Plus, find out if it's interchangeable with table or kosher salt.

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For years the salt that was used to season foods in American kitchens and dining rooms was simple and recognizable. There was one choice generally for sale on the shelves of the supermarket: iodized salt, also known as table salt. It's only in the last 20 years or so that the choice of salt (sodium chloride, in science speak) has expanded beyond that single option sold in cardboard canisters. These days kosher salt, coarse salt, sea salt, fine sea salt, flaky sea salt, smoked sea salt, fleur de sel, pink Himalyan salt, and more are all readily available. The sheer number of salt options has grown right along with consumer confusion about which type to use, how much of it, and at what point in the recipe. Here, we're explaining what sea salt is and when it should be used.

Unless the choice is specifically stated, table salt or coarse salt (including kosher) work fine in most recipes. (Our food editors use kosher salt when they develop recipes for Martha Stewart Living.) Table salt and kosher salt are both products of salt mines, and the biggest difference between them is the size of the crystal. Table salt is made up of tiny crystals, with an anti-caking agent added to keep it from clumping in the canister (and sometimes a few grains of rice added to a shaker for the same reason). Kosher salt crystals are larger, and less prone to caking, so it's sold without any additives. Because both iodized and kosher salts are processed in factories, they are generally inexpensive.

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Other varieties, including sea salt, are categorized as finishing salts, meaning they're put to best use after the food is prepared, as the final seasoning just before it's served. French fleur de sel (which means "flower of salt") ($9.50, amazon.com) and England's famous Maldon salt ($8.44, amazon.com) are two commonly available sea salts. As you might guess, sea salt is harvested from the ocean, often by hand. The crystals are what's left behind after the moisture has evaporated from the water. The harvesting process is more time consuming than salt mining, which makes sea salt more expensive than table and kosher salts.

Because of the expense, sea salt is best used judiciously, reserved for applications where its inimitable flavor can shine. But beyond that, it's the taste that makes it worth savoring. You'll really want to experience it in full, and adding it any earlier in the process of cooking can compromise that. Also, since most professional recipes are developed with table or coarse salt, the results will be different if you substitute sea salt. (This is especially true for Maldon, which is prized for the size and shape of its flakes, none of which fit into a teaspoon measure the way that factory-produced salts do.)

So, if you happen to find yourself with a tin or jar of true sea salt, don't be tempted to use it in just any old recipe. Make the most of its inherent qualities by waiting until the finish. Even if a pasta recipe advises you to salt the boiling water until it is "as salty as the sea," you're better off using coarse or kosher salt, lest you waste a grain of carefully harvested and hand-raked sea salt.

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