Here's a little known fact: the word "salary" comes from the Latin word "salarium," which was a payment made to Roman soldiers in the form of salt. Yes, that's right - in ancient times, salt was so valuable that it was used as a form of currency. In fact, the maxim “not worth his salt” described a soldier who was not valuable or useful.
Salt wasn't just valuable in ancient times for its monetary worth - it also played a crucial role in food preservation, and it was used for this purpose all around the world, until the advent of refrigeration. It’s not known definitively exactly when people started using salt to preserve food, but the life-sustaining preservative properties of salt led to the development of trade routes, as people began to transport salt from one place to another to preserve their food. Salt-cured meats and fish were staples of seafaring and traveling people, and allowed them to safely travel long distances.
And let's not forget about the flavor aspect of salt. A sprinkle of salt can instantly transform a dish from bland to delicious. Salt enhances and intensifies the natural flavors of food, and can even make sweet things taste sweeter. Salting meat helps to break down the fibers, making it tender and juicy. Coarse sea salt is great for finishing dishes, adding a crunchy texture and strong salt flavor. Fine sea salt is good for baking and everyday cooking, as it dissolves easily.
And what about that age-old debate about the "right" kind of salt to use? We recommend hand-harvested sea salt, for its ‘made in nature’ characteristic, its purity and provable provenance. Most salt used by chefs and home cooks is table salt, which goes through a long, mechanized process to reach its final form. Many processed salts have additives, such as anti-caking agents, fluoride, and dextrose, so if you still don’t want to switch to additive-free sea salt, be sure to check the back labels of table salt for the list of additives.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about salt is the way it has shaped cultures through the centuries. From the salt mines of ancient China to the salt pans of the Mediterranean, salt production has been a driving force behind the development of entire civilizations. In some cultures, salt is even considered sacred – as the Bible states in Leviticus 2:13, ‘Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.’
A grain of salt may be a small thing, but it has had an outsized impact on human history. From trade to preservation to flavor, salt has played a vital role in our past and continues to do so in our present. As Samin Nosrat wrote, in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking: “The three basic decisions involving salt are: When? How much? In what form?”
So next time you reach for that salt shaker, take a moment to appreciate the rich history and cultural significance of this humble seasoning.