is a favourite table accessory in trendy eateries.
- Grains are good for salting cooking water or when careful measurements are required in baking. It’s easy to use more grains than necessary, so use sparingly.
Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby says despite words such as “pure” and “natural” used to market river/lake pink salts, the amount of sodium is not significantly lower.
“Yes there are traces of minerals such as potassium, magnesium etc, but not enough to counteract salt’s bad effect on blood pressure,” Saxelby says.
“Ideally there should be double the potassium to sodium as occurs in natural fresh produce if there’s no diminishing effect from sodium – remember salt is sodium chloride and it’s the sodium part that’s the problem.”
Saxelby advises using lots of fresh or dried herbs, pepper, garlic, tomato, lemon, wine, chilli and pure curry powder, to help create flavour.
While the trace minerals found in unrefined sea salt are important in our diets, the United States-based Mayo Clinic says they exist in “insignificant amounts.”
The benefits of sea salt are really in its colour, texture, and flavour qualities. If you prefer food not to be tampered with, or processed, then the fact that sea salt is unrefined is an added boon.
Australian pink gourmet salts have environmental and social advantages. By purchasing these salts you’re supporting local businesses with sustainable food values.