Posted by Gregorie / March 20th 2015
Salt is salt, isn’t it?
Salt ranges in purity from practically 100% to 93% sodium chloride. At one end of the spectrum is the chemically pure and industrially produced Pure Dried Vacuum salt (i.e. Saxa), at the other is the stuff dug out of the mine in Winsford or Carrick Fergus which some of you may know as grit or road salt (personally, I would not make a habit of eating either). As you can appreciate, although the margin is apparently ‘only’ 7%, the differences are extreme, the purposes are worlds apart and the effects upon taste cannot be understated. Where one is severely clinical and metallic, the other is, to put it bluntly, muddy. When it comes to salt, it is the small percentages of other elements that counts. Small does not mean insignificant, ask any chap with small man syndrome - they always make it up in other ways, look at Napoleon.
There are around 60 to 100 elements in natural salt which is really not too surprising - if you examine the make-up of the sea there are hundreds of elements, even gold. In fact, if you were to extract all of the gold from all the seas and oceans in the world you would have 20 million tonnes of it… anyway that’s a project for another time. So it is these elements that effect how bitter, sweet, salty or sour the salt is and in turn what effect it has on the food. Small percentage differences are crucial: for example, there is 0.3% of salt in Alpen – although miniscule it is essential, to remove this would ruin the product and be tantamount to commercial suicide. Just as removing the touch of red from a pot of flamingo coloured paint would leave it whiter than white.
We accept that a small trace element in Himalayan salt, iron, has such an effect on the colour, so why not other elements similarly effect the taste, especially when they are much more abundant than iron. The main elements in Himalayan salt, beside salt, are magnesium, calcium, sulphate and potassium (there are many others besides). A small increase in magnesium can affect how bitter the salt, a slight reduction in calcium will affect the sweet impression on your tongue, it is the rich mixture of minerals that will dictate your four taste sensations.
The make-up of salt is like a complex set of ingredients where all the parts are needed to produce a specific and unique flavour. Leaving the pinch of saffron (less than 1% of the ingredients) out of certain curries would totally alter the sumptuous end result. It is the same with salt, take out all of the elements to leave a stark sodium chloride and you are left with chemical boredom really, and I for one know that salt is far more exciting than that.