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.
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.
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.
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.