There are more varieties on supermarket shelves than ever before—but you really only need these two.

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In most dishes, the point of salt isn't to make food salty but to make it more like its best self. "Salt brings out flavor. Chicken tastes more delicious and tomatoes taste more like summer tomatoes. Salt also enhances sweetness and reduces bitterness," says Jill Santopietro, a cooking instructor in New York City. Getting the right balance is key: Too little salt and your food will be flat; too much and it will be unpleasantly salty. That's why professional chefs season food throughout cooking, sampling as they go. "Salt, stir, and taste until the dish sings," Santopietro says. "That's what we mean by 'salt to taste.'"

The 2 Types of Salt You Need

While there are many varieties of salt available, most home cooks only need two types of salt on hand: kosher salt, to use while cooking, and a finishing salt, to sprinkle over food just before serving. Ditch the shaker and keep salt in a small bowl (aka saltcellar). Place one next to the stove and one on the table. Don't stress about sharing a tabletop cellar: Salt is an inhospitable environment for bacteria. A shaker passed from person to person is likely to be much germier.

Kosher Salt

The vast majority of professional chefs and cookbook authors prefer kosher salt to table salt. "It has a cleaner flavor than table salt, which is iodized and contains anti-caking agents," Santopietro says. "And kosher is actually less salty." It's also easier to wield with your fingers, thanks to its coarser texture. Just pick up a pinch or two and sprinkle it onto your food. Bear in mind, though, that two popular national brands, Diamond Crystal and Morton, are very different. "Morton is saltier by volume," Santopietro explains. "By using Diamond Crystal, there's less chance you'll oversalt your food." (All of Real Simple's recipes are developed with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If you have Morton at home, start by using half as much as the recipe calls for.)

Finishing Salt

To upgrade your cooking with practically zero effort, try adding a little flaky sea salt to food just before eating. Pick up a few flakes with your fingers and crumble them over your dish for a pop of flavor and a subtle crunch. Maldon, from southeastern England, is a classic and relatively affordable choice. Other popular options include pink Himalayan salt and French fleur de sel. Just remember that these finishing salts should be used, as the name suggests, at the end of cooking. Measuring out a teaspoon of the pink stuff for a pasta recipe would be a waste of money.

"Salt is indispensable in baking," says Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery in Boston and author of Pastry Love. "It brings out the aroma and floral nature of vanilla, it enhances chocolate so it's richer and more chocolatey, and it makes lemon pastries brighter." She uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt in her recipes, but you'll also see flaky sea salt atop many a cookie and brownie. "It adds a little crunch and a hit of salt without coming off as salty," Chang says. "It should make you think, 'Wow! I can't wait to take another bite.'"

Don't Be Afraid to Use Salt in Your Cooking

Americans tend to consume too much sodium, but if you eat mostly homemade meals, "you're likely only getting a fraction of what you'd get from packaged food or takeout," says Lauren Slayton, RD, host of the podcast Foodtrainers. And of course, when cooking at home, you have the flexibility to add less salt, if you prefer. Also, using a bit of salt can help people eat more vegetables: "Since it mellows bitterness, salt can make broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts more appealing," Slayton says. She even adds a pinch to her morning coffee (instead of sugar) to tame its bitter bite.