It doesn’t take new cooks very long to realize that salt makes or breaks a dish. Too much renders food unpalatable; too little and the recipe just won’t reach the depth of its potential. The best way to season is as you go, tasting and adjusting to and learning from your own preferences. But it’s not enough to know how much salt to add. No, it also matters what kind.
The three you’re most likely to run into are table, kosher, and sea salt, but if you’re a pickler and preserver, there are salts for that, too. Each variety tastes almost the same, according to our favorite food scientist J. Kenji López-Alt in our favorite food science
textbook cookbook, The Food Lab.
“Dissolve the same weights of the stuff into glasses of water, and they all become essentially identical,” he says. “It’s their shape that makes them interesting—the crunchy and intense burst of, well, saltiness.”
So, if you’re curious about the differences among those little white grains, here’s what you need to know:
The only salt you positively need in your kitchen, López-Alt writes. It’s manufactured to have a larger grain size than table salt, making it easier to pick up with your fingers and sprinkle onto food. Yet it’s still fine enough to dissolve easily and quickly. Despite its name, kosher salt isn’t always actually certified kosher—it was named for its use in preserving meat according to Jewish dietary restrictions.
You’re much more likely to find this variety on—you guessed it—tables. It’s refined from underground salt deposits and often contains iodine, as well as other additives that prevent it from sticking to itself. Because of its size, table salt packs more densely in a tablespoon, therefore López-Alt recommends using only two-thirds as much table salt as is called for in the recipe.
This is the salt you’ve seen a certain bae sprinkling onto steak. And for good reason: harvested from evaporated sea water, it retains many natural minerals and is considered best for finishing a dish. It is much more expensive to produce than table or kosher salt, and there are three different shapes: crystalline, flaked, and fleur de sel. Meant to be applied right before serving (or on the table—sorry, table salt!), sea salt’s irregular texture gives those unexpected wonderful bursts of flavor and crunch López-Alt mentioned.
Depending on if you’re pickling or curing, there are two different salts to buy. Pickling salt is similar to table salt—a very small grain that disappears in liquid quickly—but it doesn’t contain any iodine or anti-caking additives. This keeps pickles from discoloring as they age. Curing salts are generally a mixture of table salt and sodium nitrite, which stops the growth of bacteria. Manufactures often dye curing salts pink to distinguish them from table salt (but it’s not the same as Himalayan rock salt!).
What’s your favorite kind of salt? Do you flavor your own?