The Ultimate Guide to Properly Seasoning With Salt and Pepper

Here's how to give these two star ingredients the love they deserve.

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You use them just about every day, but do you actually know what they are? Here are easy tips, common oversights, and the best ways to utilize two of the most essential pantry staples: Salt and pepper.

What Is Salt, Exactly?

First things first. Salt is simply a crystalline compound called sodium chloride that is most commonly used to preserve and season food—but salt exists in many more edible varieties than just the modest table condiment that first comes to mind. There are many different types that all render a distinct texture, taste, and purpose for your cooking needs. Aside from table salt, the list of other popular salt varieties include Kosher salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, fleur de sel, flaky sea salt (also known as finishing salt), black salt, and more. We'll break these down further below.

What separates one type of salt from the next, you ask? The differences between a salt's color, shape, and taste is attributed to the location from which the salt is mined and how it is harvested. For example, Himalayan salt comes from the Himalaya Mountains and gets its appealing pink color from the minerals (like magnesium, iron oxide, potassium, and calcium), in the underground deposits from which it's mined. It's also believed to have a milder flavor than sea salt and is perfect for complementing delicate dishes. These factors should be taken into consideration when determining which type of salt to use the next time you're in the kitchen.

How to Determine Which Type of Salt Is Best to Use

Of course, not all salts are created equal. Regular table salt is heavily ground and may contain additives like iodine, which was introduced as a result of a public health action to prevent iodine deficiency. Table salt is a good option for cooking due to its sharp taste and gritty texture.

  • Kosher salt, a chef favorite, is coarser than your average table salt and is perfect for when you're looking to add a crunchy texture to your food or drinks (like salting the rim of a margarita glass).
  • Himalayan pink salt has a subtler flavor and an aesthetically pleasing pink color, making it perfect for seasoning delicately flavored dishes or using as a finishing salt to add a pop of color to your plate.
  • Sea salt (like French fleur de sel or Hawaiian sea salt) is produced by the evaporation of seawater that renders different color or taste according to the geological composition. Generally, sea salt has a more complex flavor profile and coarser texture that lingers on the palate and can be more expensive than ordinary table salt.
  • Flaky sea salt, like the fancier Maldon salt, is made from hand-harvested, pyramid-shaped large flakes of sea salt. It's meant for sprinkling on top of a completed dish to add textural excitement. However, it is 10 (!) times more expensive than your average salt and thus should be saved for more special occasions or dishes.
  • Black salt is form of processed Himalayan salt. To make it, the (previously) pink salt gets heated with harad seeds, plus other Indian spices, seeds, and herbs, which gives it a darker hue. Also known as kala namak, black salt is frequently used in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine or as a way to add umami-rich flavor and depth to vegan dishes. (BTW, don't confuse it with Hawaiian black salt or black lava salt, which is a combination of salt and activated charcoal.)

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Salt

Salt without additives or added flavoring will never go bad if stored properly, however iodized table salt has a shorter shelf life of about five years and can easily clump if exposed to moisture. Thus, salt should always be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry area in your kitchen to prevent spoilage.

Another helpful tip to consider is timing in which you introduce salt during the cooking process. Add your finer salts while cooking to dissolve and evenly distribute among the ingredients. However, adding your finishing salts too soon may melt the much-desired crunch of your fancy, pricey topper. Thus, wait to add your finishing salts until the very end to ensure they stay intact.

You Should Always Measure Your Salt by Weight

It is also important to be mindful of the amount of salt a recipe calls for and calculate by weight for more precise measurements. Though the two popular salt brands, Diamond Crystal and Morton both offer kosher salt, they differ in their textures and grit, making the amount that would fit in your average teaspoon vastly unequal, which can greatly affect the saltiness of your dish. Diamond Crystal is coarser than Morton, and thus takes up much more space. On average, one teaspoon of Morton salt is the equivalent of two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal salt, making measuring by weight and relying on your palate essential for making your recipe as accurate as possible.

What Pepper Is NOT and What the Different Colors of Peppercorns Mean

Despite common misconceptions, peppercorns are a fruit and not actually a spice! Peppercorns grow on the piper nigrum flowering vine and are picked while still green and turn black during the drying process. Traditional peppercorns come in green, black, red, and white colors, all of which are indicators of the level of ripeness of the fruit. This plant grows primarily in warm weather countries around the equator in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. Lastly, pink peppercorns (as the name suggests otherwise) are not true peppercorns at all; rather, they're the dried berry of the Peruvian peppertree shrub.

How to Determine Which Type of Pepper Is Best to Use

  • The most common of the bunch, black peppercorns, are ideal for just about any cooking method and have the most pungent flavor and aroma. Generally, the darker the peppercorn, the more flavorful it will be.
  • Among the black peppercorn varieties, Tellicherry is the highest grade due to its strong, punchy flavor.
  • If you're looking for a more economical choice, Malabar pepper is a good-quality option minus the hefty price tag of the Tellicherry variety.
  • Red peppercorns, though not commonly used, are peppercorns left on the vine to fully ripen and will form a black skin when dried.
  • White peppercorns are simply black or red peppercorns that are soaked to remove the fruit's skin, leaving a much milder fruity, floral flavor commonly used in Asian and European cooking. White peppercorn's white-grey coloring makes it ideal for blending in light-colored dishes like mashed potatoes or parsnip puree.
  • Green peppercorns are underripe black peppercorns that typically come in a brine and have a tart flavor that's similar to brined capers. This peppercorn is ideal for complementing meat dishes or brightening sauces.

Why You Should Always Use Freshly Ground Pepper

Freshly grinding your pepper helps release strong aromatic oils that flavor food. Pre-ground pepper, on the other hand, tends to lack the flavoring capacity of freshly milled kernels, as the fruit oils dissipate over time once exposed. Instead, invest in a refillable pepper mill to get the most of your peppercorns with each crank.

Additionally, make sure to keep your unused peppercorns in a dry, sealed container until needed. If your recipe calls for a large amount of pepper, you can also use an electric coffee or spice grinder to get the job done in seconds. For a chunky, cracked peppercorn texture, pulse your grinder or use a mortar and pestle instead.

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