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What’s with all the different salts? Here’s how to use them.

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

AIGUES-MORTES, France — Knee-deep in the improbably pink marsh water of the Camargue, on the southern coast of France, I shoveled fleur de sel crystals onto the shore into shimmering mounds, the same way that the sauniers, traditional salt workers, toiling around me on a hot July morning have been doing in that region since Roman times.

Eric Beaumer, a master saunier at Le Saunier de Camargue, sprinkled some of the warm, damp salt into my hand. I licked my palm, and the shards crunched, then dissolved in a saline burst. It was the same mineral rush I had experienced earlier that day when I sprinkled fleur de sel on my eggs, and the one I would have again two hours later with a tomato salad. The brittle crystals made the eggs seem more custardy, the tomatoes more ripely sweet. That’s the magic of flaky sea salt: It makes food taste more deeply of itself.

Legions of chefs and home cooks have fallen hard for fancy, flaky salt — even though it can cost more than 10 times as much as the stuff you’d find in a shaker. But 30 years ago, here in the Camargue, only a few devoted sauniers bothered to harvest fleur de sel at all.

“We couldn’t give it away,” Beaumer said, handing me another pinch to crunch.

This is because, for most of the 20th century, salt was just salt, and largely industrial table salt — tiny white grains of near-pure sodium, the saline version of factory-sliced white bread — at that. Cheap and modern, it wore its sterile absence of color and variability as a badge of purity.

But decades before Salt Bae, and around the same time as the rise of the organic food movement, chefs started to rediscover salts with character: snowflakelike Maldon, minerally fleur de sel, Himalayan salt with its sunrise glow.

Innovators like Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Ruth Rogers of the River Café found that flaky salt made a vast difference in their cooking. Just a few grains sprinkled on at the end could transform anything — pastas, roasted meats, soups, chocolate desserts — in a way that granular salt simply couldn’t.

Cookbook and recipe writers began calling for different varieties — sometimes, maddeningly, in the same recipe. A growing subset of hard-core salt-tooths carry rarefied crystals in tins the size of a thumb, at the ready in a pocket or purse to calibrate any restaurant dish to their own personal ideal of salinity.

Today, these select salts are easier to find than ever before, both in supermarkets and online. But being this spoiled by choice can be confusing. Are fine sea salt and table salt interchangeable? Can you finish a dish that calls for flaky Maldon with coarse sea salt from a grinder instead? And why do various brands of kosher salt — Morton’s and Diamond Crystal, for example — have such different levels of salinity?

To help break it all down, here’s a salt primer.

A Brief History of Salt

To really understand salt, a bit of background helps. Its production has been at the center of human culture for thousands of years. Biologically, of course, we cannot exist without salt. Sodium chloride regulates our bodily fluids and is essential for nerve, muscle and digestive function. (Fittingly, the word salubrious derives from the Latin root sal, which means salt.)

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