Salt. It's a food that many of us may view as little more than an ingredient or a condiment, an add-on that plays a very simple role.
But next time you reach for the shaker, you may want to know how the kind of salt you're sprinkling can enhance the dish you're making.
Beth Dooley, author of books such as "Minnesota's Bounty: the Farmers Market Cookbook," joined MPR News host Tom Crann to explain how salts of different colors or origins can be anything but pale and mundane.
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Explore the types
Dooley said most standard table salt is harvested commercially in the Chicago area and is treated with chemicals and iodine. But there's much more beyond the standard variety.
Variations such as pink, red, gray and black are just a few of the hues that can naturally occur in salt. Along with color variation, region can help characterize salts. Gray salt from the north Atlantic Ocean, for instance, has a flavor like brine, Dooley said, and can be used as a finishing salt on fish.
To find the best salt, look to the Brittany region of France, Dooley said. From here comes fleur de sel, which comes from very clean water and is hand-harvested from the top of salt pans.
"It's sort of the creme de la creme of the salt," said Dooley.
Taste the unexpected
While the look and origin of salt can vary broadly, taste can be the most surprising characteristic.
Volcanic salt, with a profile far from mundane, is dark in color and tends to have a smokier taste. "It does almost have this ashy, kind of mineral flavor to it," Dooley said.
On the other end of the flavor spectrum is pink Hawaiian salt.
"Those are lovely because those have different minerals in them," she said. "They tend to be a little less briny and almost a little sweeter, if you can say there's a sweetness to salt."
Salts that have been smoked or had flavorings like vanilla and chocolate are also common.
Balance your use
Many good things in life are best enjoyed in moderation, and specialty salts are no exception. Dooley advised against using the higher-end versions in baking, because the salt will merely dissolve into the mix and "the quality won't shine through."
But quality salts can come through when used sparingly on treats like salted caramel or a pan of brownies, which she said benefits from the sprinkle of flavor and crunch. Fruits like honeydew or crenshaw melons also benefit from the taste enhancement.
The right salts can also perk up dishes like salads and steaks straight from the grill.
"It really pops flavor of sweet things up or of certain savory things," Dooley said. "It draws flavors up and that's how you want to use it."
Perfect porterhouse with sel gris
There are many theories for grilling steak, but not much on how to salt one. Start with very little or no salt and then sprinkle generously with a very good salt as it comes off the heat.
• 2 tablespoons good-quality black peppercorns (i.e. Tellicherry)
• 1 large dry-aged porterhouse steak (about 2 1/2 pounds and about 2 inches thick)
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Sel gris
Crush the peppercorns using a mortar and pestle or put them in a plastic bag and crush with the flat bottom of a heavy skillet or meat pounder.
Pat the steak dry with paper towels and rub with the olive oil.
Press the crushed pepper into both sides of the meat.
Preheat the grill for medium to high heat. (The temperature should be between 375 to 425 degrees.)
Put the steak on the grill and cook until darkly crusted, about 4 to 6 minutes per side, then move to a lower heat and grill another 10 to 15 minutes for medium rare to medium (135 to 140 degrees on the meat thermometer).
Transfer to a platter, sprinkle generously with salt, and allow to rest for 5 to 8 minutes.
Cut the steak on the diagonal into 3/4-inch-thick slices and serve sprinkling with a little more salt.
Oatmeal, chocolate and butterscotch chip cookies with Maldon flaked salt
Makes about 18 to 20 cookies
Sprinkling just a little salt over these cookies brings out their oaty, buttery richness and gives the chocolate a little kick.
• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon fine salt (any ordinary salt is good)
• 2 1/2 cups regular oats
• 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup packed brown sugar
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
• 1 cup butterscotch chips
• Generous pinch Maldon flaked salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two cookie sheets or line with parchment.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, salt and oats.
In a separate bowl, beat together the butter, brown and granulated sugars and vanilla. Beat in the eggs.
Stir the sugar-butter-egg mixture into the flour and beat until you have a smooth dough.
Stir in the chocolate and butterscotch chips.
Spoon tablespoons full of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets and sprinkle with a little of the flake salt.
Bake at 350 degrees until the edges are just brown and the centers soft, about 8 to 9 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.