Ask any chef which ingredient he couldn’t live without and you’re likely to get the same response—salt. The reason is simple: sharp-tasting salt makes the flavor of food pop.
All salts come either from the sea or from salt mines. Mined salts are found in dried-up salt lakes all over the world. Already in crystal form, this type of salt is easier to extract, more common and less expensive than sea salt, which has to be evaporated from seawater. While every dining room on the planet now seems to have a shaker of salt on the table, the crystalline condiment was once a hotter commodity. Roman soldiers were paid in salt; in the Moorish markets, an ounce of salt went for an ounce of gold; and in Japan, salt was given as a gift to the gods.
In recent years, salt has been elevated to its glory days (though thankfully you won’t need to melt down your 24-carat gold rings to pay for it). Hordes of varieties with different textures and flavors lend distinctive characteristics to your dishes. But with so many types available, figuring out which one to use can be confusing.
Dry your (salty) tears. This guide to the most common salt varieties will help you figure out what they are and when to use them.
What it is: a fine-grained refined salt sold with or without added iodine
Taste: refining removes the natural minerals, which makes table salt sharp and salty
Texture: additives like magnesium carbonate are added to make it stay fine and clump-free
Use it for: baking, where exact amounts matter, and in salt shakers
What it is: a course-grained salt without additives widely used by chefs
Taste: mineral with a salty zing that’s milder than table salt
Use it for: cooking. Keep in mind that the density of kosher salt means that you’ll likely need about ¼ teaspoon more than what a recipe calls for
What it is: the salt that remains after evaporating seawater
Taste: slightly briny and mineral-like
Texture: fine grain, coarse or flakes
Use it for: the finishing touch on freshly cooked food. I love crushing the delicate Maldon flakes over a dish just before serving.
What it is: a sea salt hand-harvested from marshes in Brittany, France, and evaporated solely by the sun
Taste: mineral-rich with a mellow, sweet and salty flavor
Use it for: cooking and finishing special meals (the 2,000-year-old process and the exclusive location make it pricey)
What it is: a fine-grain salt without additives used to brine pickles, sauerkraut and turkey
Taste: concentrated saltiness
Texture: fine grained
Use it for: brining. If a brine recipe calls for kosher salt, use less, as pickling salt is saltier
Fleur de sel
What it is: my favorite salt! When the sun and wind are just right, the salt blooms like a flower on the surface of coastal ponds off the coast of Brittany, France, where it’s collected by hand
Taste: delicate mineral
Texture: crystalline and a little moist
Use it for: finishing special dishes (it’s not cheap). With it’s delicate flavor, this salt shines best when sprinkled over simply flavored foods like sliced heirloom tomatoes or corn on the cob.
Forget the calendar. I know that summer has arrived when I eat my first truly ripe and fragrant peach. There are hundreds of varieties of peaches. The cling peaches, which have a pit that needs surgical tools to remove, actually hit their stride in July. But the peaches most of us know and love, the ones we throw on the grill and turn into peach cobbler, are the freestone peaches. And August is the time to shine for these sweet gems.
Peaches come in a wide spectrum of colors. You can find them with skins that are pinkish white to reddish yellow and flesh in hues of blushing pink to deep gold. A bushel of peaches looks like a late summer sunset. I love it. While beautiful to look at, the best part of a peach is its flavor. Sweet and juicy, peaches are versatile enough to fit into any part of your meal. Add wedges to a green salad, pair them with a soft creamy cheese, brush with butter and grill for a powerful, slightly smoky side dish or eat, just as it is, for dessert.
When choosing peaches look for ones that give just slightly when you squeeze them. Peaches are easy bruisers, so be gentle. Peaches will last longer if you keep them in a plastic bag in your fridge, but the flavor pops more at room temperature, so I like to put them in a bowl on the kitchen table. If you decide to store them in the fridge, be sure to let them sit for 20-30 minutes on the counter before digging in.
Beware that the peach skin can become tough when you use the fruit in cobbler or compotes or jams. To remove it easily, drop the peach into boiling water for 30 seconds or so. Use tongs to turn them in the water a few times. Lift the peaches out of the boiling water and into an ice bath. The skin should slip right off the flesh with your fingers.
Peaches originated in China, where have been a symbol of long life for decades. As they’re a good source of vitamin C, potassium and vitamin A, it’s easy to understand why. But it’s important to buy organic peaches. The Environmental Working Group lists these fleshy favorites fourth on their list of the 12 most pesticide-treated fruits and veggies.
Ready to eat a peach? Try these gorgeous Caramelized Peaches with a scoop of ice cream.
Whenever I see scraps of food, I think of burrata. The soft, creamy cheese was created in southern Italy as a way to use bits of leftover mozzarella. Mozzarella is pretty elastic and cheese makers stretch and knead the cheese curd to get it that way. So the extra pieces stretched easily to form small sacs, which were then filled with cream and dipped into brine briefly. The cream thickened a touch, but not too much. When they cut into the mozzarella, the gooey, oozy center ran onto the cheese board and burrata was born.
That crafty moment of recycling that gave rise to one of my favorite fresh cheeses. Burrata means “buttered” in Italian, which should give you a good clue what you’re in for. Creamy and rich, the cheese makes a perfect accompaniment to heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, roasted beets, peaches or just a bit of bread. While most burrata comes from Italy (usually wrapped in asphodel leaves for freshness), a few US cheese makers are getting into the spirit too.
So the question is, who needs mozzarella anymore? We all do.
Once strictly made from the milk of buffalos, mozzarella now can be found made from cow’s milk as well. Like burrata, mozzarella is a white, mildly flavored fresh cheese that pairs beautifully with stone fruits and root vegetables and other fresh vegetables. But the stringy cheese has one serious advantage burrata doesn’t—you can cook with it. Without that soft, runny center, mozzarella can be shredded or cut, torn, baked, melted, you name it. It’s an incredibly versatile cheese that suits so many recipes from pizza to pasta to paninis.
At the end of the day, you’ll find both kinds of cheese in my fridge. When I’m pulling together a late-night snack, I might reach for the burrata with farmer’s market peaches. When I’m having friends around for a bite to eat, I may top a homemade tomato-pesto pizza with delicious mozzarella.
Curious which is your favorite? Have a taste test by making two versions Salad of Heirloom Tomatoes with Mozzarella with each cheese.