Salt is back. Blamed for everything from high blood pressure to hijacking the true taste of food, this essential chemical compound is once again welcome on the table. Step into any upmarket restaurant or food shop, and you'll discover a love affair with the flavor enhancer that was once on every nutritionist's hit list.
"Salt is the most important seasoning ingredient there is," says Thomas Keller, owner and chef of swanky eateries Per Se in New York City and French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Keller offers diners nine varieties--including an ancient Jurassic salt extracted from a Montana copper mine and the jet black Molokai salt, which gets its color from volcanic ash and pairs well with foie gras. He even tops his chocolate caramel dessert with fleur de sel from Brittany.
Many of the flavor differences from one salt to another derive from the mineral deposits in its region, the shape of the crystals and the way the salt is harvested. For example, fleur de sel comes from the top of sea-salt marshes on the northwest coast of France, while the sharper-tasting Himalayan pink salt comes from ancient seabeds in Pakistan.
Selling for about 50 times as much per ounce as your basic Morton's, specialty salt comes in a mystifying array of colors, grinds and shapes. To help buyers choose the perfect one, some stores, like Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods, offer tasting bars that allow you to try out different varieties. If you still can't decide, the online gift company Red Envelope sells a 24-jar sampler of salts whose origins range from Italy to India for $165.
But wait--isn't salt bad for you? Yes and no. "It is the huge amount of sodium in processed food that's a problem," says Eve Felder, a dean at the Culinary Institute of America. Artisanal salts are meant to be used sparingly atop prepared food, so chances are those few extra sprinkles won't do you in. Although, at $6 for a 3-oz. jar of your basic fleur de sel, the price just might.