Last fall over a leisurely brunch at Portland's Urban Farmer, self-proclaimed "selmelier" (yes, as in salt) Mark Bitterman said something that shook me—a pretty adept home cook and restaurant groupie—to my culinary core.
"Kosher salt is a blight," he proclaimed. "I don't know why we use it."
You could've heard the sitcom-style record scratch as my knife fell onto my plate of honey biscuit and chicken leg, likely topped with—you guessed it—kosher salt.
Bitterman's premise against kosher salt is simple: This mass-produced chemical flies directly in the face of the organic ethos we all claim we want to eat and live by. A dedication to thoughtful sourcing and craft has reflected in our meats, vegetables and grains, but not yet our salt. As the selmelier himself so eloquently told me, "People's values are not in alignment with their salt."
When I returned to New York, Bitterman's words continued to weigh on me, interspersed with doubt. After all, the merits of kosher salt are trumpeted by chefs and food writers from coast to coast. Is it really all that bad? And perhaps more importantly, is there a worthy alternative?
Bitterman's problem with kosher salt starts with what it is: a chemical, made by big chemical companies, using chemical processes. "It's shoehorned into a role in the food space," Bitterman said. "We need the chemical sodium chloride, so starting in the mid-1800s, the salt-making universe shifted gears and started to focus on the purest sodium chloride money could buy."
Kosher salt, such as Diamond Crystal (which is made by Cargill's chemical division), clocks in at 99.83 percent sodium chloride. By comparison, naturally occurring salts come out anywhere between 95 and 97 percent pure sodium chloride, and very rarely much more.
The main reason most chefs and home cooks use kosher salt is that it's cheap and readily available. "We have this righteous idea that salt should be just about free," Bitterman said, "and we're not realizing that that's because we're insisting that it be made in the shittiest possible circumstances, and to the shittiest possible standards."
Still, Bitterman doesn't blame chefs for using what's affordable and familiar. "Salt is the most important ingredient that a chef has," he explained. "They have to nail their seasoning every time, so kosher salt is their safest gambit." The bottom line is always looming in a kitchen setting, so most chefs have continued their reliance on kosher salt due to its economic benefits and the consistency it offers.
"There are so many things that need to happen before you replace kosher salt," Amber Lancaster, the executive chef at Sable in Chicago, says. "If kosher salt is doing the thing it's doing at the cost I need it to, I can't say I'd ever think that was a cost worth doing before other things."
"At the end of the day, we have to worry about dollar signs," Patrick Micheels, the executive chef of Monarch Prime & Bar in Omaha, Nebraska, says. "I can't buy 30 pounds of fleur de sel every week and maintain a restaurant. Only a few select people could probably do that." Micheels adds that running a steakhouse means his salt usage is extraordinarily high and that much of the salt he uses ends up brushed away into a sheet pan or dissolved in a brine.
But for Thomas Lents, executive chef at Detroit's Apparatus Room and formerly of Chicago's two-Michelin-starred Sixteen, kosher salt is a love-hate relationship. "Mostly hate," Lents says. "When I was coming up in kitchens as a cook, it was the salt de rigueur. It was everywhere. Everybody uses it." He's since realized it to be the mass-produced crutch that it is, calling it both the "blunt-force instrument of the seasoning world" and "salt for dummies."
Lents has discovered that kosher salt can be more of a detriment in the kitchen in more ways than just the way it's produced. He explains that its coarser grain means it doesn't dissolve as quickly, so you end up aggressively salting a dish before the flavor is evenly dispersed.
So what did Bitterman, our selmelier, propose we use instead? One commonly available option is any French sea salt that's gray, like sel gris or a coarse natural French sea salt. "I point out the French, because not only are they great salt makers, but they've been around the longest in America and most parts of the world," Bitterman explained. "Their standards are beyond the best—and it's a gorgeous place to make salt."
Bitterman knows that the restaurant industry isn't going to change overnight, but he's persistent that more chefs and home cooks will come to see that the benefits of using thoughtfully sourced, artisanal salts, even in large-scale applications, outweigh the negatives.
"If you are what you eat, what you eat is who makes it," he said. "A farmer makes your vegetables, but K+S and Mitsubishi and Cargill make your salt."
Laura Ratliff is Brooklyn-based writer who covers food, travel and design. Her work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest and more. Follow her on Instagram at @smithratliff.