November 12th, 2013
12:30 AM ET
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Editor's Note: America's Test Kitchen is a real 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston that is home to more than three dozen full-time cooks and product testers. Our mission is simple: to develop the absolute best recipes for all of your favorite foods. To do this, we test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes as many as 70 times, until we arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most-foolproof recipe. America’s Test Kitchen's online cooking school is based on nearly 20 years of test kitchen work in our own facility, on the recipes created for Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and on our two public television cooking shows.

What one line do you find in nearly every savory recipe? “Season with salt and pepper.”

But not all salts and peppers are created equal. Here are 12 we like to cook with.

Sea Salt
Most sea salt comes from seawater held in large, shallow ponds or large pans. As the water evaporates—naturally or by heating—coarse salt crystals fall to the bottom. The crystals are then collected by raking. We sprinkle sea salt on salad, meat, and cooked vegetables just before serving so that it maintains its satisfying crunch. Our favorite, Maldon Sea Salt, has especially delicate, crunchy flakes.

Pink Curing Salt
Commonly labeled pink salt, curing salt also answers to DQ Curing Salt and Insta Cure #1. This rose-colored salt contains sodium nitrite, which is a compound that inhibits bacterial growth, boosts meaty flavor, and preserves the color of fully cured bacon. Find curing salt in specialty food stores or order it online. We use it in our recipe for DIY Bacon.

Table Salt
Its small crystals and quickness at dissolving make table salt our go-to in most recipes. Calcium silicate, an anticaking agent, makes it fast-flowing. Iodine was added to this salt beginning in 1924 to prevent thyroid-related diseases; most table salt today is iodized. We use table salt to season, to make brines, and to preserve bright color when we’re blanching green vegetables.

Black Peppercorns
Whatever the variety, all peppercorns are defined by the heat-bearing compound piperine. Freshly ground pepper adds distinctive flavor and heat to many dishes and plays a starring role in our recipe for Steak Tips au Poivre. For cracked pepper, gently crush peppercorns with the bottom of a heavy pan while using a rocking motion.

Kosher Salt
This coarse salt’s large crystal size makes it easy to pick up with your fingers and distribute evenly on food; we often use it to season large cuts of meat. To convert table salt into kosher salt in recipes, you need a greater volume of the big crystals. The amounts are inconsistent from brand to brand: Increase the salt by 50% for Morton Coarse Kosher Salt (say from 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons) and by 100% for Diamond Crystal (from 1 to 2 teaspoons).

Pink Peppercorns
This rose-hued pepper isn’t a peppercorn at all: It’s actually a berry from a tropical evergreen. In the 1980s, nouvelle cuisine made the pink peppercorn a star. Like true peppercorns, it has a savory heat but its “light, fruity flavor,” as well as its pretty color make it an excellent addition to soft cheeses, salads, and popcorn. It’s often sold as part of a mixed peppercorn medley.

Green Peppercorns
Green peppercorns, which resemble capers, are simply unripe black peppercorns and are usually soft (so put down that pepper mill). They are sold packed in brine or vinegar, so rinse them before using. Use them crushed or whole in light sauces or salads in which their “piney,” “citrus-like,” “juniper” flavors can shine.

White Peppercorns
White peppercorns are fully ripe black peppercorns; the black outer husk is removed and the berries are dried. They lose much of their heat in this process but have a sharpness and a pronounced citrus flavor (“floral,” “potpourri,” and “licorice,” tasters noted). Many chefs like the way that these peppercorns blend into white sauces, while Asian cooks use them in stir-fries and to flavor hot-and-sour soup.

Pickling Salt
Made without anticaking agents, iodine, or other additives, pickling salt (also called canning salt) is prized for its purity as a brine maker—in fact, it’s basically finely milled kosher salt. When mixed into a pickling brine, the crystals contribute to the flavor of the pickles without turning the brine cloudy or dark, as iodized salt will. You can find pickling salt at the grocery store or any hardware store that sells canning supplies.

Flavored Salt
These spice cabinet staples range from stalwarts like Lawry’s Seasoned Salt (a blend of salt, sugar, spices, and other ingredients) to celery salt, onion salt, and garlic salt. While many seasoned salts merely combine granulated spice powders with salt and an anticaking agent, some flavored salt blends add monosodium glutamate for deeper flavor.

Rock Salt
These large, chunky crystals are too big to dissolve easily in cooked dishes, but they’re used around the kitchen for a number of odd jobs. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, so a rock salt and water solution will quickly chill a bottle of wine. Or mix rock salt with ice and you’re on your way to chilling homemade ice cream. The crystals also make a suitable bed for shellfish dishes like clams casino. Buy food-grade rock salt, not the sort used to melt ice on roadways.

Sichuan Peppercorns
Until recently, Sichuan peppercorns were banned from the United States; the shrub that bears them was thought to carry a disease that could harm citrus crops. These peppercorns are a staple in Sichuan recipes, such as ma pao tofu. They have an intense flavor that “hits you in the nose,” but they are even better known for their numbing effect. Said one taster: “Musky and woodsy, and then my tongue went numb.” Find them in Asian markets and large grocery stores.

More from America's Test Kitchen:
The French Press Coffee Maker the Test Kitchen Highly Recommends
So You Think You Know How to Frost a Cake?
Rise and Shine! Ham and Gruyère Breakfast Sandwiches

Previously:
National update your parents' spice rack month



soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Ann

    Try truffle salt on your popcorn ... YUM.

    November 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  2. RC

    I picked up some smoked Hawaiin sea salt. Thought I'd give it a try. Now I use it on most everything.

    November 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  3. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCadcBR95oU&w=640&h=390]

    November 12, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  4. shawn l

    Salt is salt. The only difference is the size of the crystals.

    November 12, 2013 at 3:56 am |
    • Jack Mehoff's Arcasm

      Aww. tl:dr, honey? Maybe you should try the Googling "easy read" to find articles that are shorter and easier to understand.

      November 12, 2013 at 6:47 am |
      • shawn l

        Just because you are a trendy douchebag that thinks pink salt from the himalayan mountains is somehow special, does not make it so.

        November 13, 2013 at 9:33 am |
      • shawn l

        Just because you are a trendy d-bag that thinks pink salt from the himalayan mountains is somehow special, does not make it so.

        November 13, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • Dr. Phil

      Even better, just confine yourself to the "Distraction" section of CNN.Com...You will find cutesy animal videos. You can point, and laugh and find yourself occupied until Mommy comes out with your lunch.

      November 12, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
      • shawn l

        salt is salt. NaCl. The trendy salts that they charge an arm and a leg for are just that, trendy.

        November 13, 2013 at 9:35 am |
      • Ann

        Hey, I love cutesy animal videos! I also love pink Hawaiian salt.

        November 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mush Head

      Learn to Read or you'll just look like an idiot online... oh wait.

      November 12, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • Ann

      NaCl is NaCl. True. However, different salts have other ingredients in them. Those other ingredients affect the color and taste. If you're happy with the regular stuff in the round blue container, fine, but it's not the same thing.

      November 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
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