Why Does Salt Make Everything Taste So Much Better?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of salt. And we’re not just talking about the oft-repeated cooking mantra “salt as you go.” Salt is an essential nutrient for the human body (put simply, we can't live without it), but that’s not all. Salt has also built empires, words (salad, salsa, salary!), and, of course, gazillions of foods. Kimchi, lox, umeboshi, prosciutto, we’re talking about you.

But even if you understand that salt makes food taste good, how does salt work, exactly? Where does salt come from, what does salt do, and why does (nearly) every recipe call for at least a pinch? 

Here’s all that—plus how to shop for salt, how to use it well, and how to dial it back when you’ve gone too far.

Enroll Today

Get to know these six types.

 

Table salt: Cubic, granular, and fine enough to slip through your fingers, this is typical salt shaker stuff. In the U.S., it’s often enhanced with iodine (a.k.a. iodized salt), a vestige of a widespread deficiency in early 20th century diets. Many people think iodized salt has a metallic aftertaste, but even when table salt is not iodized, we don’t recommend it—it’s so fine that it’s easy to oversalt.

Kosher salt: BA’s workhorse, it’s not necessarily kosher itself—it got its name from its use in the koshering process. Widely available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to grip and pinch, it makes a good all-purpose cooking salt. Diamond Crystal and Morton, the two most common brands in the U.S., are heavily processed—water is injected into underground deposits to dissolve the salt, then that brine is refined for purity and the water is evaporated. Companies like Jacobsen, SaltWorks, and La Baleine make less-refined (and, some say, more flavorful) kosher sea salts.

Fine sea salt: Whether coarse or fine, refined or unrefined, industrially made or artisan-crafted, sea salt is what’s left behind when seawater evaporates (it’s not harvested from ancient deposits). As you’d expect, fine sea salt has been crushed to a sandy texture. It’s easy to find in cylinders at grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and, unlike flaky sea salt, it’s often mass-produced, making it a little less expensive.

Flaky sea salt: Labor-intensive to produce and pricey to buy, examples include fleur de sel, sel gris, Maldon, and Jacobsen, all of which are made using slightly different methods. (To confuse matters more, there are also flaky salts that come from salt deposits, not directly from the sea.) In all cases, you’re paying for texture and flavor, so use them where they can be appreciated—not in brine or pasta water. Sprinkle over grilled steak or chocolate chip cookies before they hit the oven.

Black salt (a.k.a. kala namak): This salt has FLAVOR. Also called bit noon, among other names, its color (which is actually more red than black) and eggy, sulfuric aroma comes from iron-sulfide. Black salt enhances sweet, sour, and tangy flavors and is an essential ingredient in the spice mix chaat masala and the citrusy refreshment nimbu pani.

Himalayan pink salt: Most of this blush salt comes from the Khewra Salt mine in Pakistan. No scientific evidence supports the marketing claims that it’s healthier or cleaner, but it sure is pretty! (Andean pink salt, while similar in color, is collected from underground saltwater springs in Peru.)

Throw out your salt shaker!

 

“Using a salt shaker is a mistake,” says cookbook author Cal Peternell. Amen to that. It’s hard to gauge how much you’re using and impossible to get a tactical feel for what properly seasoning shrimp, greens, or a couple scrambled eggs means to you. Instead, get a salt cellar or salt box (it can even be a plastic half-pint container) that you can reach all five fingers into for a big pinch. Keep it next to your stove: With your salt readily accessible, you’re more likely to use it as you cook.

When in doubt, remember 1:1.

 

You’re staring down a raw chicken (it happens), a couple pork chops, or a few fish fillets and you don’t know how much salt to use. A good rule of thumb: Start with 1 tsp. Diamond Crystal kosher salt for every 1 lb. protein. Keep in mind, though, that a piece of skinless, boneless lean protein will require less salt than a fatty, bone-in cut.

A little pinch goes a loooong way.

 

A pinch of salt–even where you’d least expect it—enhances flavor, cuts through richness, and tempers sweetness. (As for how much “1 pinch” equals? Pinches are personal, but generally between ⅛–¼ tsp.) Start here:

  • Your morning smoothie
  • A scoop of chocolate ice cream
  • Buttered bread
  • Pancakes with maple syrup
  • S’mores
  • Sliced melon, pineapple, or mango
  • Orange and grapefruit wedges
  • Hot chocolate
  • Apple cider
  • Lemonade
  • Cocktails, like Negronis, daiquiris, and, duh, margaritas
  • Any heirloom baking recipe that doesn’t call for it!
  • The tops of galettes, pies, and loaf cakes, with a judicious hand (“It’s a flavor,” says baking legend Dorie Greenspan, “not a decoration.”)

Every dessert needs it.

 

Salt is the yin to sugar’s yang, the insurance that the cookies you spent all afternoon baking are balanced and not cloyingly sweet. It also makes citrus fresher, warm spices more fragrant, and chocolate richer and bolder.