While perusing a list of the 50 most important kitchen inventions of all time, I was surprised to see fire come in at second place. The crucial discovery in the history of food preparation was actually salt.
It makes sense—long before food was baked, grilled or roasted, it was preserved with salt. For thousands of years, sea salt was the condiment of choice. Made by the evaporation of sea water, it was produced accidentally at first and later became a thriving industry in most Mediterranean countries.
In the modern food culture, few items seem hipper than sea salt. In addition to its perceived superiority of taste, many believe it’s better for us than mineral salt, which is mined and sometimes highly processed. The French fleur de sel, which is hand harvested by trained artisans, is both expensive and prized by gourmets.
Unfortunately, it’s no healthier than Morton’s, even though a recent study suggests that 61% of Americans believe it is. According to Dr. Katherine Zeratsky of the Mayo Clinic, evaporated sea water may taste better but both types of salt have the same nutritional content and sodium level. Dr. Zeratsky recommends a daily sodium intake between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams, which can be very hard to do. At Burger King, a Whopper with Cheese has 1410 mg, and an Original Chicken Sandwich has 1390. A Big Mac at McDonald’s comes in at 1040 mg, while an Angus Bacon and Cheese contains a staggering 2070 mg. I did an informal survey of canned items in my cupboard, and all of them (including those “healthy” soups) contained close to 1000 mg.
Many of us claim to be avoiding fast food these days, although McDonald’s seems to be doing just fine. Certainly the trend is toward freshly prepared foods, where it’s more possible to control our sodium intake; in the absence of fresh meat or fish, sodium-conscious shoppers can buy items with no salt added or rinse canned foods with water. Eliminating excess sodium from your diet allows you to indulge in one of life’s great pleasures—sprinkling a dish with some fleur de sel immediately before eating.