SALT OF THE EARTH A brief guide to the rainbow spectrum of salts around the world

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While it is certainly true that there is not much in the world of food that has been left undiscovered, there is plenty that can be rediscovered. Case in point: salt.   

I fell in love with salt on a family trip to Austria, where we visited the Salt Mine Berchtesgaden. There, we rode a tiny train into a mountain, slid down a banister (used by old-time miners before elevators were invented) and sailed on an internal mountain lake. It was super fun and sparked a new passion in me for this ubiquitous, but often overlooked, ingredient. 

The first thing I learned on my new quest for salty knowledge is that all salt is sea salt.  Some is collected from existing salt water, and some is mined from salt deposits left behind from ancient seas. Tall mountain ranges, desert salt flats and underground caverns can all contain these deposits, and they all carry unique characteristics. The age of the deposit, the compression, the surrounding mineral components, local flora and fauna and the method used to extract it all determine the salt’s flavor and texture.  

Most food enthusiasts are familiar with fleur de sel — the famous French sea salt. But there are hundreds of other salts from around the world, and they are all just as interesting, if not more so. But what do you do with these interesting salts? Lucky for you, I spent a few years answering that question. As a result, coming soon to a bookstore near you is Salt: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen (St. Martin’s Griffin; available now for presale, and in stores this September). It is an exhaustive, encyclopedic reference book on the world’s artisan salts, with history, recipes and a salt tasting.  

Yes, you heard right — a salt tasting.

All salts are not the same. They each have unique qualities that enhance foods differently. Though usually cheap in their country of origin, artisan salts in artfully designed packaging can cost a pretty penny here. (Which is why I don’t suggest using fancy salt in your pasta water.) Instead, feature them as an essential flavor element, or finish a dish with a few exceptional grains. To figure this out, a salt tasting allows you to compare a few artisan salts side by side on simple foods that act as a neutral palate.  

The first step is to invite some friends over. Then, prepare some simple foods — sliced cucumbers, radishes, grilled steak, a baguette smeared with butter or a hunk of chocolate. Offer enough of these foods so that each guest can try each salt and compare its effects. You can even prepare a score sheet, so your guests can keep track of their preferences.

Of course, you will also need to choose the salts you want to feature. You can find a number of salts at most gourmet grocers, or you can shop online. (Try themeadow.com, or my favorite, kalustyans.com.) Start with just a few easy-to-find salts. (Take it from me — it’s easy to get carried away.) Some good starter salts might include:   

Fleur de Sel de Guerande

This is the French flower of the sea collected off the coast of Brittany. Seawater is channeled from the Atlantic Ocean, via canals, into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand. Because the aquatic environment varies from year to year, the salt does too. It is certainly the best known of the artisan salts. The same methods are used all over the world, with similar wooden tools, and just as much reverence and tradition. 

Maldon

Salt has been made in Essex, England, for thousands of years. We know this because archeologists have identified historic salt-making sites. Red mounds of earth (a.k.a. the red hills of Essex) were formed by layers of debris that included red clay vessels used in Iron Age salt production. The Maldon Crystal Salt Company, established in the late 1800s, is the only producer in the area now. Situated at the head of the Blackwater Estuary, the company gathers water only during salty spring tides. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce the wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. 

Cyprus Sea Salt

Thanks to its two salt lakes, the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages, when it was harvested from lakebeds in the dry summer months. Today, seawater is pumped into an industrial facility, where it’s gradually heated for two years, using solar evaporation to create the trademark pyramidal crystals.  

Black Diamond

This is a black version of Cyprus pyramid salt. It is infused with charcoal and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Large black pyramidal crystals are very crunchy, yet dissolve quickly. The flavor is milder than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. 

Himalayan Pink

This salt, from the mountains of Northern Pakistan, is a mined marine fossil salt. Estimated to be over 250 million years old, it formed naturally in an ancient sea, which was trapped and buried by shifting tectonic plates, gradually dehydrating into deep deposits. The modern mine tunnels a half-mile into the mountain range and spans more than 40 square miles. Because it has been buried for so long, it is considered some of the purest salt on earth. The color ranges from white to deep pink and comes in various textures and forms, including blocks, which are fun to use as serving plates. You can also heat them and cook on them, which is perfect when your dinner party needs a theatrical element.  

After you have tried these common artisan salts, you can graduate to some of the more obscure varieties, like blue Persian, black kamal namak, red Hawaiian alaea, smoked salt, one of the many Japanese shios, exotic bamboo salt, Incan sun salt or any of the hundreds of salts from hundreds of locations around the world. (I am currently enamored with Australian Murray River salt.) If there is, or ever was, a shoreline someplace, there is probably some artisan salt to be had. If you’re lucky, you will become similarly obsessed, and your cooking will jump to a new creative level.    

A Quick Primer on Buying and Using Fancy Salt

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All salts are not created equal, and given the sudden popularity of “artisanal” salts (which you can now find even at Safeway), home cooks are catching on. But what kind of fancy salt should you buy, and when should you use it?

Here are the basics:

All salt comes from the sea—either from our modern, liquid seas or ancient seas long ago evaporated and buried by tectonic plate shifts. The salt generally label sea salt has been evaporated slowly, either in shallow pools along sunny coastlines, or over a heat source, ranging from wood fires to thermal hot springs. Sea salt is light and fluffy in its unrefined state, and comes in a variety of crystal shapes, sizes, and colors. The flavor and texture vary depending on the local marine flora and fauna, shore or pool mineral contents, and the method of evaporation.

Rock salt, mountain salt, marine fossil salt, and salt block are all terms for inland mined salt. Buried in mountains under enormous pressure for millennia, rock salt is harder and often saltier than sea salt. Its color is determined by age, pressure, adjoining minerals, and method of extraction. It comes in large blocks that can be used to serve on or cook on, as well as in varying degrees of grind.

My suggestion (and the thing I subject all guests in my home to) is a salt tasting. Buy 2 or 3 different salts, and try them side by side on a neutral food, like a cucumber slice, or bread and (unsalted) butter. You will be astonished at the complexity of each. If you find that exciting, graduate to a full-on salt-tasting party. Offer several different salts, and offer lots of salt-friendly foods—plain grilled steak, melon, boiled new potatoes, mild cheese, dark chocolate, vanilla ice cream. (Don’t forget big pitchers of water!). You can even provide your guests with a score sheet to record their thoughts and preferences. (I have provided an example for this in my book!)

Any fancy salt you come across is ripe for a tasting, but here is my favorite tasting assortment:

Black Diamond Sea Salt, Cyprus

The Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages. Salt was harvested from the lakebeds that dried up in the summer. After World War II the island became a hub for travel between the Middle East and Europe, and an airport long-term parking lot replaced much of the lakebed. Today, seawater is pumped into industrial facilities that use the sun to gradually evaporate the water over a 2-year period, creating the trademark pyramidal crystals. This black version is infused with charcoal, and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Black Diamond’s huge crystals are very crunchy, but dissolve quickly. The flavor is more mild than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. Try it on vanilla ice cream, or better yet, forego the cherry and sprinkle it over your whipped-cream-topped sundae.

Murray River Salt, Australia

This salt comes from an underground briny spring in New South Wales. Water flows down from the Australian Alps into the Murray-Darling Basin, where low rainfall and high heat combine to concentrate the groundwater into an underground brine. The salt water is pumped and channeled into solar evaporation pools where it sits throughout the summer. It has an apricot color that comes from a specific carotene-rich, salt-tolerant river algea. It is extremely light and fluffy, and dissolves fast, but it still has a nice crunch. I love it as a finishing salt on simple vegetables and salads.

Arabian Fleur de Sel, Pakistan

Harvested from the Arabian Seas (not by Arabian Salt makers), it is named fleur de sel because it is made using the same method as the more famous French fleur de sel. Seawater is channeled from the sea into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand with traditional wooden tools. But unlike the French version, this salt more closely resembles Bali pyramid salt. In the hot, windy desert the water evaporates quick to form large pyramid crystals that are crunchy, but light. It is my preferred salt for avocado toast.

Maldon, Essex, England

Salt was made in Essex well before the Romans arrived in 300 BC. We know this because archeologists have identified the historic Red Hills of Essex, which contain red clay vessels used to evaporate seawater during the Iron Age. The Maldon Company was established in the late 1800’s at the head of the Blackwater Estuary. Water is gathered during spring tides, when low rainfall means high salinity. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. It compliments everything, and is beautiful to boot. I love it best on a well-grilled, very rare New York Strip.

Sal de Maras, Peru

This pink hued salt has been extracted from underground saline springs of the Andes since the time of the Incas. The spring is nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, between Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Water trickles thru channels into thousands of terraced pools. (I highly recommend a Google image search—it is impressive.) Because the site is far away from civilization, there is little pollution, adding to the purity of this salt. It is also sometimes called Peruvian Pink and Incan Sun Salt. Try it on roasted or fried potatoes.

 

 

 

 

Salted Figs with Chocolate and Almond

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For such a basic element of food and cooking, I am always surprised how overlooked salt is. Easily the most important addition to any pantry, salt not only flavors food, but also plays a vital role in human existence by regulating the water content in the body. Perhaps the most important salty contribution is its ability to preserve food. It made mankind less dependent on the seasonal availability of food, which led to us wandering from our homes for extended periods of time. Without salt, early civilizations would not have traveled the globe and discovered one another.

Salt can be harvested from sea water or rock deposits left from ancient seas. From the ocean, salt water is dried by the sun in shallow pools. Mined salt (halite), also known as rock salt, grows in isometric crystals and is very hard.

Several types of edible salt are commonly available. Table salt is usually iodized. Potassium iodide is added as a dietary supplement to preventing iodine deficiency, a major cause of goiter and cretinism. Most table salt also has a water-absorbing additive to keep it from clumping, and some countries add fluoride as well.

Many chefs prefer kosher salt, which gets its name from its use in the koshering process of meats. Koshering requires that all fluids be extracted from an animal before it is consumed. The larger crystals dissolve more slowly, extracting more fluids from the meat. Kosher salt has no additives, which gives it a cleaner, less-metallic taste.

Fleur de sel is natural sea salt, hand harvested and gourmet priced. It usually comes from specific locations around the globe, but the most famous (and the first to be hip) comes from the coast of Brittany in France. Each location produces distinct flavors due to the area’s naturally occurring vegetation and minerals. Sea salt removed from the top layer of water is pale and delicate in flavor, while gray sea salt, which is allowed sink and mix with the ocean water, is more robust in flavor.

You can also find black salt, gray salt, pink salt, smoked salt, marsh salt, and even moon salt (harvested at night, not from the moon). You can spend quite a lot of money on salt, but beware: once it’s mixed into foods, the unique character of these specialty salts is easily lost. Reserve their use for recipes that will get it noticed.

Salted Figs with Chocolate and Almonds
This dish makes an exquisite after dinner sweet. Serve it with strong coffee or a glass of port.

INGREDIENTS

2 TB. almonds, toasted and ground
1 (8-oz.) bittersweet chocolate bar, chopped or grated into fine chunks
16 dried black mission figs
2 tsp. fleur de sel or other coarse sea salt

METHOD

  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
  2.  In a small bowl mix together almonds and chocolate.
  3.  Insert your thumb into the bottom of each fig (opposite the stem end) making a pocket. Stuff each fig pocket with almond-chocolate mixture, and set stuffed figs on a baking sheet. Bake at for 10 minutes or until warmed through.
  4.  Place warm figs on a serving platter, sprinkle each with a pinch of salt, and serve immediately.

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