Things aren’t always what they seem, especially in the culinary world. It’s not until you get more experience (or, if you’re new to cooking, until you take a much closer look at the recipe!) that you see things as they really are…and this can definitely be the case with different types of cooking salts.
Some may find the true nature of different types of salt quite puzzling: like kosher, Himalayan pink, or Maldon types, for example. However, there’s one type of salt that draws confusion more times than not, and that’s fleur de sel.
Is fleur de sel the same as sea salt? Is it a type of sea salt, or is it not a sea salt at all? We’ll take a look at all of this and more.
What is fleur de sel?
Fleur de sel is indeed a type of sea salt, but the similarities to this broader category of salt end right there. A little secret: practically all types of salts could be considered sea salt, even table salts. That’s because all salt originates from the sea, even if it was mined from salt mines! (The ocean deposited it there originally, centuries ago.)
That said, fleur de sel does have a stronger connection to the ocean than even the most common types of sea salts. That’s because it’s directly harvested from the ocean itself in shallow marsh-like “salt pans,” principally located off the northern coasts of France (though the gathering of fleur de sel has spread elsewhere over the years). No other salt is harvested and created using such dexterous or artistic methods, and directly from the sea itself.
What is sea salt?
While fleur de sel could be considered a very definitive sort of salt, sea salt itself is more so a “category” of salt. And what a wide category it is!
Like we said earlier, technically all salts are sea salts. However, salts that are commercially labeled as sea salts (not all of them are) are usually harvested in some way from the sea, though indirectly: whether from salt mines, scraped from the sea bottom, or obtained by boiling sea water until only the salt remains. Even fellow fancy sea salts, like Maldon, aren’t directly harvested from the ocean in the precise same way fleur de sel is. Instead, it is harvested from seawater carried in barges!
Of course, this doesn’t make other types of sea salts any less special. Brands and types like Himalayan pink salt, Oriel salt, or Peruvian Maras salt have amazing flavors and textures, and are specially handcrafted in ways that demand unparalleled talent and finesse. But, despite falling into the “sea salt” category, none of these are more tied to the ocean itself than fleur de sel. Nor are any of them harvested in the original, “traditional” way fleur de sel is, since most other types either require mechanical methods or mining from the earth, and not the sea.
Fleur de sel vs sea salt
Methods of harvesting are the true dividing line between fleur de sel and sea salt. But we can’t forget: any salt’s fame isn’t just owed to where it comes from, or how it is harvested. It’s really all about how the salt tastes, of course!
More than any other type of salt, fleur de sel is at once exquisitely flavorful, demanding of skill to harvest, and quite rare in nature. Some could even say extracting it is an art, and a fast-disappearing one. While mining, boiling, and other methods bring us ordinary sea salts, obtaining fleur de sel is a whole different story, involving very specific weather conditions for it to even be possible.
In French, “fleur de sel” translates to “salt flower” in English. It earned this name for the way the salt “blooms” atop the ocean surface, an occurrence requiring a perfect combination of temperature, calm wind, and sunlight. This fine, fluffy crust of salt is then very, very carefully gathered with only the finest of tools and expertise. However, if any of it even so much as sinks below the water’s surface due to rain, wind, or a mistake in harvesting, it is immediately relegated to a lower quality of salt and can no longer be called fleur de sel.
But this salt is not just beautiful in how it forms. The most fine-tuned of palates (but often times, the less fine-tuned, too!) find the flavor, texture, and nuance of this rarest of sea salts to be absolutely unparalleled to any other type. And this is what truly sets fleur de sel apart from other sea salts: its rarity, incomparable texture, and heavenly, savory complexity!
Using fleur de sel vs sea salt
Fleur de sel is also very distinct from other sea salts in how it is used. For example: while cooking, can you (and should you) replace sea salt with the equivalent amount of fleur de sel? Absolutely not…and many chefs might consider this sacrilege!
For those new to this sublimely salient condiment, fleur de sel is exclusively reserved in the kitchen to be used as a “finishing salt” while cooking. This means only a little is sprinkled on the plate, and only after the cooking is done….not before! Just a couple pinches are needed to finish off a meal with sweet, floral, and salty notes all at once, which you just can’t accomplish with any other salt or seasoning.
Cook with fleur de sel, however, and you end up losing something truly precious. It would be like cooking with a vintage wine: all the artistry and brilliance, lost and untasted! Fleur de sel’s complexity simply cannot and will not be experienced when it is heated and cooked. On the other hand, other types of sea salts may be used either as finishing salts or cooking salts; while fleur de sel, however, will always excel the most as the world’s premier finishing salt, from now until the end of time.
Bottom line: all rivers lead to the sea
No matter what you’re cooking with your fleur de sel (though we really hope you’re cooking with it the right way!), fleur de sel can be and still is termed a “sea salt.” Among the most culinarily inclined and practiced, however, it deserves its very own spotlight and special category all its own, and it shouldn’t be used like most common sea salts at all.
When you get down to the gritty details, though, all culinary salts come from the sea and are technically sea salts. Still, be sure to know how important fleur de sel’s distinction is from the average sea salts you might purchase at the store. Once you have a taste of its unrivaled flavor, you’ll know that fleur de sel is something truly special and must be used in the most perfect way possible: as the supreme finishing salt it was destined to be.