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© Denzil Green

Salt may be the only food item that doesn't have a best before or use-by date. After all, it's dug out of the ground. It doesn't lose its taste, and even should it get damp or rock hard, it still tastes like salt.

Which leads to the mystery as to why some people have salt mills. One can understand pepper and other spice mills well enough: the spice tastes "spiciest" when it is just ground, and loses flavour slowly afterwards. But freshly ground salt? Even if you grind it and set it aside for 1,000 years, its flavour won't increase or decrease.

Everyone knows that our bodies need salt to live. How, then, did the masses get by back in the days when salt was a luxury for the very rich? We get salt from a lot of the foods that we eat: it is already in foods as diverse as carrots, meats, and milk. And people who lived near the sea got a lot more of it, in the fish they ate and in foods grown in coastal soil.

The big decision you have to make is probably whether to use Table salt -- everyday, finely-ground salt, or a specialty salt such as sea or Kosher Salt, or even a low sodium one. Some North Americans like using just about any salt except for Table Salt for cooking. The reason is North American Table Salt is for the most part iodized, in Canada very heavily, and there is a sharp taste to it with a chemical after taste. Taste factor aside, iodine in salt can inhibit yeast growth while you are making bread, so it may be best to use non-iodized salt in bread-making. It wouldn't be amiss to wonder if the particularly heavy iodization in Canada might make this even more of a factor, but the saving grace may be either the superior quality of Canadian flour, or that combined with upping the quantity of yeast a bit.

Outside the home, you will probably find fine restaurants not using iodized salt, fast-food or ordinary places using nothing but, and similarly mixed usage amongst processed food. Some people state that iodized salt is not used in processed food, but that is simply not true. Some processed food will have it, some won't, and you've no way to know as the packaging will just say "Salt."

Salt and Anti-caking Agents

Morton Freeflowing Salt Ad 1951

Morton Freeflowing Salt Ad 1951
in: Lubbock Morning Avalanche. Lubbock, Texas. 9 Feb 1951.

Table Salt will have anti-caking agents added to it to ensure that it flows freely. The agents vary: dextrose, silicon, magnesium carbonate, sodium hexacyanoferrate II. Some people still add a few grains of rice in the salt shaker to absorb moisture. That may be a hang-over from days before anti-clumping agents, or a testament to just how humid those lazy, hazy summer days can sometimes get.

Back in the really good old days, the anti-caking agent used was arsenic. That's why, even though you put drops of iodine in aquariums every now and then for the health of the fish and the plants, you were told not to use iodized salt. It wasn't the iodine you were trying to keep out, it was the arsenic. After all, you wouldn't have wanted to poison any expensive show fish -- never mind what that salt shaker on the table was doing to Grampa!

Salt and Iodine

Iodine deficiency leads to goiter, when the thyroid gland enlarges into a fleshy bulge on the neck. Other health problems occur as well. Over the course of your life, you only need 1 teaspoon of iodine, but without it, your body goes to hell in a handbasket. And you can't just take 1 teaspoon and be done with it: you need a few hundredths of a gram periodically.

Iodine was the very first food element to be added to food as a supplement -- in Michigan, in 1924. Salt was chosen because it was the most commonly used foodstuff that iodine could be added to easily and inexpensively. The other way that consumers get iodine as an additive is through dairy and meat: iodine is added to animal feed. Natural ways to get iodine are through eating seafood and kelp (by the way, the iodine in sea salt is so minuscule that it is of no use to your body.) Here's a sample survey on iodized salt in a few countries.

Salt iodization in Australia

Voluntary. Purchased by less than 10% of the population. Consumers prefer non-iodized salt. Iodine absorbed primarily through dairy products. Some evidence of goiter found in Tasmania & Sydney in 2001/2002. Studies to begin in 2003.

Salt iodization in Canada

Iodization of Table Salt was made mandatory by law in Canada in 1949. Specialty salts are exempt, but as their sales are such a small fraction of the market, iodized salt consumption is basically 100%. Canada has a particularly high rate (100 ppm), which is probably excessive, which makes the taste of the iodized salt quite distinguishable. Goiter has generally been eliminated to such an extent that there are no longer any official monitoring programmes.

Salt iodization in the UK

No official programme. Consumption of iodized salt is minimal. Consumers get iodine through dairy. General population iodine sufficiency.

Salt iodization in the United States

Voluntary. Used by 70% of households. General population iodine sufficiency.

Cooking Tips

Salt used to draw out moisture

Through osmosis, salt draws out the moisture in things. This is why it is used on eggplant slices, and why it was used as a preservative for meats: by drawing moisture out of the cells of any bacteria, it left the bacteria unable to flourish. For this reason, though, salting meat before barbequing or grilling is a bad idea: it will draw the moisture towards the surface of the meat, where it will be burnt off, leaving the meat drier inside.

Salt in cooking water

Here's the science. Salt hardens water (as opposed to soda, which softens it) and raises the boiling point a little (but only by such an infinitesimal amount that it makes no difference in that regard). Hard water, in turn, hardens cellulose and lignin (woody fibre) in vegetables, which helps to slow juices, colour and nutrients from leeching out into the water. So, you add salt to water for just about all vegetables.

When you DON'T add salt is when you are boiling foodstuffs that already have a great deal of cellulose or woody fibre in them, and so need a good deal of softening. In this category are beans, lentils, split and dried peas, etc. When you think about it, it all makes sense: the last thing you want to do is add something to the water which will make these tougher. In a perfect world, you would also use soft water; but never mind, can't have everything.

Salt should also be added to water when cooking pasta. Not for any nutrition reasons, but for reasons of taste. It never seems to taste quite right otherwise -- and your Italian friends will tell you so. They can spot pasta that was cooked in unsalted water even if it's under 10 layers of sauce.

It's a myth that salted water prevents vegetables from going mooshy (you would have to add an extreme amount of salt, such that you were cooking them in a salt paste, for it to have any impact in this regard) and that salted water makes vegetables cooked in it taste better (basically no salt will penetrate into the vegetables at all while cooking, though an indiscernible amount may remain on the vegetable after draining.)

Some food celebrities, such as Nigella Lawson, will salt their boiling water with whole handfuls of Maldon Salt straight from the Salt Pig. When you are boiling something, however, you really cannot tell whether Table Salt, iodized or not, or whether a more expensive salt was used in the water. Keep your stove's Salt Piggy stuffed with Table Salt, and use the Maldon as a finishing salt at the table.
    • Salt plays an important role in the chemistry of bread. See the entry on Yeast;
    • Salt added to water for boiling eggs makes them easier to peel;
    • Salt added to egg whites or cream before whipping helps to increase volume and helps them to keep their volume after whipping (non-iodized works best);
    • Salt enhances all the other flavourings in a recipe. If you omit the salt, increase the other seasonings by a bit to compensate;
    • Salt lightly any sauce, soup or stew at the beginning of cooking, and then adjust salt taste only at the end because as the water evaporates and the liquid concentrates, there will be proportionately more salt left and therefore more of a salty taste. This is why recipes always have you adjust seasoning only at the end, when you can accurately tell how much more, if any, salt is needed;
    • Salt whisked into vinegar before the oil is added helps the oil and the vinegar emulsify better in a vinaigrette;
    • Salt interacts with lemon in a way that really gives the salt a punch, so be very careful when salting any sauce that has a goodly amount of lemon juice in it;
    • Fine-grained salt in green salads can contribute to the greens wilting more quickly. Instead, use a coarser salt.

It's an urban myth that a raw potato can save over-salted soups or sauces, by absorbing the salt.


There are salt replacements on the market, as well as "low-sodium" salts, which claim to have the same flavour as salt with only 1/3 the sodium.

Some say that Lovage is an effective salt substitute.

As a substitute for coarse salt as a garnish on baked goods, make a "salt paste" by mixing a few drops of water into some regular table salt, then dribble onto the surface of the baked good.


1 teaspoon of salt (6.5g) contains 2325.5mg sodium. (Source: United States Drug Administration Nutritional Database)

Most health researchers agree that high salt / sodium intake leads to increased blood pressure, which leads to strokes and heart attacks. Consequently, most Western governments are facilitating campaigns to reduce salt consumption in the population.

As of 2004, three-quarters of salt intake per person in North America and the UK comes mostly unawares, from processed foods and ready-made meals. The figures are largely unchanged as of 2012 / 2013.

Recommended sodium limits in various countries

  • 2400 mg (2.4g) sodium / about 1 level teaspoon salt (recommended by the British Food Standards Agency, as of 2012);
  • 2300 mg (2.3g) sodium / about 1 level teaspoon salt (recommended by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, as of 2012) [1];
  • 1500 mg (1.5g) sodium / about 1/2 teaspoon salt (recommended by the American Health Association, as of 2013) [2].

Contrary views about sodium

1. In 2011, the American Journal of Hypertension published a compiled analysis of 7 separate studies covering 6,250 people in total in their early 40s for eight years. The analysis found no strong evidence that lowering levels of salt in one's diet reduced health risks, and said that cutting back on salt might even create problems for some people with heart problems. [ Taylor RS, Ashton KE, Moxham T, Hooper L, Ebrahim S. Reduced dietary salt for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Hypertension. 24(8): 843-53 (August 2011). Abstract here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21731062 ]

"The findings are not a call to eat salt with abandon, warns researcher Rod Taylor.... Taylor suspects he found no strong evidence that salt reduction lowered heart disease risk and death because the numbers studied were too small. And those studied may have lowered salt intake at first but then slid back into old habits, he says.... In the short term, up to two years after study participants were advised to reduce salt, he found a trend of reduced deaths... in the longer term, out about 10 years, that benefit disappeared. And we believe that is because people were not able to maintain that behavior." [3]

2. A study published May 2011 (Stolarz-Skrzypek K, Kuznetsova T, Thijs L, et al. Fatal and Nonfatal Outcomes, Incidence of Hypertension, and Blood Pressure Changes in Relation to Urinary Sodium Excretion. Journal of the American Medical Association . 2011; 305:1777–85) surmised that lower sodium diets raise your risk of dying from heart disease. The study was dismissed by the Harvard School of Public Health: "Take this study with a huge grain of salt, and then dispose of it properly," says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. "This study should not influence recommendations about sodium intake in any way." [4]

3. "[The] robust body of evidence does not support universal reduction of sodium intake." Michael H. Alderman and Hillel W. Cohen. Dietary Sodium Intake and Cardiovascular Mortality: Controversy Resolved? American Journal of Hypertension 25, 727-734 (July 2012). Abstract here: http://www.nature.com/ajh/journal/v25/n7/full/ajh201252a.html


1 cup table salt = 13 oz = 370g

1 teaspoon table salt = 6.5g = .23 oz
1 1/2 teaspoon table salt = 10g = .35 oz
1 tablespoon table salt = 20g = .7 oz

History Notes


Between 1331 and 1334 Philip VI (aka Philip of Valois), King of France from 1328 - 1350, passed and formalized a law known as the "gabelle". The "gabelle" was a tax on salt collected by private people that the Crown leased the right to collect taxes to. Philip's immediately goal was to finance his wars against Edward III of England. The people hated the salt tax, and it was abolished by the Revolutionary government in 1790. It was reinstated, however, a few years later in 1806 by Napoleon, and remained in effect until 1946. In those 600 years, the people of France had only 16 years respite from their salt tax.

A similar salt tax in Tuscany, Italian, caused Florentine bakers to create salt less bread recipes. The tradition of Tuscan breads being salt-free continues today.

In 2010, the Campbell's Soup Company announced that it would be reducing sodium levels in its products. In 2011, the company announced that it would be raising them again, to help with sluggish sales.

Literature & Lore

When you next look at a painting of The Last Supper by da Vinci, look to see what is on the table in front of Judas, symbolizing a broken bond. (That was your hint, by the way.)

In ancient Assyria, salt was so precious that there was a phrase to show how much you valued someone: "amelu sa tabtiya", which meant "man of my salt", someone with whom you would share your salt.


[1] "The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends we set a target of 2,300 mg or less per day, which is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt." Health Check nutrient standards for sodium. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Retrieved January 2013 from http://www.heartandstroke.com/site/c.ikIQLcMWJtE/b.4391501/k.83E/Health_Check_nutrient_standards_for_sodium.htm

[2] "The American Heart Association recommends foods with little or no salt to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Aim to eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. "American Heath Association. Change your salty ways in 21 days. Retrieved January 2013 from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Sodium-Salt-or-Sodium-Chloride_UCM_303290_Article.jsp

[3] Doheny, Kathleen. Heart Benefits From Cutting Back on Salt? MedicineNet Health News. 6 July 2011. Retrieved January 2013 from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=146668

[4] Harvard School of Public Health. Flawed Science on Sodium from JAMA. Retrieved January 2013 from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/salt/jama-sodium-study-flawed/index.html

Arumugam, Nadia. Campbell Soup Increases Sodium As New Studies Vindicate Salt. Forbes Magazine. 18 July 2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nadiaarumugam/2011/07/18/campbell-soup-increases-sodium-as-new-studies-vindicate-salt/

Clay, Xanthe. Salt, I love you – whether you're healthy or not. London: Daily Telegraph. 6 July 2011.

Macrae, Fiona. Why salt is addictive: It stimulates the brain cells just like cigarettes and hard drugs. London: Daily Mail. 12 July 2011.

McGee, Harold. In Salts, a Pinch of Bali or a Dash of Spain. New York Times. 27 April 2011.

Napier, Henry E. Florentine history from the earliest authentic records to the accession of Ferdinand the Third Grand Duke of Tuscany: in six volumes, Volume 1. London: Edward Moxon. 1847. Page 40.

Weeks, Carly. Campbell’s adding salt back to its soups. Toronto, Canada: The Globe and Mail. 14 July 2011.

Wenner Moyer, Melinda. It's Time to End the War on Salt: The zealous drive by politicians to limit our salt intake has little basis in science. Scientific American. 8 July 2011.

See also:


Coarse Salt; Dishwasher Salt; Finishing Salts; Presa di Sale; Roman Salt; Salmuera; Salt Potatoes; Salt; Well Salt

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Also called:

Sel (French); Salz (German); Sale (Italian); Sal (Spanish); Sal (Portuguese); Shio (Japanese)


Oulton, Randal. "Salt." CooksInfo.com. Published 02 September 2002; revised 28 June 2012. Web. Accessed 06/24/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/salt>.

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