Even though salt seems like one of the most basic cooking ingredients, there’s actually more to it than you might realize. For one, there isn’t just one kind of salt—there are many, and they’re all slightly different. Some are more concentrated, some dissolve more easily, and some should only ever be used to finish a dish. And if you don’t know the differences between them, you’re more likely to end up over- or under-salting your food.
The thing is, when you’re faced with a bunch of nearly identical options at the supermarket, it’s not always obvious how any one is different from the rest. Even recipes aren’t always helpful—some will recommend kosher salt, others won’t specify, and most will never explain why you should use one specific variety over another. In some cases, even the same type of salt can be totally different from brand to brand.
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The next time you’re wondering which salt to add to your cart, use this guide to help you find the best option. From iodized table salt to pink Himalayan, this is everything you need to know about the most common options.
In general, sea salt is finer and less concentrated than many of your other options, Amy Eubanks, chef and global culinary development coordinator at Whole Foods Market, tells SELF. “I used it during my time as a chef in a seafood restaurant because the finer crystals made it easier to control delicate foods like fish and shellfish,” she explains. It’s also great for baking because it will disperse evenly, so you don’t wind up with any salty pockets in your cakes or cookies. And if you’re not sure just how salty it is, give it a taste before you start cooking with it and adjust accordingly.
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But not all types of sea salt are the same—some are coarser and more concentrated, but these types often go by other names (more on that in a bit).
Despite its name, kosher salt isn’t necessarily always kosher. It’s called that because its the best salt to use for koshering meat (it’s also sometimes called koshering salt), a process of removing blood that involves rinsing, soaking, and salting.
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“Many professional kitchens use kosher salt because it has a lower salinity, which makes over-salting more difficult,” Eubanks explains, “[and] its coarseness allows it to be picked up and spread evenly with the fingers.” She says it’s best to use for salting meat or pots of water.
Morton’s and Diamond Crystal are the two most common brands of kosher salt you’ll find at the grocery store, but you can’t always use them interchangeably because they have different levels of salinity. Morton’s contains 480 mg sodium for every 1/4 teaspoon, while Diamond Crystal contains only 280 mg sodium per 1/4 teaspoon, so keep that in mind when you’re cooking.
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Also known as table salt, Eubanks says that iodized salt usually contains anti-clumping agents that give it a distinctive, slightly metallic taste—one that most professional cooks do not enjoy. It’s also highly processed and has a weaker salinity and flavor, so it definitely isn’t the best option to cook with. If you’re at a restaurant and need to add a bit of table salt to your food, it definitely won’t hurt, but in general, it’s best to stick with something else in the kitchen. (If you’re baking something that calls for salt and the recipe doesn’t specify, iodized salt will be fine—you’re likely using a small amount, and most people aren’t going to be able to detect the slight taste difference when it’s baked into a sweet and flavorful cookie anyway.)
Many coarse salts also come from the sea, but they should be used differently than their finer counterparts because they’re more concentrated and they don’t dissolve as easily. In fact, Eubanks says it’s better to use them as a topping at the end than an ingredient during the cooking process. “It’s more for finishing or garnishing when you’re looking for a dramatic contrast, like on a sweet dessert,” she explains, “Or it can be used for baking salt-crusted fish, beets, or potatoes.”
A few of the most common kinds of coarse salt include sel gris, gros sel, and fleur de sel.
Flaky salt is more enjoyed for its texture than its taste, says Eubanks. “It has a pleasant, crispy texture that is great for finishing touches, especially when you are looking for that salty bite on a dish.” It’s also a bit pricier than the other salts on this list, so avoid using it for general cooking and save it for when you’re really showing off your cooking skills.
The most common type of flaky salt you’ll find is Maldon sea salt, which chefs around the world can’t stop raving about.
Pink Himalayan Salt
“Pink salt is a type of rock salt that gets its color from trace minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium,” Eubanks explains. She says that these extra minerals also give the salt a slightly different flavor—save it for finishing a dish so you can really enjoy its nuances. You can buy it both finely and coarsely ground, and you may even see it sold in slabs, which Eubanks says make great platters for presentation and also add a bit of flavor to the food sitting on top.