One of our editors had asked me recently about the differences among salts: kosher salt, sea salt, table salt. Since a reader left me a voicemail with the very same question soon after, it seemed that the universe was speaking to me. When the universe speaks to me, I try to listen. And then I talk, when it‘s my turn
So, let’s talk about salt.
I use kosher salt, primarily. It has coarse grains and it works beautifully in both baking and cooking; it’s a good all-purpose product. Sea salt can sometimes have a briny taste, some say; and I find its saltiness is variable, which makes it unreliable, in my experience. It‘s a lovely finishing salt to sprinkle upon food just before serving, though, to let its distinctiveness shine. Table salt, to me, is just that: something to put on the table for folks who, much to my chagrin, sprinkle it into food just before eating it. Worse is when they do this without even tasting the food.
Garlic salt and onion salt are ingredients that I can’t work up much enthusiasm for. I‘d rather use salt with fresh garlic and fresh onions, rather than the dehydrated products.
And then there are the fancy salts you can buy at specialty stores, such as pink Himalayan salt or smoked salt. If you’re looking for a gift for a cook, and you know there are too many pans and utensils and cookbooks and other paraphernalia to keep straight in an effort not to duplicate them, you can likely win some brownie points by giving a newfangled salt. Someone who likes to cook, who likes to try different flavors, will have a lot of fun with this.
But why should we only discuss salt, when I can blather on about other ingredients, too, that can be either straightforward or complicated exponentially?
The editor mentioned above, like my boyfriend, Craig, is a man who tells me he is happy just with yellow mustard. Neither of these two likes cooked vegetables either. They should get together some time and chat about all the horrific and absurd things - like benign little peas, for example, or my beloved rhubarb - that I try to foist upon them and encourage them to eat.
I, on the other hand see the virtues in all the different varieties of mustard, from yellow to brown, from Dijon to Creole, from smooth to whole grain, from one flavored with herbs to one flavored with whiskey. Others value simplicity, while I value diversity.
Yellow mustard is perfection on a hot dog. (If you use ketchup, let‘s leave it at “Don’t ask, don‘t tell.”) I think brown mustard is beautifully suited to other varieties of sausage, like bratwurst or kielbasa or knockwurst. A mustard with herbs is lovely in a chicken salad. Coarse-grained mustards are great on sandwiches and on, of all things, pasta: a little butter, a little cream, a little mustard, a little Parmesan, a few peas ....
What else can you find myriad and sundry flavored versions of? Vinegar: cider, white, balsamic, fruit, champagne. Rice: white, brown, Green Bamboo, French Red. Pasta: squid ink, truffle, saffron ... oh, and the tomato and spinach varieties that Craig (and, possibly, the aforementioned editor?) won‘t eat. Each brings a different visual and taste component to a dish, makes a unique contribution to the whole.
Of course, all of this having been said, I want you to use the ingredients that you like. Table salt, yellow mustard, cider vinegar, white rice, plain ol‘ pasta ... it‘s not for me to choose for you. Use the ingredients that you have room to store. Use the ingredients that you can afford. Just be sure that what you use is fresh and the best you have access to.
But maybe just try a new ingredient every so often - like ghost pepper sea salt, like honey mustard, like cherry vinegar, like purple sticky rice, like whole wheat pasta, like peas, like rhubarb - and see how different, how distinctive, and how delicious your meals can be.