When used in moderation, salt remains a cornerstone of good cooking. "It's one of the most important ingredients in cooking as it helps the food's natural flavors come forth," says Abbie Gellman, RD, chef and owner of Culinary Nutrition Cuisine in New York City.
Unfortunately, our love affair with salt has gone way overboard. On average, Americans consume 3,440 milligrams of sodium daily, according to the USDA's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Yet, it's recommended that people limit their intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day.
Surprisingly, the problem isn't with the salt shaker. Over 70 percent of the sodium consumed daily comes from packaged and prepared foods, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That's not a license to go wild and use a super heavy hand at the table, but it does mean that the most meaningful way to reduce your intake is to read the labels on packaged foods and make smart choices accordingly.
For instance, there are several foods that make up the bulk of sodium consumption, like bread, cold cuts, soups, snack foods, chicken and cheese, the FDA states. Eating fewer of these or choosing low-sodium varieties — a regulated term means a serving of said food has 5 percent or less of the daily value for sodium) — will help you cut back.
Don't forget other seasonings, too. Herbs and spices also ramp up flavor, so you can use less salt, says Gellman. Leaning on acids, like vinegar and citrus juice, in marinades and on veggies can brighten up a dish sans sodium, too, she says.
What's more, simply making more food at home can help reduce your salt intake. And that's where a little salt knowledge comes in handy. There are many different types of salt, which differ in size, flavor, texture and color. Knowing which to use when can boost your chances of culinary success. "Grain size is the most important factor when choosing what salt to use, including kosher, coarse and fine sea salts," says Erica Williams, senior manager of consumer insights, consumer affairs and engagement at Morton Salt.
Here's what you need to know about five popular salt varieties and when to use a sprinkle of each.
Table salt is exactly what its name implies: It's the standard salt in your table shaker. Some table salt contains the element iodine; if yours does, it will be indicated on the label as "iodized salt."
Sodium content: 582.5 milligrams per quarter teaspoon
How to use it: Table salt contains crystals of uniform size — which makes it perfect for times when measurements matter (in baking, for instance). However, unless you have an iodine deficiency and need more of it in your diet, Gellman prefers other types of salt, like sea salt and kosher, for daily use.
"Kosher salt has flat, coarse flakes that you can easily pinch for full control when seasoning a dish," says Williams. Kosher salt is sold in different grind sizes, generally coarse and medium. These qualities affect how much salt will fit into a standard teaspoon; and the crystal density, which is generally lower than that of regular granulated salt, makes its mineral content lower. Gellman calls this type the preferred salt for chefs. You'll often see a bowl of kosher salt by a stove for easy seasoning throughout the cooking process.
Sodium content: 480 milligrams per quarter teaspoon
How to use it: Consider this your home-cooking go-to. "The shape of the flakes ensures they stick to ingredients — whether you're prepping, seasoning, brining or grilling — to consistently bring out the flavor in all your dishes," says Williams.
Sea salt is about what it sounds like: "It's salt that's made from evaporated seawater," says Gellman. As a result, it may also contain trace nutrients, like potassium, iron and zinc, she says.
Sodium content: 560 milligrams per quarter teaspoon
How to use it: Specialty salts can be pricier, and you want to make it count when you use them. That means really highlighting the salt and its crunch on top of veggie and meat dishes. However, it also comes in handy for cooking and baking, says Williams. "Fine sea salt dissolves quickly and evenly, so it's ideal for baked goods, marinades, soups and sauces," she says.
Pink Himalayan Salt
"Himalayan salt is harvested in Pakistan," says Gellman, who notes that it gets its pink hue from iron oxide. Like sea salt, Himalayan salt offers trace minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, she says.
Sodium content: 420 milligrams per quarter teaspoon
How to use it: Gellman recommends using it to finish dishes (sprinkle on top after cooking) or in fresh foods, like in salads. This is also a great place to incorporate salt into caramel or chocolate-based desserts. Salt will amp up the sweet flavor, allowing you to use less sugar in the recipe, she says.
Coarse sea salt is the coarsest compared to sea salt and kosher salt, says Williams. "It delivers a burst of flavor and bite of crunch," she says.
Sodium content: 580 milligrams per quarter teaspoon
How to use it: Sprinkle coarse salt atop finished dishes, like green veggies, roasted potatoes and even desserts, says Williams. Think homemade almond butter cups with a tiny sprinkle of salt. Because the salt dissolves slowly, she also recommends using it in a rub for meat before tossing it on the grill.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet."
- USDA Agriculture Research Service FoodData Central: "Salt, Table"
- Morton Salt: "Morton Coarse Kosher Salt Nutritional Facts"
- Morton Salt: "Morton Fine Sea Salt Nutritional Facts"
- Morton Salt: "Morton Coarse Sea Salt Nutritional Facts"
- USDA Agriculture Research Service FoodData Central: "Pink Himalayan Salt"