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A pinch of panache

Flor de sal hibiscus. Danish Viking-Smoked. Peruvian pink. Hawaiian red alaea. Black Cyprus. Australian Murray River.

These days, there are practically as many varieties of salt to choose from as there are oils and vinegars. Chefs are sprinkling them over ceviches, steaks and sometimes desserts; detailing their provenance on menus; offering tastings of them instead of filling salt shakers with them.

At Central Market in Southlake, Texas, the central focus of the bulk department is the "salt bar," a clever piece of display art that consists of a rank of tall plexiglass cylinders, each holding a different color of salt.

At downtown Fort Worth's trendy Piranha Killer Sushi, owner/chef Kenzo Tran scatters crystals of Danish smoked sea salt over his silky salmon ceviche and finishes his tuna tartare with Hawaiian red-clay sea salt.

Elsewhere, at New York's Le Bernardin, pastry chef Michael Laiskonis tops his signature eggshell-cradled dessert of chocolate custard, caramel sauce and caramel sabayon not only with a few drops of maple syrup but with a few delicate flakes of Maldon sea salt. And at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton, a jewellike chunk of Bolivian rose salt is brought to your table and shaved, with a tiny silver grater, onto your dish.

The salt revolution has really taken hold. No longer can you feel smug about cooking with kosher salt or sea salt instead of pedestrian old Morton. If you're cutting-edge, you'll be touting your French fleur de sel smoked over oak wine barrels.

But is it hip or is it hype?

Bottom line: a little bit of both. You'd be well advised to take some of the claims about the gourmet qualities of these designer salts with a grain of it.

"I think that these gourmet salts are just another fad, much like rare olive oils," said Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen, whose food testing is noted for its rigor and its clear-eyed lack of bias.

Most serious tasters agree that the purer sea salts _ those that don't have potassium iodide, dextrose or anti-caking agents added _ are cleaner-tasting than iodized supermarket salt.

But chefs and foodies differ about whether the "terroir" of a salt, including the minerals and other trace elements that give the various exotic salts their distinctive hues, affect their flavor. Of course, if herbs or other flavorings are added to the salt, or if it is smoked, it will certainly stand out. But as to whether the Hawaiian salt tinted with red clay will make your food taste different from food seasoned with the black salt from India _ that's another question.

"Don't forget, the salt is being put on `food,' usually meats, and that means that any small differences in mineral content are going to be disguised by the food itself," Kimball said in an e-mail interview.

"This is just the kind of ridiculous fascination for rare ingredients that gives gourmet cooking a bad name."

Kimball said, however, that there is a difference between these "luxury salts" and their more pedestrian brethren: their texture. And texture does make a difference in your mouth, if the salt is sprinkled on food just before serving and not allowed to dissolve.

"It is the shape of the crystal that makes most of the difference, not the flavor itself," Kimball said.

Jon Bonnell, owner/chef at Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth, agrees that the exotic-salt "phenomenon" may be overhyped.

"I think it's more about giving fun gourmet gifts than a genuine difference in taste," said Bonnell, who uses basic kosher salt for cooking at his restaurant.

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"That being said, however, I have six or seven different kinds of salts by my cutting board at home," he said, listing as his favorites Danish smoked sea salt, Cyprus flakes and Australian pink salt.

And, if much of the appeal of the exotic salts is essentially theatrical _ well, dining has always been partly about theater.

Bonnell still uses kosher salt most frequently at home as well, but occasionally he'll grab a pinch of one of the exotic types when he's feeling playful. And it's the play factor that provides the intangible appeal of these colorful crystals. We humans have always been fascinated with gems and crystals, so it's no wonder these salts have such allure for cooks.

"It's kind of fun that even salt can be a playful ingredient these days," said Bonnell, who happily recalled a recent dinner at a boutique Napa Valley winery where heirloom tomatoes from the winery's garden were presented with a half-dozen different salts for tasting, served in a gadget reminiscent of the carousel-style server restaurants used to use for baked-potato toppings. "That was pretty fun," he said.

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The main rule with exotic salts is that they're best used for "finishing."

"If you're making your gumbo with them, you're wasting your money," Bonnell said. "Some of what you're paying for is going to disappear right up the hood."

That's because, if the salt dissolves, all differences in texture are lost. Some salts, such as the English Maldon sea salt and the French fleur de sel, have light, delicate flakes that dissolve on the tongue; others come in larger chunks that crunch beneath the teeth.

"In liquid applications such as soups and stews, there is no difference" among sea salts, Morton and kosher salts, Kimball said. "Use whatever you have on hand, the cheaper the better.

"When sprinkled on food just before serving, however, there is a difference. That difference is really all about the shape of the salt crystal _ the larger sea salt crystals provide a very different flavor profile; you get a big hit of salt," he said.

The exceptions to the "finishing" rule might be the smoked salts and the flavored salts, whose flavors are strong enough to come through in cooking.

When using the specialty salts, the simpler the food the better, Bonnell said: preferably something cold. His favorite vehicle for sampling them is a sliced ripe garden tomato, and he also likes fleur de sel _ a particularly delicate French hand-harvested sea salt _ on seafood.

Piranha's Tran likes the "surprise" factor that some of the exotic salt crystals can provide.

"The smoked sea salt _ people, when they eat it on his salmon ceviche, they're like, `What is that?' They don't know it's salt. It explodes in their mouth."

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TYPES OF SALT

All salt is originally from the sea. It may be harvested from seawater by means of evaporation, or from salt deposits from which the water has evaporated. Or it may be mined from underground deposits that were left by ancient seas and later covered by geological strata.

_ Table salt, or granulated salt, is refined to remove trace minerals, so it has a higher percentage of sodium chloride than unrefined salts _ as high as 99.9 percent. Mass-produced in small, uniform grains, it usually contains an anti-caking agent to keep it from clumping in damp conditions. In the case of iodized salt, potassium iodide is added to correct iodine deficiency, which was a common medical problem before the advent of iodizing in North America.

Table salt, not the coarser kosher or sea salt, should be used in baking; as America's Test Kitchen's Christopher Kimball points out, "it dissolves better and provides more even flavoring."

_ Sea salt may be produced through mechanical evaporation, or it may be allowed to evaporate naturally in shallow pools. From these is produced the coveted fleur de sel ("bloom of salt"), the delicate, pure-white crystals that form on the surface of the water and are hand-harvested with special rakes. The larger crystals that precipitate to the bottom may be tinted by the earth on the bed of the basin and are often harvested mechanically, with bulldozers or other means. This produces sel gris, or gray salt, which is often moister than other salts and comes in large grains.

_ Kosher salt is favored by chefs in cooking because of its large crystals, which are easier to "pinch" between thumb and forefinger and can be measured out more accurately by hand, with less likelihood of oversalting. Mass-produced mechanically according to rabbinical regulations, it is a reasonably priced, non-iodized alternative to Morton.

_ Flake salt is formed by rapid evaporation in open pans. Some of the most beautiful salts come from Cyprus.

_ Flavored salts have herbs, spices or other flavorings added; or they may be smoked over various woods.

TIPS

Coarser salts won't work in a shaker. You can use a grinder, but to retain maximum texture, it's best to serve the fancier salts from a salt cellar, salt crock or small bowl.

Don't store coarse sea salts in metal containers or use in a grinder with metal parts; because they are often moister than refined salt and can corrode metal.

Store flavored salts such as smoked salts and those with highly aromatic flavorings in airtight containers _ several extra layers of sealed plastic bags may be necessary for smoked or truffle salt _ to keep their aroma from permeating foods stored nearby.

Be aware that table salt and other types of salts are not interchangeable when it comes to measuring. A teaspoon holds more table salt _ because the grains are finer _ than coarse salt. If a recipe calls simply for salt, it probably means table salt; most recipes will specify kosher or sea salt if that is what is called for.

Coarser salts take longer to dissolve in liquid than table salt.

BUYING

While Morton table salt sells for 2 or 3 cents an ounce, you can buy no-frills kosher salt for as little as 10 or 12 cents an ounce at most supermarkets. Most supermarkets sell sea salt, too; Morton produces it, for about the same price as basic kosher salt.

For the pricier salts _ which can run $2 or more an ounce _ buying in bulk will likely be cheaper than buying the same salt in a jar or box. Another advantage to bulk buying is that you can experiment with various salts by buying very small amounts.

Online sources include www.salttraders.com and www.saltworks.us.

PRESENTATION

For dinner parties, guests will enjoy a salt "tasting," with several different kinds of salts presented in separate salt cellars, "pinch" bowls or other small decorative vessels, or perhaps a segmented condiment dish. Choose salts with different colors and textures for maximum impact.

Colored salts with larger crystals, such as the Himalayan pink, would make a stunning bed for oysters and can be reused. Consider other decorative uses, such as a grouping of small clear-glass votive candleholders partially filled with different colors of salts holding the candles.

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SALTS TO SPLURGE ON

Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen, which has done blind tastings of sea salts against Morton and kosher salts, believes that all you need in your pantry is regular table salt for cooking and baking and a good sea salt for sprinkling on foods just before serving.

But there's no question that it's fun to explore the world of specialty salts, especially if you can buy in small quantities to satisfy your curiosity.

Here are four types of salts that we think are worth the splurge:

_ Maldon or fleur de sel sea salt

These are the top-of-the-line sea salts, having delicate flakes that melt on the tongue. And they are usually much less costly than the more exotic salts; Maldon runs between 50 and 75 cents an ounce and fleur de sel around $1.50 an ounce, depending on the salt and the source.

Maldon is the hands-down favorite of many chefs and food experts, including America's Test Kitchen's Kimball, "because the flakes are softer and lighter than other sea salts." It's made in Essex, on the eastern coast of England, where seawater from the spring high tides is evaporated in pans over brick flues. The resulting crystals are hand-harvested with special rakes.

French fleur de sel is also hand-harvested. Sometimes called the "caviar of salt," the best comes from Brittany (look for fleur de sel de Guerande).

Use these salts as "finishing salts," particularly atop delicate foods such as seafood and soft-textured dishes such as savory custards or souffles. Should you wish to try a few grains to finish a dessert, as many chefs do (especially with caramel desserts), these are the salts to use.

_ Smoked salts

These salts range in intensity from mild to very strong, but all are extremely aromatic. They'll perfume everything around them with the odor of smoke, so seal them well.

Most heavily smoked is the Chihuahua de Mexico wood-smoked salt; the Fumee de Sel chardonnay oak-smoked salt is lighter (both $1.56 an ounce). A current chef favorite is Danish smoked sea salt.

Smoked salts can be used in cooking to provide a "smokehouse" flavor without grilling or smoking, but again, their best use is to finish a dish, adding crunch and a tiny hit of smoke. These stand up well to more robust meats and vegetables; I wouldn't use them with egg dishes or any delicately flavored cooked seafood.

Nonetheless, they work well to provide a contrast with cool sushi- or sashimi-style raw or barely seared seafood preparations and with ceviches.

The main caveat: Use them very sparingly; these strongly flavored salts can easily become overpowering.

_ Flavored salts

These are the exception to the rule that says you should save high-end salts to use just before serving and not waste them on cooking, for their herbs and other flavorings can provide the seasoning for a dish. You could also use these in the cooking method by which fish, poultry or other meats are encased before baking in a salt crust. They work well as finishing salts, too.

_ Truffle salt

This technically falls into the category of flavored salts, but it really is in a class by itself. Perfumed with the earthy, fungal aroma of black truffles, this pricey-but-worth-it stuff makes a simple omelet or scrambled eggs into a special supper. It's a perfect accent to root vegetables, especially potatoes _ roasted, mashed and especially fried: Try it on sparely sauced pastas, too.

Two caveats: First, make sure you actually like truffles before you shell out 20 bucks for a 3.5-ounce jar of truffle salt (that's $5.71 an ounce, folks).

And second, once you've opened the jar, the aroma tends to seep out, so slip the jar into a sealable freezer bag to store it after it has been opened.

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