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.    

Salt Crust Fish

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Your mom called.  She said she’d like my SALT book for Mother’s day.  She also wants you to make this for her on Sunday.

This recipe’s roots are in ancient Silk Road extravagance. Probably originating in the Mediterranean salt producing areas, it spread as far as China. You can salt-crust anything, (chicken was an early Chinese variation), but I like fish the best. Typically seen in the magazines with salmon, I use it on whatever fish looks fresh at the market.

Ingredients

1 3-pound whole fish (or the equivalent), such as salmon, trout, snapper, breem, or sea bass (cleaned and scaled)

1 lemon sliced into rounds

1 large bunch fresh thyme

2 large egg whites

5 cups unrefined salt – use something that is not too expensive, as you’ll need a lot. I usually pick up a big bag of coarse Korean Sea Salt from my local Asian market (99 Ranch!)

Good Quality olive oil, for serving

Lemon Wedges, for serving

 

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Wash and dry fish. Open the cavity, fill it with the lemon slices and thyme sprigs, and close it back up and set aside.
  1. In a large bowl whip the egg whites to a light froth (no peaks necessary- just break up the albumen) then fold in salt. The mixture should resemble wet sand. Results may vary with salt type, so add a little water or more salt as necessary.
  1. Pat out the salt in the center of an ovenproof baking platter, about a half-inch thick, and slightly larger than your fish. Place the prepared fish on top, and pack the rest of the salt around and on top, completely sealing in the fish. (Some chefs like to leave the head and tail exposed, but I prefer to sculpt my salt into a fish face.) Place the pan into the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. The internal temperature for fish varies, and is a matter of personal preference. But in general, aim for around 130° F.
  1. Remove the fish from the oven and cool slightly, then present it at the table, where you can crack open the salt crust with a whack of a spoon. The salt comes off easily, exposing a perfectly cooked whole fish, which can then be divided up among your guests. Serve with simple accompaniment of good olive oil and lemon wedges.

Variations

Citrus Fish – Orange, grapefruit, and lime make a nice filling, separately, or together. For a real citrus punch, layer the outside of the fish with citrus slices as well.

Herbs – Thyme is certainly not your only option. Try fresh lavender, cilantro, sage, mint—anything goes. And consider adding a spice blend, or flavorful condiment to the cavity, like za’atar, furikake, curry, harrisa, or pesto.

Gingerbread Houses (and other structures)

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I have confessed my love for gingerbread many times, but I am not sure if you know about my obsession with gingerbread construction. It is problematic at best.

It started when I was a pastry chef, making centerpieces for the restaurants I worked in. Now our projects represent our summer vacation. Guess where we went this year …
mt rushmore
Don’t feel compelled to go crazy like me. (I once did the Taj Mahal.) Simple houses are fine, too.

The best gingerbread for construction is made with cheap but fragrant materials. I use shortening instead of butter because I don’t plan to eat it. But if you use this recipe for edible gingerbread men, substitute butter for the shortening, and cut the spice quantity in half. Here I have added more spice than I would want to eat (for its room-freshening ability).

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 TB. cinnamon
1 TB. ginger
1 tsp. clove
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup water

METHOD

  1. Beat together shortening and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add molasses and mix to incorporate.
  2. Sift together dry ingredients and add them alternately with the water to the molasses mixture .
  3. Divide the dough evenly into thirds, then press each piece between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll with a rolling pin to create an even sheet of dough about 1/4-inch thick. Chill sheets in the fridge or freezer until firm, at least 30 minutes or overnight.
  4. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Place one parchment-packaged sheet of dough on a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top piece of parchment. Cut out the pattern pieces for your structure. To keep them in shape, remove the excess dough around them rather than moving the pieces themselves. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Repeat until you have all the pieces you need. Excess dough can be re-rolled, chilled, and cut as needed.
  5. Bake pieces until slightly puffed and firm, about 15 minutes. Cool completely. Meanwhile, make the Royal Icing ‘glue’.

Royal Icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1-1/2 to 2 lb. powdered sugar, sifted

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to medium peaks. Slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until the icing is thick and holds its shape. (The amount needed will vary with sugar brands, and the moisture content of the egg whites.) Icing can be thinned (if necessary) with a few drops of water.

  1. Assemble the structure on a serving platter or stiff board. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and fill the bag halfway with royal icing. Pipe a fat strip along the wrong side of the vertical edges of the front of the house. The two side pieces are then butted up against these strips of icing and held in place for 30-60 seconds. Re-enforce the inside joint with a bit more icing. Pipe similar strips on the wrong side of the back of the house, and press the back wall up against the two side pieces. Allow to set and harden for at least 1 hour.
  2. Pipe icing along one side of the roof line, and set one roof piece on top. Allow to set 30-60 minutes. Repeat on the other side of the roof. Again, allow to set 30-60 minutes.
  3. Use remaining icing to decorate your house as you see fit. Glue on candies, make icing icicles, pipe architectural features, or leave it simple and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar snow.

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.

figgy

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