Sam Schaefer is trying to get me to try pink Himalayan salt.
“It’s 200 million years old,” he said over the phone. “It’s as healthy and stable as humanly possible.”
Then he told me the price: About $1.43 per ounce.
“What do you charge for regular salt?” I asked.
I hear him shuffle around the store for a few minutes. “We don’t really sell that here,” he said, looking for the price tag on a box of Kosher salt he has “just in case someone really needs it.”
I can’t blame him for not having “regular salt:” Schaefer works at Savory Spice, a specialty franchise in downtown St. Petersburg that sells about nine varieties of salt. He’s also a senior at Northeast High School’s Culinary Academy.
He knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. Me? Not so much.
I recently found myself befuddled in the salt section at the grocery store as I tried to determine the differences between iodized salt, kosher salt, table salt and the six different kinds with that raincoat girl on the label.
Aren’t they all the same? What’s best for the average kitchen? Which salt gives me the most bang for my buck?
That’s all I wanted. One simple answer.
Turns out, it’s not that easy.
Table Salt: What is It Good For?
Short answer: absolutely everything.
Let’s do this in reverse and start with dessert. If you’re baking, all you need is ordinary table salt (iodized or not). Table salt is 97% pure, contains an anti-caking ingredient and dissolves smoothly into any mixture you’re whipping up.
Iodized salt is fine, but don’t sweat it too much. The practice of adding iodine to salt dates back to the 1920s, but our diets have come a long way since the Dust Bowl days. If you’re eating a variety of foods and taking a multivitamin, you probably don’t need the iodized salt. (Always check with your doctor, OK? OK.)
Otherwise, if all you have in your kitchen is table salt, you’re good to go for most basic cooking needs.
“If you’re not a foodie, you’re really not missing out on much,” Schaefer said.
Cost: About 5.7 cents per ounce — or less. Walmart shows Morton’s Iodized Salt for about $1.48 per canister, while Amazon Fresh has a crazy-low price of $0.89 for the same 26-ounce container, which brings the per-ounce price down to just 3 cents.
When to buy it: Right now. You should always have table salt in the kitchen. It will never do you wrong.
Kosher Salt: Not Really a Religious Thing
These days, “kosher salt” is more of an old naming convention than a religious marker. Since salt is a mineral, pure salt is naturally kosher.
Quick history lesson: The term “kosher salt” actually comes from “koshering salt,” which was used to draw blood out of meat after slaughtering. Finer table salt would just absorb into the meat, so this coarser consistency of salt became known as “kosher salt.”
Some kosher salt packages will feature a kosher symbol if a kosher certification agency works with the producer to ensure nothing else is mixed in with the salt.
Kosher salt is great to have in the kitchen when you need an amount you learned from your grandmother, but can’t really figure out how to measure: a pinch, a dash, “just sprinkle some in there and taste it.”
But your grandmother, for all her guesstimation, might have been onto something: Foodie blog The Kitchn notes that since the size and shape of kosher salt grains can vary from brand to brand, it’s hard to get an exact measurement.
“Since salts can be in such varying shapes, weight is the best determination,” Christine Gallary writes. “However, most recipes don’t call for a weight of salt, just volume, and most homes don’t have kitchen scales that are capable of weighing out such small amounts anyway.”
When you’re using larger, flakier salts, it’s best to add a little salt at a time. Adjust for taste and don’t worry as much about a perfect measurement.
Cost: About 5.4 cents per ounce
When to buy it: If you’re game for experimenting with recipes, or you like sprinkling a bit of visible salt over a fresh dish. Also good for margaritas.
Sea Salt: Just Beachy
Sea salt does indeed come from the sea — its crystals develop in shallow saltwater pools instead of being mined from the earth. You can buy it in coarse or fine varieties, but you’re most likely to find the coarse version used as a visible topper on ready-to-eat dishes.
Sea salt has a strong taste and is often the feature of certain items like chocolate, potato chips, or even some ice cream flavors.
Bonus fact: Sea salt may also be labeled “bay salt” or “solar salt.”
Cost: About 8 to 10 cents per ounce. It’s easy to find sea salt at the grocery store in 26-ounce canisters similar to iodized salt or in smaller grinders. “Fleur de Sel” is perhaps the most revered high-quality sea salt, but it’ll cost you about $3 per ounce. It’s typically used as a finishing salt.
When to buy it: If you’re a salt fanatic and want to kick your recipes up a notch.
Finishing Salts: Use Them Like the Name Says
Finishing salts do just that: add a final dash of flavor to a dish. But they can also add visual appeal.
Schaefer cites black Hawaiian salt, which is processed through the clay in the sand to develop its dark color. You wouldn’t want to add it to a dish mid-prep, as the black color will leach through everything in the pan. Instead, add it just before serving something, like an alfredo sauce, where you want the black flecks to stand out.
Cost: About $1.90 per ounce for black Hawaiian salt. Prices will vary depending on how easily mined the salt variety is. Persian blue salt, both rare and colorful, costs about $3.50 per ounce.
When to buy it: If you’re feeling adventurous and see a variety that piques your interest, or if you like your plated dishes to look Food Network-worthy.
Pink Himalayan Salt: Exotic, But Not Out of Reach
Iron oxide gives pink Himalayan salt, mined in Pakistan, its distinctive shade. This variety is known for having slightly less sodium than table salt, and it offers trace amounts of several other minerals like calcium and magnesium.
Pink Himalayan salt is also alleged to have healing properties, so if you haven’t seen pink salt in the grocery store, you may have seen it in alternative health or home-goods stores. Experts are skeptical of the healing power of salt lamps, though natural health buffs may try to convince you otherwise.
But when it comes to cooking, Schaefer says you have to try this salt.
“It’s all we use in my household,” he says. “And we’ve found that we use less of it than we normally would, because it tastes more salty.”
Cost: Between 35 cents and $1 per ounce. The popularity of pink Himalayan salt means it’s easy to find and prices are competitive, but it’s still a splurge.
When to buy it: When you want to try something new and keep up with foodie trends.
The Salt-Selection Bottom Line
Keep all-purpose table salt in your pantry, and grab kosher salt if you want a coarser option on hand.
From there, experiment depending on your tastes.
“If you really enjoy the flavor of food and experimenting with your cuisine, it’s almost necessary to try different salts,” Schaefer says. “The changes are subtle, but you really notice the way different things taste.”
If there’s a specialty spice shop nearby, don’t be afraid to visit and ask questions. Specialty shops typically offer more variety, but also smaller packages of those varieties.
You won’t feel pressured to buy multiple pounds of salt if you only need a teaspoon or two for a cooking project — you can instead just pick up two or four ounces to try.
Your Turn: Have you splurged on specialty salts to try in your kitchen? Which did you like best?
Disclosure: Here’s a toast to the affiliate links in this post. (Yes, we’re toasting with a margarita with a salted rim.)
Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. Her favorite kind of salt is all of them.