Techniques

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

salt-spoons

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.    

Print this technique

click on a technique below

Frozen Fruit

Frozen Puff Pastry

Cleaning Chicken Livers

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

A Quick Primer on Buying and Using Fancy Salt

Sriracha Salt

Ash Infused Salt

Beef Cuts: Brisket

Stock: The Foundation of Cuisine

Whole Spices

Yeast Bread Techniques

Using Cardamom

Turmeric

Top 5 Thanksgiving Tips

The Crimped Edge

The Black-Eyed Pea

Super Sprouts

Sundried Tomatoes

Simple Syrup

Sesame Seeds

Semolina

Scoville Units

Saffron

Pomegranates

Piping

Pie Dough

Peeling and Chopping Apples

Pearl Onions

Parts of the Knife and Knife Care

Parsley

Pans

Pan Preparation

Nut Flowers

Muffin Tins

Mise en Place

Melting Chocolate

Making Cheese

Lamination

Instant-Read Thermometers

Homemade Jam

Ground Spices and Spice Blends

Pâte à Choux

Food Mills and Ricers

Filling Cream Puffs

Epazote

Easy Oven Bacon

Denaturation

Deep Frying

Day Old Bread

Crème Fraiche

Crème Anglaise

Cooling and Drying

Cooking Sugar

Coffee

Citrus Supremes

Cinnamon Sugar

Chile Paste and Powder

Chicken Fabrication (a/k/a Butchering)

Carving Whole Roasted Birds

Cardamom

Caramelization

Capers

Buying Chicken

Buerre Noisette

Blind Baking

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit

Bay

Basting

Bain-Marie

Anchovies

Amchoor

Adding Alternatively

Ice Cream Machines

Espresso Granita

Knife Skills

Puree

Temper

Ice Bath

Sauté

Egg Wash

The Creaming Method

Zesting

Chopping Chocolate

The Tonka Bean

Simmering vs. Boiling

Whole Grains

Pounding and Tenderizing Meat

Chile Guide

Cooking Pasta

Roquefort

The Cut-in Technique

Concassé

Peeling and Seeding Cucumbers

Frying Fish

Maceration and Infusion

Temper

Vanilla Beans

Ice Cream Freezers

Buerre Noisette

Meringue

Reduction

Seasoning Cast Iron

Toasting Nuts

Grating Nutmeg

Roux

Internal Temperatures for Beef

Whipping Cream

Egg Wash

Agave

Adding Alternately

A Berry Primer

Top