That’s right. We tasted salt. Even though selmelier Mark Bitterman warns against tasting salt on its own in his interview with us, we threw caution to the wind and gave it a go anyway.
Why? Because it’s something every home cook uses every single day and either has very strong opinions about or doesn’t give a second thought. We were curious to know what salt on its own, without packaging or marketing, might look and taste like. But I think we were all thinking “salt is salt, right? Good ol’ NaCl. How different can they be from one another?”
Overwhelmingly, we learned that it is really hard to describe the flavor of salt without using the word salty. We also realized that different salts look and feel really different from one another, and that those variations in crystal shape and size, consistency and maybe even color all seem to affect (or at least foreshadow) the flavor to come.
Hindsight being 20/20, I would have liked us to have done this taste test as a two-parter: tasting salt on its own and also trying it dissolved into something simple like vegetable stock. It was hard to have a sense of what the salt in question would do to your dish if you cooked with it. That said, I think we all learned a lot about what to look for when selecting a finishing salt.
Our tasting process went like this: the six salts were poured into identical bowls and labeled with one of six numbers. We each then spooned salt into our own personal dishes or hands and tasted it. All salts were offered up at the same time, and our panel worked through them in no particular order. After the tasting, I shared the identities of the salts.
So here’s what we thought of the six salts we tried. I also asked everyone to note their top one or two, and I’ll present those after these comments:
Salt 1: Maldon Sea Salt
- “Large flakes. Bitter, but full of flavor.”
- “Huge, pyramid-shaped crystals. Extremely salty. Makes my arm hair stand up.”
- “Large, flat flakes. Mild, clean flavor. Melts pleasantly on the tongue.”
- “I like the rock salt texture. Seems like it would be fun to work with.”
- “Pyramid-like crystals. Very large and very crunchy. Semi-bitter taste. Sulfur, maybe?”
- “These crystals are ridiculously large. They look like paste or glue after you peel it off your hand. Really bitter, but there’s a nice crispness that dissolves evenly over the tongue.”
Salt 2: Bitterman’s Large Flake Salt
- “Hard rocks that are small in size.”
- “White and clear with a sheen. Crumbles very easily. Very clean flavor.”
- “This one’s the most mild in terms of saltiness. Airy, square little granules.”
- “Sort of mellow, which I like. The least salty of any salt I’ve had.”
- “Grainy, like sand. Looks like shiny kosher salt. It’s strangely airy and yielding on the tongue. There’s a clean, sea flavor — brininess.”
- “Powdery and looks like sugar. There’s a nice saltiness that’s very faint. This was the only one that didn’t hurt to eat on its own.”
Salt 3: Bitterman’s Fleur de Sel
- “Sandy and mild.”
- “Clumpy and almost wet. It feels like you could form it into a snowball. Generic salt flavor.”
- “Mild flavor. Moist, crumble-like texture.”
- “Seems pretty basic.”
- “The texture is crumby, like a loose coffee cake. Reminds me a bit of snowflakes. There’s a mild saltiness with a clean profile. It’s slightly crunchy.”
- “Clumpy and moist, maybe even briny? Sort of gray and opaque in appearance. Melts easily on the tongue.”
- “Sand-like and mild.”
- “Looks like a blend of the previous two. Most mineral-driven flavor. Would be good on steak!”
- “Smaller, square granules. A mild flavor that doesn’t linger on the tongue.”
- “Seems a lot like the second one. Very mellow.”
- “Looks wet and slightly gray. Some minerally earthiness and intense bite.”
- “A little bit clumpy and powdery with a nice crunch. It’s also really briny and very bitter right on the tip of the tongue.”
Salt 5: Morton Coarse Kosher Salt
- “Least salty. Is this table salt?”
- “Very white. It’s almost snow white. Briny and persistent. Feels powdery when chewed.”
- “Very salty, like table salt.”
- “Looks and tastes like your basic table salt.”
- “Looks like kosher salt. Tastes like kosher salt. Mild but solid, salty flavor.”
- “Opaque white, uniform crystals with no shine at all. Really bitter.”
Salt 6: Bitterman’s Sel Gris
- “Darker in color with large crystals. Not too salty. I’d buy this.”
- “Light gray or almost brown. Firm, but it crumbles evenly. Clean but lingering flavor.”
- “Gray in color with a salty, ocean-like taste. Makes my mouth water.”
- “This has maybe the most complex flavor of the group? (But this tasting may have ruined what palette I have.)”
- “Crystals are a mixture of pyramids and smaller geometric shapes. Tan color; beige, maybe? Some clumping. Intense salty flavor and crunch.”
- “Huge crystals, almost like little rocks. Very crunchy with an explosion of saltiness. It wants a steak.”
As for our general favorites, Maldon Sea Salt, Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel and Bitterman’s Sel Gris all received an equal number of votes. Poor Morton’s. It seems we all use it, yet none of us actually liked it.
Where do you stand on the salt spectrum? Do you have strong opinions, or do you just reach for whatever’s handy?