The History of Salt

Sitting in every kitchen around the world is salt. A boring, unappreciated mineral to the untrained eye, but to any chef (or home cook) it's the most important ingredient.

Only Salt
February 22, 2021
6 Minutes

Take a second to think about the last time you read a recipe that didn't call for salt... you can't.


Salt is a versatile tool in the kitchen - the swiss army knife of ingredients. Season it on meat and it'll break down tough proteins. Pair it with a dessert for a salty sweet mix. Or finish your dish for a crunchy burst of flavor. There's limitless ways to use salt.


And not only does it improve cooking, salt plays an important role in our health as an essential nutrient. Without salt we wouldn't be able to live. We needs sodium to maintain fluid volume and ensure nerves and muscles work properly. It's also an electrolyte - so next time you're feeling faint, slightly salted water is a natural remedy.

Given salt's importance, it's disheartening to see how little we actually know about it. We've turned our backs on this loyal ingredient that has played a major role in our lives for thousands of years. Most people today haven't taken a second to appreciate everything salt has done for us and get to know it's life story.


What is salt? Where did it come from? What's the history?


The history of salt

To appreciate all that salt has to offer, we need to rewind billions of years.


What even is salt?

Salt is a mineral that comes from the earth. In fact, it's one of the only minerals we eat and use for cooking. It goes by many names - salt, sodium, NaCl, sodium chloride, and then some.


There's hundreds of different varieties of salt around the world. Each variety different due to its environment and mineral content. Persian blue salt has a noticable blue hue from the presence of the mineral sylvinite. While spring salt has a pink, cream hue from its potassium, magnesium, and calcium. No two salts are exactly alike.


Every country on earth has salt production of their own. Most with access to sea water simply evaporate it, while landlocked countries mine it underground or trade.


Where did salt come from?

Billions of years ago, before any life was possible, the earth began to go through drastic changes. Water started forming into the oceans that we know today, bringing with it dissolved minerals from the earth. So much so that the entire planet was covered with this salty, mineral water mix.


Fun fact, if all the water in the ocean dissolved we'd have a 150 foot deep layer of salt covering the entire planet.


Fast forward a few b(m)illion years and some of these oceans remained while others began to dry up. These dried up ancient oceans left massive underground rock salt deposits across the world.


That's right, every grain of salt we eat today is leftover from ancient oceans.


How was salt Harvested?

Fast forward a few million years to when humans began walking the earth. The world contained massive amounts of salt in both the ocean water and underground. This allowed every region of the world to produce their own saltworks (fancy way of saying salt production).


The two ways to produce salt were by evaporating sea water and mining rock salt.


Evaporating Water

Most saltworks went the evaporative route due to its efficiency. Sea water could be diverted into evaporation ponds letting the sun and wind naturally evaporate the water. Or the water could be heated over fire. This meant that any community with access to salt water could produce salt. And since salt was a very valuable commodity back then, saltworks were lucrative and sought after.


China was one of the first adopters of these evaporative saltworks. In 6000 BC, sitting in a dry, arid part of Northern China was Lake Yuncheng. Each year during the summer the lake's salt water would evaporate and leave behind square salt crystals and harvested by locals. A few thousand years later, during the Xia dynasty, ocean water was boiled in clay pots until only salt remained. This method spread from China to the Roman Empire, then around ancient Europe.


Mining Rock Salt

Up until the last few centuries, mining salt underground was the most expensive and dangerous option. Underground salt deposits were a well known fact but past societies lacked the resources and technology to do so. It required moving thousands of tons of earth by hand in hot, dark, humid environments.


As a result, mining salt makes less of an appearance in recorded history than evaporative salts.


In the middle ages around 1200, salt mines began to pop up in Europe. Specifically Germany, Poland, and Austria. Workers laboriously carved through tons of rock only using oil lanterns as light. Massive chunks of rock salt, 500-1500lbs, were carried out of the mine and broken down. Only beginning in the 1800s did mining rock salt become an efficient method.


Societal Uses

Modern society thinks of salt as just a cooking product, but for thousands of years cooking with salt had more important roles.


Food Preservation

Over 10,000 years ago, humans began to discover different uses of salt - some of which vital to our existence. And to put things into perspective, 10,000 years ago we were in an ice age and wooly mammoths were a common sight. That's how long ago we've been using salt.


Around this time humans began to go through cultural and societal shifts. No longer were we independent hunter gatherers, but instead began living in communities. Which presented one major problem - how to feed hundreds of people with limited resources.


It was discovered that salt was a convenient way to preserve meat and other foods. By curing food the shelf life could be extended from a few days to a few weeks. And having a reliable source of food for weeks at a time allowed communities to stay in one place for longer and also grow in size.



Don't be fooled by salt's cheap prices these days. As you're learning now, salt was an extremely valuable good. So much so that societies in the past used salt as currency.


The ancient romans were sometimes paid in salt called a 'salarium.' The word 'salary' today stems from that word. A pound of salt was the equal to 1/12th of a soldier's daily wages. In ancient Rome  and Greece, slaves were also paid for in salt. More recently, during the War of 1812 (between the US and Britain) the US government was so poor soldiers were given salt brine as pay. And during the civil war in 1861 the North attacked the South's saltworks to cripple their supply of salt.



Since salt was always recognized as an essential commodity in the human diet, governments realized a salt tax would be a good source of revenue. The salt tax is or was used in China, India, England, France, and the Roman Empire.


One of the first taxes ever recorded came from China as far back as 300 BC. The Chinese government acquired all saltworks within the region and monopolized the industry. Salt tax revenue was used to fund the building of the Great Wall of China and other projects.  The salt tax in China lasted until 2014.


Most countries used the salt tax to increase the standard of living for its citizens, but there were also some negative side effects. The tax occasionally caused the price of salt to increase so much that poorer citizens were unable to afford it. And the lack of private saltworks also meant that supply was low. Both of these reasons caused many deaths around the world due to salt deprivation. More famously, Mahatma Gandhi led the Salt March in 1930 to protest the deaths that occurred from the salt tax.



There's much more to the history of salt that we've touched on here. So much that many books have been written entirely on it. If you're interested, we always recommend Salt by Mark Kurlansky and Salted by Mark Bitterman. Both give an in depth dive into how salt has transformed the world.


Hopefully after reading this you'll always look at salt with a subtle appreciation.

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