Imagine an artisanal Viking gourmet salt made from Danish seawater slowly simmered in an old-fashioned cooking vessel over an open fire of juniper, oak, cherry, elm and beech woods. How might such a salt taste on wild salmon or a mozzarella tomato salad?

Welcome to the world of gourmet salts, a culinary rage that covers the gamut, from artisanal handcrafted sea salts to salts from exotic locations, and infused salts. You don't have to look hard to find specialty gourmet salts; they're in supermarkets, gourmet food shops and in prepared foods with increasing frequency. It's natural for us to desire good salt; dating back to antiquity, humans valued salt so highly that they even fought over it and used it as currency.

What's so special about specialty salts? It's all about the flavor, color and texture.

Gourmet Salt Flavor

Gourmet salts derive their flavor from many origins. For example, smoked salts gain their woodsy flavor from the smoking process, which is then imparted to foods. Sea salt blends combine aromatic spices and herbs, such as chili, truffles, saffron, seaweed, herbs, dried mushrooms and hibiscus, into sea salt to season food during cooking and at the table.

Gourmet Salt Color

Sea salts come in vibrant shades that can add drama to foods. Hawaiian red alaea sea salt is derived from volcanic red clay sediments in the sea, and Cyprus Black sea salt flakes -- a sea salt that is actually black in color -- creates a stunning visual contrast with foods (some chefs combine it with white sea salt to make "zebra salt".)

Gourmet Salt Texture

In the end, it's more about texture. Specialty salts come in fine, coarse, hollow, solid, pyramid, flake, and spherical textures. For example, hand-harvested South African sea salt flakes from the shores of St. Helena Bay come in a crystalline shape that shimmers like diamonds. Specialty salts are at their best when added to the outer surface of foods, rather than mixed into a liquid that absorbs its texture. If you dust a freshly grilled fish fillet with sea salt, you will bite into crystals of flavor.

Of course, the artisanal qualities of specialty salts are a big sell, as well. Consider the story of Peruvian pink salt: This salt comes from an ancient ocean that is trapped underground and bubbles up into a spring 10,000 feet high in the Andes Mountains. The spring's water drips into terraced ponds in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and families hand-harvest the salt, transporting it on burros, following a 2,000 year-old tradition. Who can resist a story like that?

What about health?

It's easy to think handcrafted salt is "healthier" than ordinary table salt, but the truth is, it's all sodium chloride. Some sea salts may contain small amounts of trace minerals, but they may not contain iodine, an essential nutrient added to table salt. And some health experts are concerned that the public's newfound love for specialty salt may further increase our already high sodium intake.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans urges healthy people to limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, the amount found in one teaspoon of salt. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stresses that most of our sodium intake comes from salt added by food manufacturers (about 75 percent), as well as salty restaurant foods. On average, salt added at the table accounts for only about 10 to 15 percent of our total salt intake. In the end, your sodium intake might be lower if you're cooking fresh, whole foods and reserve your seasoning for a pinch of gourmet salt at the table.

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