For most people, salt is just something to shake over scrambled eggs in the morning. But if the abundance of “finishing salts” in restaurants, kitchen outlets, and online gourmet stores is any indication, that’s about to change.
Unlike processed table salt and kosher salt, most commonly used before cooking, these coarse, hand-harvested sea salts are applied just before serving. The effect can be magical. A few pinches of finishing salt and simple salads, pastas, and inexpensive steaks go elegant.
Depending on their flavor and texture, the salts create various effects. When smoked over wood chips from Chardonnay barrels, sel gris —a moist, gray French salt—takes on an oaky, smoky quality. Hawaiian alaea, the color of Copper River salmon, has a mineral flavor. Shiny black Kilauea almost looks like caviar and tastes nearly as intense. Prettiest of all are the crunchy, mild, white petals of Maldon.
That versatility and intensity is why so many chefs are dabbling in finishing salts. At Komi, Johnny Monis’s warm dates with mascarpone and first-press olive oil get a few crystals of fleur de sel that translate into little pockets of brightness as you chew. Eric Ziebold’s Parker House rolls at CityZen are scattered with fleur de sel, making for a one-biter that is at once soft, buttery, and crunchy. At Ceiba, “flakes” of brittle Maldon bring new intensity to David Guas’s chocolate mousse. And RJ Cooper of Vidalia is sprinkling on a few pinches of Madagascar vanilla–infused sea salt to perk up his foie gras parfait.
For the home cook, finishing salts offer a quick way to get restaurant-style flavor. And if $15 for a jar of crystals seems high compared with Morton’s, remember, a little goes a long way. It sure beats buying a Viking range.
What to look for? It depends on what you’re cooking. Fleur de sel, so named because it smells like violets when harvested, is a good starter salt, prized by chefs for its delicate flavor and crunch. Besides giving depth to chocolate desserts, it shines on a ripe slice of Early Girl tomato.
The more-assertive smoked sel gris has somewhat limited uses—you probably wouldn’t pair it with sweets—but it definitely perks up a Bloody Mary and oysters on the half shell. Hawaiian alaea’s metallic yet mellow flavor works wonders on scallops and sauteed shrimp, but it’s truly revelatory on a slab of good bread slathered with good butter—and the orange crystals are eye-catching, too. Hawaiian black sea salt, made with charcoal and lava, delivers edible drama, especially on a slice of sweet yellow pineapple. Maldon sea salt is among the mildest finishers. And though it melts like snowflakes when it touches down on hot food, the delicate flavor lingers.
Finishing salts are available at such area stores as Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s, Sur la Table, Whole Foods, and Williams-Sonoma and at Web sites like saltworks.us, zingermans.com, celtic-seasalt.com, and salttraders.com.