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I Spice: Salt

Three of the salts from Mark Bitterman: Pangasinan Star, Iburi Jio Cherry and Marlborough Flaky. (The Meadow)

I thought I understood salt. My knowledge wasn't enough to fill an encyclopedia but could be summed up thusly: Use it sparingly for taste. And then I talked with Mark Bitterman, who blogs about salt and also sells it through the Meadow in Portland, Ore., and everything I knew went out the window. Mark told me most of the salt in my cupboard should, too.

I had Morton's table salt and kosher salt and two large boxes of La Baleine sea salt. Mark, who owns the Meadow with his wife, Jennifer, suggested I throw them all out. His reasoning was simple: “These are all industrial salts, whether they are solution-mined from salt deposits or evaporated from the San Francisco Bay," he said. "They are refined into more or less pure sodium chloride, processed into the desired crystal shape, [often] treated with any number of chemicals and then packaged for various markets. If you are not interested in highly processed, industrially manufactured foods, you should not use them, ever.”

While sea salt may seem natural, Mark called La Baleine "unnecessarily refined to a standard of industrial purity not needed in table salt." He said the company makes 800,000 tons a year of solar-evaporated sea salt.

While I know that many salts are highly processed, his strong reaction got a strong reaction back. I use kosher salt a lot, and think of it as refined more than other salts and purer. I like that it is relatively less salty and that the bigger crystals help me control what I use, more so than fine table salt. (“Kosher” here does not refer to the acceptability of the salt but to the way it is used in koshering meats.) As far as my research goes, kosher salt is obtained from the sea and does not contain additives. Mark disagrees: “I think if squeeze-tube margarine is your butter, hot dogs are your meat, and spray-whiz nacho sauce is your cheese, then I suppose kosher can be your salt. Otherwise, reach for a natural salt.”

While I agree with using natural salt, I still believe kosher salt is the lesser evil of all the industrial salts available.

Recipe Included

We moved on to a topic I have been wanting to learn about: artisanal salts.

Mark is the author of the upcoming "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes" (Ten Speed Press), and he talked about how salt is the oldest culinary product on the face of the earth, produced by man for 12,000 years. Every civilization, every culture, every group, and virtually every region over the last dozen millennia has produced or sourced salt. Each one of those salts was the unique reflection of a geography, climate, economy, technology and cuisine. Hundreds of thousands of salts are lost to time. A few thousand remain.

The key to taking advantage of various salts, he said, is to think: What effect do I want the salt to have on my food, and how can I use the salt most effectively to achieve that effect? Baking, grilling, roasting, boiling, brining, curing and, of course, sprinkling salt on food right before serving (finishing): All can call for a different salt. That said, one nice natural salt can fit many of those uses, he advised.

So what salt does he use instead of regular old table salt? “I use sel gris. Think of sel gris as a whole food: it contains 84 trace minerals occurring naturally in the sea, has irregular, chunky crystals and plenty of residual moisture that lends each crystal a supple crunch.”

There are great sels gris (gray salts) from around the world; some are sweet, and others are briny, most notably those from the ancient Celtic saltmaking regions on the French Atlantic coast. It is also a good finishing salt for hearty foods like steak or roast vegetables. “For 12 bucks for a 2.5-pound bag, you basically get a year’s supply of one of the world’s most premium ingredients,” he said.

Most of the wilder-looking salts out there are best used as finishing salts. Besides sel gris, the other basic types include fleur de sel (flower of salt), traditional, flake and rock, among others. Mark sent me samples of his four favorite types. I tasted each and found that each has a different level of saltiness, so experimenting is required to see how each of these work with different types of dishes. Mark had a suggestion: Try each one with popcorn and see how the taste differs.

  • Pangasinan Star is a fleur de sel with sweet, almost brambly, warm flavors and a slightly billowy granular crystal. Perfect for daily use on such things as toast with unsalted butter, stir-fried veggies, grilled fish and chicken curry.

  • Marlborough Flaky has a fringed flake crystal and a crisp, clean taste that makes it ideal for salads and fresh or steamed vegetables. It also may be the best salt on the face of the earth for margarita rims.

  • The Meadow Sel Gris is mild and incredibly balanced but with huge crystals that yield between your teeth. I've been using it as an all-around cooking salt: ground up in baking, whole on grilled foods, dissolved in water for cooking pasta and blanching vegetables, for preserved lemons, and more. I also use it as a finishing salt on roast poultry and root vegetables, steak, lamb, and for salt crusts.

  • Iburi Jio Cherry is an incredible smoked salt, with impossibly fine crystals and a rich, bacony aroma and flavor. Frankly, I can't imagine what it wouldn't be good on. It’s pricey, but potent; think of it like vanilla or saffron, except that you can eat it on anything from popcorn to ice cream, from a tuna melt to salmon sashimi, from burgers to foie gras.

Obviously, my mindset on salt has changed. Now, it's this: Use kosher, use natural, use artisanal, use sparingly, and don't forget that there is almost no life to a dish without salt.

-- Monica Bhide

(Monica Bhide)

Gambas a la Plancha (Shrimp Cooked on a Griddle)
4 appetizer servings

This recipe uses salt for both flavoring the food and as a cooking medium.

Serve the shrimp as part of a tapas selection.

Adapted from "Made in Spain," by Jose Andres (Clarkson Potter, 2008).

1 pound kosher salt
16 medium heads-on shrimp

Spread the salt on a flat griddle or in a medium skillet. Place over medium-high heat.

When the salt is hot, lay half of the shrimp on it. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the shrimp over and cook for 2 minutes on the second side. The shrimp shells will be pink and the flesh should be opaque.

Transfer the shrimp to a serving platter; repeat with the remaining shrimp. (Some of the salt will stick to the shrimp.) Serve immediately. (Discard the bed of salt.)

By The Food Section  |  March 5, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, salt  
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