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Salt is Not a Spice

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Question:

Alton Brown made a comment on Good Cooking (I think) that “salt is not a spice,” which is something I learned in Home-Ec class in the 1950s. Yesterday I was in a trivia game where the question was: “What is the most popular spice used worldwide in cooking?” I answered “pepper” and was told it was wrong!!

I argued that salt is technically a mineral; check the periodic table. Spices are organic and provide aroma and taste to cooking and they have healthful benefits. Salt may enhance other flavors during cooking or food preparation, but salt can also be harmful to the body as opposed to cooking spices, which are generally sparse in usage by comparison. Salt is in nearly everything we put in our mouth except distilled water.

Can you back this answer up that salt is NOT a spice, except as used in the common context of the usage, since the container is usually kept with the spices as part of the food preparation process? Salt and pepper shakers are considered a “pair” of spices normally found on any food table or restaurant, but only in the context of language usage, not the technical properties of each. I contend that spice is organic; salt is mineral and people should LEARN this!!

Any information you can offer will be appreciated. Note: I still won the trivia contest, but missed that one question.

—Carol

Answer:

First, congratulations on winning the trivia contest, and on your overall knowledge. We’ll back you –
salt may be the most popular seasoning in the world, but it is not a spice.

You are correct that a spice is organic. Specifically, spices are ‘bits of dry seed, bark and root,’ according to Harold McGee, whose authoritative book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is regarded by chefs as the bible for understanding the science of food as well as the history of many ingredients.

Pepper is a spice – black pepper is actually the small dried fruits and seeds of a tropical vine. Similarly, cinnamon is a spice made from the inner bark of trees indigenous to Asia. Spices are different than herbs, another organic plant-based flavoring. Herbs are fresh or dried plant leaves.

You are correct that salt is a mineral. In fact, it is the only rock we eat. Salt is a remarkable ingredient that has had a tremendous impact on human history. Just look at the numerous words that begin with the Latin root ‘sal’ – such as salivate or salary – or such phrases as, ‘worth his weight in salt’ or ‘the salt of the earth.’

If you would like to learn more about salt’s fascinating history, check out Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History. And when you’re finished with the book, send it to the company that wrote the trivia question.