Salt: So many splendid reasons to season

At first, the idea of a user's guide to the world's most popular seasoning seemed preposterous. Who doesn't know how to use salt? Use too little and your taste buds will be deeply disappointed; use too much and end up with a desperate need for a glass of water. But the world of salt is not relegated to those fine white crystals in our kitchen cabinets. Salt comes in a rainbow of colors, a scale's worth of sizes and most important, an arsenal of flavors.

Across the board, local culinary minds cook with kosher salt. It dissolves quickly in liquid, comes in large enough granules that chefs can literally feel how much they are adding, and offers a consistent and reasonable price point. Not to mention the extra bite it adds to the rim of a margarita glass. When it comes to finishing a plate, though, sea salt hits its stride. And out of the multitude of artisan salts on the market, St. Louis chefs appear to favor a select few.

Many chefs keep fleur de sel in the kitchen year-round. Traditionally harvested by hand off the coast of France, it is only obtained during the summer months and smells like an ocean breeze at high tide, with a bright aroma of flowers, violets in particular. Incredibly delicate and light, it adds an extra burst to dishes as they come out of the kitchen. Be mindful that fleur de sel's moist crystals stick together and can lead to heavy handedness if not careful. According to Niche executive chef Gerard Craft, these mini rocks work wonders on roasted radishes, raw fish and sliced steak. Nick Miller, executive chef at Harvest Restaurant in Richmond Heights, loves fleur de sel on lamb chops or even just a slice of tomato.

Colored salts from Hawaii are also at home in St. Louis. Black lava salt, formed by blending white salt with pure activated charcoal, has an almost sulfuric aroma and a glossy black sheen. Used as both a finishing salt and a roasting salt, it works particularly well with seafood, vegetables and tropical fruit. Red alaea salt, on the other hand, derives its color from mineral-rich clay that forms between layers of lava. It makes an excellent complement to poached eggs or grilled fish and pork. Joshua Galliano of Monarch Restaurant in Maplewood shows red salt's sweet side by garnishing the top of caramel or shortbread. Although both black lava and red alaea salts bring a nutty, earthy flavor to dishes, Galliano said black lava falls short in visual appeal, an important component to colored salts: "There seems to be a mental block when people see black specks in their food. ... Not exactly enticing to eat."

Australia's Murray River pink flake salt combines a cool aesthetic (peach-colored flakes and crystals) with a compulsive need to adhere to whatever it encounters. (Read: the salt for salads, french fries and frosting the rim of a cocktail glass.) Though the texture is ideal for finishing, the crystals melt quickly and evenly making it work for roasting and baking, as well. For Brian Hale, executive chef at the Chase Park Plaza, Murray River's tangy flavor, larger-than-average granules and slightly higher price make it his salt of choice for high-end meats like venison and prime beef.

For Galliano, however, Maldon sea salt is his go-to artisan salt. Pure, white and simple, this versatile English sea salt complements a couple of scoops of chocolate ice cream just as well as it does any meat or vegetable. A mild salt without a bitter or brassy aftertaste, it creates a textured coating on grilled meats and baked potatoes and leaves a hint of sweetness in its wake.

Choosing and using salt is personal. That's why Grace Dinsmoor at Modesto on The Hill makes her own flavored salts. Toss some applewood chips into a pan and heat. Turn off the stove and add the salt, letting the smoke absorb into it. In the end, she has smoked sea salt. It adds dimension to roast beef and pork, as well as lighter dishes like fish and vegetables, and Dinsmoor's crispy fingerling potatoes.

Dinsmoor also makes paprika and rosemary sea salts for poultry and nutmeg salt for desserts and cocktails. Lay a single layer of sea salt on an ice-cold baking sheet (or else your salt will melt) and dust the salt with your seasoning of choice. Put it in the oven for a minute or two at 350 degrees. (The spice won't sink in at lower temperatures.)

Hale also creates a special salt for his bar: Key lime salt. Zest the fruit and put the zest in a 200-degree oven for several hours until completely dry. Then mix with Murray River salt and dust your dish or drink of choice. And finish a meal with a dessert sprinkled with Galliano's vanilla salt. Gather vanilla beans that have been completely scraped out, chop them into smaller pieces and combine with salt in an airtight container for a week. It's great on salted caramels and dark chocolate mousse.