Good cooks know the importance of proper seasoning. But with dozens of salt and pepper varieties available, it can be difficult to know which to choose and how to use them.

Nick Ciotti, sales manager for Vanns Spices and a trained chef, attributes the current salt craze to the popularity of TV cooking shows.

Professional chefs have long preferred kosher or sea salt to standard iodized salt, and savvy home cooks are following their lead.

“If you change just one thing in your kitchen, start with the salt,” TV chef and author Michael Chiarello has said.

Ciotti suggests home cooks have three kinds of salt in the pantry: kosher salt for general purposes, such as seasoning pasta water; a medium-coarse sea salt such as Jurassic; and a flaked sea salt, such as Maldon, for seasoning at the table. There are dozens more kinds of salts available, including smoked and colored varieties. Larger crystals are available for added texture in a dish, and lighter flakes delicately flavor salads and desserts.

Chefs agree it’s important to salt as you cook, rather than just season after the dish is finished. Not only is the flavor better, “I find that I end up using more salt if I season a dish after I cook it,” Ciotti said.

Chef Michael Costa of Pazo restaurant makes his own flavored salts by grinding plain kosher salt in a mortar and pestle with citrus zest or spices like clove or coriander seed. He recommends salting large cuts of meat as soon as they are brought home from the market, rather than just before cooking. The additional time allows the salt to penetrate the meat and develop complex flavors, he said.

Pepper is a seasoning that can enhance many foods but should not be used on everything, Costa said. “Use it sparingly. Don’t always put it in things out of habit,” he said.

Costa prefers Telicherry black peppercorns for their fruitiness, and likes spicy Szechuan peppercorns as well. He grinds pink peppercorns (which are actually dried berries) over fish because they are less hot and more aromatic and fruity than other peppers.
The basic difference among colored peppercorns is age, Ciotti explained. Green peppercorns are immature and have moderate heat, black are middle-aged and have more complex flavor and a little more heat, and white are fully mature, with the most heat and the least complexity.

Ciotti uses Telicherry and green peppercorns in a 3-to-1 mix in his home pepper grinder for just the right balance of heat and flavor.