Most people don't think twice when shaking salt onto pasta or tossing a pinch into a pot of soup. Today the mineral is so common it's hard to believe wars were once fought over it and that the crystals served as currency. Salt's precious status ended in the late 19th century when mining innovations made vast quantities easily attainable.

When salt giant Morton added the anti-caking agent magnesium carbonate to salt in 1911, the salt shaker and common table salt were born. Refined table salt became so ubiquitous most people believed it was the only salt available. Until recently, that is.

Globalization, paired with curious chefs and gourmets, is reviving the humble salt crystal. Whether it's smoked over elder cedar branches or mined from the Himalayas, there's nothing mundane about the gourmet salts hitting the market. Naturals consumers like them because of the perceived health benefits, while gourmets swear by the flavor they impart to foods.

Mining the world's salts
Salt comes from two places: either evaporated seawater or rocks containing salt from ancient sea beds. Common table salt is usually mined rock salt; water is then added to create a brine that is dried at high heat. During this process the minerals are removed so that only small, uniform sodium chloride crystals are left. Anti-caking agents like calcium silicate (a processed form of calcium) and dextrose (sugar) are then added.

Exotic salts come from the sea and land and are obtained by solar evaporation or mining. They are not processed, so they retain their minerals. And because anti-caking agents usually are not added, these salts need to be stored in a small dish, as the grains are too large and irregular to fit through shaker holes.

Rob Seideman, or The Salty Dog as he's known on www.saltydogblog.com, fell in love with exotic salt six years ago. "A chef sent some to me back in 2002 to try when I was running the Cooking School of Aspen. I tasted a pinch; it turned my idea of salt on its head," he says.

Curiosity piqued, Seideman began combing the world to bring exotic salts to market in the U.S. Today he and his wife run a salt import business. Aspen, Colo.-based Salt Traders offers more than 20 salts, from its Jewel of the Ocean—salt obtained by combining surface seawater with deep seawater for a particular mineral blend—to its charcoal-rich Cyprus Black Sea Salt Flakes.

Naomi Novotny and Mark Zoskeegan also travel the world mining salt and seem to have struck gold with their Woodinville, Wash., business Salt Works. "Our company has doubled its size every year [since 2002]; we now have 18 people working for us and a warehouse stocked with 30 million pounds of salt," Novotny says.

Why the salt boom? "Salt is a basic ingredient that we all need, and so many more people now want to know where their food is coming from. They want the best and healthiest. And sea salt is like olive oil—once you taste it you don't want to go back to Morton's," she says.

Currently, the company sells more than 45 gourmet culinary salts from 20 countries. Best sellers include Alaea Hawaiian, which gets its color from red clay, and Cyprus Black Lava Salt.

The taste of texture
"The most important thing about [culinary] salt is that it gives food flavor; without salt you have insipid food—it's that simple," says Francisco Migoya, assistant professor at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Salt adds flavor to not just savory dishes, but sweet as well." Migoya believes a salt's texture, rather than its mineral content, defines its flavor. "It's like parmesan on a Caesar salad; how that cheese is cut or grated is going to greatly affect the taste of the cheese and the dish," he says.

Claire Bernole, executive product manager for Los Angeles-based Himalania, believes that texture is hugely important to a salt's flavor. The company's Himalayan Pink Salt is sold in large chunks with a grater so that the crystals are uneven and give a little crunch and texture to food, she says.

But Bernole also believes minerals in her salt impart unique flavor. "An ocean used to cover the area of the world [where Himalania is mined] and the salt stayed, so it's very rich in sea minerals," she says.

Selling salt as healthy
Although there aren't any studies yet to prove it, Rusty Anderson, brand manager for RealSalt in Redmond, Utah, believes unprocessed salts are healthier than the processed varieties. "We hear from customers that when they use our salt they don't retain water or have higher blood pressure," he says.

Anderson says RealSalt's purity also makes it healthier. "RealSalt comes from a 200-foot-deep mine in Utah where 150 million years ago a sea left salt deposits. Because our salt is preserved underground, there's no heavy metals or pollution contamination."

Himalania's Bernole also believes that the high mineral content of her salt gives it added health benefits. "There is a belief that salt is bad for you, but mineral-rich salt is actually good for you," she says. Magnesium in Himalania aids cellular metabolism and potassium helps regulate cellular water content, she says.

Serving and selling salt

Retailers may be intimidated by the idea of selling gourmet salts to consumers—can they really expect a shopper to shell out $12 for 4 ounces of, well, salt? The combination of the at-home chef craze with the increasing desire for everything natural makes it a likely possibility. Here are some tips to get shoppers thinking salty thoughts:

  • Taste tests—offer a gourmet salt sprinkled on tomato slices. Grab attention by grating a large salt cube onto each slice.
  • Create a salt bar—think olive bar but with salt instead. Offer small bags or jars for shoppers to fill.
  • Ask manufacturers for recipe cards to give away.
  • Attach a suction-cup rack brimming with gourmet salts to meat and seafood freezer doors.
  • Stock attractive salt cellars to entice salt purchases.
  • —A.S.

    Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 80,82