Grain of Salt

I mostly use plain kosher salt in my cooking, but I see all these other fancy kinds around. Do I need them?

Different kinds of salt in spoons: Himalayan pink, sea original, iodized table, sea salt flakes, pink diamonds, black sea flakes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Manuta/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that when a recipe calls for water, you should always opt for something like stock, wine, or dry vermouth instead. Do you agree? I think the idea is to always be adding flavor, but maybe there’s an argument for water sometimes.

I, too, have seen those nifty bird’s-eye view cooking videos of hands tossing ingredients into a slow cooker and then submerging them in commercial stock. Don’t believe the hype. Adding stock (or wine) instead of water ought to be reserved for two very specific instances: deglazing a pan in which some meat, chicken, or fish has been fried or roasted (don’t forget to pour out any residual fat first), and braising pieces of chicken or meat (usually on the bone) in the oven, covered with a lid but halfway submerged in liquid. In both of these cases, stock or wine is appropriate but not a must. If using wine, the sauce must be cooked until the alcohol evaporates (short and brisk if using a splash, long and slow if using large amounts, as for a coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon).

I remember once, when I moonlighted as a restaurant reviewer for a small magazine, being served a steak with a sauce that had not been reduced enough and tasted of alcohol. My review was so scathing that the editor shied away from running it. But cooking with wine is quite specific: White wine adds mildly sweet acidity whereas red wine ads a certain murky depth to a dish, neither of which are desirable when you are aiming for bright and fresh flavors.
As to vermouth, I find that, no matter how “dry” it claims to be, it is cloyingly sweet and overpowering, really out of place most of the time—with the occasional exception of a splash added to, say, a briny clam dish or an oyster velouté, or perhaps to deglaze a handful of pan-fried sliced artichoke hearts. I think the tradition of cooking with vermouth must hark back to less hedonistic times when it was the only acceptable liquor to be stored in the kitchen pantry, innocuous enough yet handy for stealthy swigs to boost not flavor but morale.

You might want to ask yourself whence your urge to “always add flavor” stems from, as if the principal ingredients you are cooking with did not have enough flavor on their own. While a good stock or broth (by “good,” I mean home-made) can boost the flavor of, say, a quickly reduced roasting fond, there is a risk of muddling the distinct flavor of the primary ingredients if used indiscriminately.

A few years ago, I found myself spending a couple of days with a gaggle of very earnest cooks and stylists in the kitchen set of a photo studio, helping prepare the dishes of a new family-style cookbook set for publication. The author was a well-funded banker’s wife who thought that the world needed another book with “easy recipes” for kid-friendly family meals. Funny how someone who in her life has all the time (and help) on her hands uses it to direct a huge staff to create a rather cloying book about saving time in the kitchen. In any case, the hallmark of nearly every one of the savory dishes in her book was the use of boxed chicken or vegetable stock, with the result that they all, unsurprisingly, ended up tasting the same: like cafeteria food. For all commercial stocks are aggressively overloaded with tomato, celery, carrot, onion, and, unless they are vegetarian, bone concentrates, not to mention “natural flavors,” which are really laboratory-distilled derivatives—as far from real ingredients as a computer is from a human being.

I recommend changing your habit and giving the actual ingredients used in your dish a chance to come into their own. In the long run, this will teach your palate to appreciate flavors that are “clean,” that is: pure, subtle, and refined. Or at least, instead of using ready-made stock, why not instead use the ingredients stock is made of—onions, root vegetables, leeks, aromatic herbs, a focused choice of spices, and, perhaps, some smoked or previously roasted meaty bones (I am thinking for example of the liquid used for simmering beans).

Finally, there are many better ways to “boost” flavor: browning both meat and vegetables is one of them; adding fresh herbs, both early in the cooking process and as a finishing touch, is another. The French famously take out the “bad” fat out of a reduction (skimming off the liquefied fat from the meat you are cooking) before adding a “good” one—butter or cream. Yes, fat is a short cut to flavor sensation. You could say that it’s the oil that keeps the flavor machine running. Which is why restaurants use too much of it, but that’s a whole different story.

What’s your philosophy about salt? I have historically mostly stuck to coarse kosher and have toyed with Maldon as a finisher, but I see all these fancy pink and charcoal and other crazy ones around now. What are they for and do we need them?

Before moving to the United States, in the early ’90s, I only knew German iodized table salt (iodine was a government-prescribed addition to most salt in order to prevent the region’s historic iodine-deficiency) and coarse and fine French sea salt. I had never heard of kosher salt but quickly adopted it as my favorite cooking salt, loving the dry, medium coarse texture that made it so pleasant to the touch. Then, some 15 years ago, as America’s culinary awakening began to snowball, fleur de sel, imported and used by French chefs working in America, became fashionable, and I, too, adopted it as my finishing salt (it remains to this day the only import I bring with me from my annual trips to Brittany).

With these two, my and any reasonable cook’s needs were covered, but “gourmet” salts became such a booming business that the market was soon flooded with them, each of them vying for our attention. By now, Maldon salt from Essex in England has all but replaced fleur de sel’s supreme reign because of its comparatively lower price and its snow-white, extra-large flakes that are so attractive on Instagram and other visual platforms that rely on pornographic close-ups of food. The pertinent difference between the two is worth noting: Fleur de sel is, to this day, sun-dried and hand-harvested, most prominently in the Guérande region of Brittany and the Camargue in Provence, whereas Maldon salt is man-made: Brackish water is cooked in pans until the paper-thin pyramid-shaped crystals form, which must then be drained and oven-dried.

“Pink Himalayan salt” probably holds the current gold medal for most effective marketing. It is in fact not harvested in the Himalaya but south of it, in the Punjab region of Pakistan (I suppose “Pakistani pink salt” did not make the cut at the board meeting); regardless, its pretty color and claimed health benefits quickly made it a big hit with the un-cognoscenti. Speaking of salt fashions, black tried very hard to become the new pink, but I doubt that “Hawaiian black lava salt” will take its place, and rightly so: Far from being a natural phenomenon, black salt is merely sea salt mixed with activated charcoal, and it might not even be from Hawaii. Yes, consumers would do well to take their salt with a grain of salt. But I don’t doubt someone will eventually come up with a new marketing ploy for a new salt brand with a compelling story. In fact, I got one: Behold jade-green Atlantis salt—harvested from the bottom of the sea where ancient Atlantis rests. The flaky salt, perfect for fashionable crudo, is infused with the essence of green micro-organisms that give the aquatic fauna of Atlantis longevity. Long live Atlantis.

A word about flavored salts: They can be fun to play with, but one quickly tires of them. Better to make your own in small batches. I make one by rubbing hand-harvested, dried fennel pollen into fleur de sel, but you could do the same with any spice of your liking, like saffron threads or the delicate Piment d’Espelette, a coarsely ground sweet red pepper with a gentle fire. Stay clear of “truffle salt” unless you don’t mind its conceit (like “truffle oil,” it gets its heady aroma not from its diminutive specks of ground-up truffle shavings but from laboratory-fabricated “natural truffle flavor”). There is however one exception I have grown fond of: smoked salt. It’s delicious on raw salmon, buttery fingerling potatoes, or steamed asparagus.

When I sear meats over high heat, I often get hit with hot oil splattering out of the pan. Not fun! I’ve been thinking about getting one of those splatter guard things, but maybe I’m just doing something wrong in the first place? Help!

Take a look at any vetted restaurant chef’s hands and forearms, and you will see scars and blemishes from nicks, cuts, and burns. It comes with the playing field, and some wear these insignia with pride—the late, great Anthony Bourdain sometimes likened line cooks to pirates. However, there is no reason to rough it up in your home kitchen to keep up with them. The solution to your problem is twofold and easy, and it does not involve a splatter guard, which I dislike because it prevents you from seeing what is happening beneath it, and even more impractically, there is never any room to put it immediately after use, cumbersomely large as it is and possibly dripping with oil. First, the obvious: use less oil.

There is no need to ever add oil into a searing pan before adding a piece of meat. “Searing” means that you are not going to move it around—the whole point is that it needs to rest on or even be pressed into the hot surface to get a good browning. This is different from stir-frying, where the ingredients need to be ever so lightly coated in oil in order to glide smoothly across the hot surface as you toss them around. What this means is that you don’t need any oil in the pan beyond the exact surface of the meat. The way to achieve this is deceptively simple: rub a minute amount of oil over the entire surface of the meat you intend to sear before seasoning it with salt and spices or herbs or your choice (if the meat is wet to the touch, dab it dry with a paper towel first—water and hot fat create extra spatter). The added advantage is that the seasoning will now cling better to it, too. Now heat your searing pan well (the telltale sign for a stainless-steal pan to be hot enough is that a drop of water thrown into it should not evaporate into steam but rather turn into water pearls that happily scatter about) and place the meat into its center. This is where the second part of the solution comes in.

To sear meat, you need the pan to be continuously very, very hot. The pan should thus not be crowded with several pieces of meat, lest the temperature drop and the meat end up releasing a lot of steam, which prevents it from browning properly. Better to work in batches if necessary. Always clean the pan between batches. Most recipes will tell you to “wipe out the pan,” but that is a rather cute understatement: If there are any brown bits left in the pan, they will not only not wipe away but actually turn black during the next batch. Better to give it a rinse (or deglaze it with water or wine to build up a “fond,” saved in a separate bowl, to use later for a sauce) and a light scrub (without detergent!). Just make sure to reheat the pan as described above before tackling the next batch. Working in small batches also keeps the meat away from the edge of the pan, where oil spatters are more likely to spill onto the stovetop and your dainty hands. There is, however, one exception: If the meat has a round surface (as opposed to, say, a flat steak) tilting the pan slightly and wedging the meat into the curved or straight side is the best option to give it an all-around sear. Here, some splatter is unavoidable, but it can be kept to a tolerable level if the amount of liquid fat is minimized and you soak up any extra from the meat with a crunched paper towel.

One more detail: avoid using a small pan no matter what. Small portions do not call for small equipment, whether pan or cutting board—this is a fallacy I often observe in home kitchens. Think big, just this once, no matter the size of your space.