Diamond Crystal kosher salt, long a darling of restaurant kitchens, is having a moment

On a recent Friday morning, cookbook author Molly Baz put the finishing touch on a new recipe for shingled tomato toast with sesame mayo. Reaching into a wooden salt cellar, she grabbed a three-finger pinch of salt and showered her dish.

Not just any salt – Diamond Crystal kosher salt.

“It’s just the only way,” Baz said. “It’s probably the most-used salt in all professional kitchens.”

In FX’s “The Bear,” brick-red boxes of Diamond Crystal are visible throughout the restaurant’s kitchen. Sydney, the chef de cuisine, instructs a chef de partie to salt T-bone steaks “like a sidewalk” with it.

Ina Garten has called the salt “perfect.” It’s used in recipe testing at America’s Test Kitchen and Bon Appétit. When rumors swirled in 2019 that the salt would be discontinued, Francis Lam, the editor-in-chief of cookbook publisher Clarkson Potter, bought 10 boxes.

Yet, it’s never been easy for home cooks to get their hands on a box. Weighing 3 pounds and standing 9 inches tall, the large box was designed for the demands of restaurants, not home kitchens. It doesn’t fit nicely on a supermarket shelf because it was never meant to be sold there, and so it’s often out of reach on the top shelf or stuffed on the bottom. Availability has been fickle.

After decades focused on supplying the food service industry, Diamond Crystal has decided to pass the salt to home cooks by giving the heritage brand founded in 1886 a glow-up. A redesigned box began replacing the old design quietly last fall. And in June, Diamond Crystal, with its more modern packaging, hit shelves at national retailers like Trader Joe’s for the first time, to great fervor.

Before 2020, the salt had modest retail distribution, mostly in the Northeast, said Sonya Roberts, the president of salt business at Cargill, the agribusiness conglomerate that owns Diamond Crystal. But when restaurants closed during the pandemic, demand grew. “The Amazon numbers of the big red box were off the charts,” she said.

Rachita Vasan, an advertising strategist in Portland thrived on takeout until the pandemic nudged her into the kitchen. She started following food writers on social media and soon got the message: “Don’t use table salt.” Vasan, 29, started buying Diamond Crystal.

The hollow, lightweight crystals produced by the company’s proprietary method are brittle and crushable, making it an ideal salt for seasoning to taste because it quickly dissolves in food.

Recipe developers favor Diamond Crystal over its main competitor, Morton coarse kosher salt, which is denser and nearly twice as salty. (This is the reason some recipes specify using Diamond Crystal; the two brands are not interchangeable.) But when it comes to salt, most people think of umbrellas, not diamonds. More than 90% of kosher salt buyers choose Morton, according to market research by Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

To help change that, Cargill, a 160-year-old Midwestern company, recruited Enlisted Design, a 15-year-old design firm in Oakland, California.

In a presentation, Enlisted Design represented Diamond Crystal’s new target demographic – “the aspiring home chef” – with two avatars: “the academic” (a dude with a goatee) and “the entertainer” (a gal with an Afro and septum piercing). “The traditionalist” (a grandma in an apron) is a secondary target.

In a list of negative qualities, Enlisted Design said the old box looked outdated and noted that “affordability stirs questions about quality.”

“It’s the bulk and commodity mentality that drove this design, right?” said Miri Chan, Enlisted Design’s vice president of branding and visual design. “It’s very industrial looking.”

When the agency presented a new 1-pound package in variously shaped tins and boxes to 1,600 survey participants, they indicated they would pay $5 to $7 for it.

This effectively moves the commodity salt – which became known as koshering salt because it was used in generous portions to prepare meat in accordance with Jewish dietary law – to a premium price point reserved for finishing salts that are meant to be used in small quantities, such as Maldon sea salt flakes.

According to Enlisted Design’s case study, Cargill aims to increase the annual revenue from Diamond Crystal from $3 million to $50 million.

With crisp tomato-red borders and lettering with sharp serifs, the redesigned box now comes in three sizes: 3 pounds, 26 ounces and 1 pound, which has a window on the side so that new customers can see the product.

Sandra Krasovec, a packaging design professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, applauded the removal of heavy colors and outdated typography from the Diamond Crystal box, and its alignment with current packaging design trends: “calmer colors, geometric patterns, simplicity, minimalism.”

The new box is labeled Diamond Crystal Salt Co., although the word “kosher” remains prominent in the design. “People are still looking for it,” Chan said.

Executives at Cargill said consumers are often confused by what “kosher” means – whether it refers to the type of salt, or if it’s a religious distinction. (For Diamond Crystal, it’s both.) The redesign emphasizes the grain type and texture, rather than its religious uses; the updated box also describes the salt as “flakes,” a word used on the Maldon box. A Star of David, which has appeared in different forms on the box over time, is not on the new version. In a presentation to Cargill, Enlisted Design suggested that religious cues can limit “consumer range.”

“Personally, I don’t care what kind of box it comes in, as long as everyone cooking the food I eat knows how to find it,” said Alana Newhouse, the author of “The 100 Most Jewish Foods.

While the makeover has landed Diamond Crystal national distribution at retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, the salt inside the boxes is unchanged. The 3-pound box is $12.99 on Amazon (compared with $8 five years ago), $8.99 at Trader Joe’s, $10.29 at Whole Foods and $6.99 (before shipping) at online restaurant supplier WebstaurantStore.

“Seeing the redesigned Diamond box in the supermarket was like running into an old friend who had too much work done. ‘Is that you?’” said Carla Lalli Music, a cookbook author.

The new look threw off Vasan, the advertising strategist. She saw the salt in Trader Joe’s and thought, “This is probably wrong,” she said.

She went elsewhere to search for “the regular one.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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