Ever stood in front of the salt display in the grocery store trying to divine the difference between table salt and kosher salt? What is kosher salt, anyway? When should you use it? Do you ever really need to use it? Is it only for Jewish people?
There’s a prevalent thought that kosher salt is so named because it is in compliance with Jewish dietary laws about food preparation and the types of food that may be consumed, and that perception is not exactly accurate. In fact, kosher salt isn’t even necessarily certified kosher—though if it is to be used in a kosher meal, it has to be.
What we commonly called kosher salt is actually coarse koshering sea salt, so named because salt of this size is used in koshering meat for adherents of Jewish kashrut (dietary laws). For some reason, the ing on koshering was dropped along the way by a few companies, and the change became the new normal. So in this context, kosher refers to the size of the grain. When you buy kosher salt, you know you’re getting a larger salt grain that is flat or pyramidal. This is the ideal size of salt grain for koshering meat, as its greater surface area allows it to draw out more blood.
Koshering meat is a multi-faceted process that ensures that the protein is fully compliant with kashrut. Once butchering is complete, kosher preparation involves soaking the uncooked meat in water and then coating it in salt to draw the blood, as consuming the lifeblood of the animal is prohibited in Judaism. The salted meat hangs for one hour, and then is washed three times in clean, cold water until no salt remains. Following this, the butcher can dry it and further prepare it for selling.
For salt (even kosher salt) to be certified kosher, a product is vetted by the proper authority and found to be in compliance with the requirements and restrictions of kosher law. That authority then grants the kosher designation so consumers can choose a product that aligns with their religious standards. If you keep kosher, it is important to look for the designating symbol on your coarse kosher sea salt.
Now that you know what kosher salt is, there are a few more things you need to know.
For starters, while kosher is an approximation of size, actual size measures differently from brand to brand. Variations in size and shape can result in slight variations in measuring, so we recommend tasting as you go whenever possible if you’re using a brand you’re not yet familiar with.
On that same note, it’s crucial to remember that kosher salt and table salt are chemically the same, but NOT 1:1 interchangeable in recipes. Don’t try it. Disaster—or poorly seasoned dishes—may ensue. Kosher salt is larger and more irregularly shaped than table salt, so it doesn’t pack as densely in measuring spoons. It’s counterintuitive, but you’ll need more kosher salt to reach the same level of saltiness as a smaller portion of table salt. Generally, you’ll need twice as much kosher salt as table salt, but again, taste as you go.
If you are baking, we suggest not using kosher salt unless it is specifically called for for two reasons: it doesn’t always dissolve evenly and baking requires very precise amounts of ingredients to achieve desired chemical reactions. That said, kosher salt can make an interesting and delicious finishing touch on baked goods. Some people like to sprinkle it on sweets like cookies for a pop of salty contrast (which also adds complexity to the sweet flavors), and it’s perfect for topping homemade soft pretzels or bagels.
Other popular uses for kosher salt include rimming margarita glasses, making spice rubs, coating meats, sprinkling on coffee grounds before brewing, and canning. Professional chefs prefer it in most dishes because its larger crystals make it easier to grab a pinch and control its distribution, while many home cooks like to add it as a finishing touch or place a bowl of it on the table for those at the meal to use to taste.
Lastly, it’s important to know how to store your kosher salt. While it will basically never expire, correct storage will keep it fresh and flavorful. The bigger granules don’t lend themselves to salt shakers, which is why it’s often presented in small ramekins at the table. In humid environments, continued open storage like this can lead to clumping—especially in natural sea salts that contain no anti-caking agents—so it’s not our first choice. We prefer a jar, pouch, or other reusable container if its original packaging isn’t a good option.