A chefs' guide to shopping for your kitchen's most essential ingredient

By Natalie B. Compton
Updated October 31, 2018
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There are few more basic yet more essential ingredients than salt. A mineral that has started wars, salt is so important in just about everything you cook. It's much more than just means of punching up a savory dish. Different salts yield different results, and taking the time to choose the best one for your meal is a low-effort move with big rewards. I talked to chefs around the country to find out how to shop for salt and the types to stock in your pantry.

Less is more
Most chefs want clean and simple salt. “I always look to see that a salt is pure and has no additives, like iodine in table salt; though this was added for public health reasons,” says Doug Psaltis, chef and partner of RPM Restaurants in Chicago and Washington, DC. “Otherwise they have no character to them.” You can’t always find out how processed or enhanced a salt is by its label. “You may not be able to spot this from looking at a salt, so do some research about the different kinds of salts on the market, from kosher salt to sea salt,” says chef Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo in New York.

Think about terroir
It matters where your salt comes from, not just for quality concerns but for flavor, too. “Salt is like wine, in that it has a distinct flavor profile to the terrior when it comes to nice finishing salts,” says Gabriel Pascuzzi, chef and owner of Stacked Sandwich Shop in Portland, Oregon. “I picked some salt up in Hawaii when I was there last; I also got some in Austria where it is still mined. The two have such stark contrasts, one being sea salt and the other mineral salt.”

Try different salts for different occasions
Salt isn’t one size fits all. Keep a variety at home to use at various times. “It really depends on what dish I am making,” Ly says. “Maintaining great taste starts with using high-quality salt from the start. For me, that typically means a good sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. For something like steak, I like a fleur de sel, which is a salt that comes in larger thin flakes.”

“I like to use grey salt (sel gris) in our house-made steak salt because of its minerality and coarseness,” Psaltis says. “I use Maldon and/or fleur de sel for seasoning things like vegetables; kosher salt to season meats and proteins before cooking; a fine sea salt is great for finishing any fried dishes; and coarse sea salt for curing meats.”

What to stock at home

Fleur de Sel Guerande, France
Chef Josiah Citrin of Melisse of Los Angeles’ Charcoal and Openaire usually chooses sel gris as his all-purpose salt, but it’s another French option that he loves most. “While Sel Gris might be my go-to, Fleur de Sel Guerande is my favorite,” he says. “It’s a natural sea salt that comes from Brittany. It has a slightly moist texture that sticks well to food and adds a nice complexity to a dish.”

Red Boat Anchovy Salt, Vietnam
Although Vietnamese food often calls for fish sauce, Ly also uses a salt made from fish sauce to get the job done. “If you are cooking Vietnamese food, maybe try Red Boat Fish Sauce’s anchovy salt,” he says. “It is basically a salt that adds that same signature umami in every pinch. It’s good as a rub or in a soup that needs some flavor.”

Jacobsen Salt Co. Pure Flake, Portland
Texture is a major factor for Pascuzzi. “If I am looking for a nice finishing salt, I am looking at the crystal structure. Is it thin and large?” he says. “A good example is Jacobsen's pure flake. There are nice big flakes that are visible easily to the eye with a few flakes on whatever you are finishing—meat, fish, vegetables, caramel.”

Maldon, England
Maldon sea salt flakes are a classic pick in the restaurant industry. “I prefer Maldon salt because I like the flakes—the consistency is great on the mouth,” says Tara Lazar, chef and owner of Palm Springs spots like Cheeky’s and Birba. “Maldon does a smoked salt which I like to use with a really oily fish crostini like an olive packed sardine and some smoked salt crystals.”

Diamond Kosher Salt, USA
Psaltis recommends Diamond kosher salt. “It adds a nice texture to meats; it's simple. The coarseness allows you to feel just how much salt you're actually adding to your dish, plus it rarely cakes or clumps.”