“Searching for my lost shaker of salt”

6 Jul

If you didn’t have it, you simply would die. Since you’re not dead, salt is part of your diet no matter what you think about “low” sodium or whether or not you’ve even pondered about the most important culinary garnish in mankind’s history. However, if you think of salt as being that white stuff in the shaker that’s found in every dive, diner, and four-star restaurant then you’re not on the flavor trail.

Salt is a mineral known as halite and more commonly as the compound sodium chloride. Both sodium or chloride will quickly kill you, but without the compound made up of these two elements you’ll also die. In the history of mankind salt was often worth more than gold and elaborate trade routes were established to transport this commodity. Roman soldiers were paid in salt (hence the word, salary); wars have been lost and won over salt (including the U.S. Civil War); and it is mined in places most people never imagine (1,000 feet beneath Detroit are over 100 miles of tunnels and 1,500 acres of salt production). The elaborately carved, palace-like chambers in the salt mines of Wieliczka in Poland are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and over a quarter of a million tourists visit the Khewra Salt Mine in the Crystal Valley region of Pakistan each year. Obviously, there’s a bit more interest in this than “please pass the salt” at the dinner table.

As with most foods, know what you are eating. There is table salt, kosher salt, “full spectrum” salt, natural salts, infused salts, smoked salts, flavored salts, and that stuff you spread on icy sidewalks. They all start from the sea, although for some of them the sea was 300 million years ago, for others just a month or so.

Ever so basically, salt is found in seawater and lakes that have no outlet drainage. As a body of water evaporates the concentration of salt increases (Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea come to mind) and eventually crystallizes (Bonneville Salt Flats west of Great Salt Lake, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, and Lake Eyre in Australia). This process of evaporating lakes and inland seas has been taking place for hundreds of millions of years. The sedimentary layers of these ancient salt flats are found deep beneath the earth and today are mined in places like New York’s Finger Lakes, Detroit, Peru, Pakistan, Rumania, and Canada. Naturally occurring salt is not pure, but has trace elements. Logic would have it—but it’s not necessarily true—that salt evaporated 300-million years ago (as with “Himalayan” and Peruvian salt) is less contaminated than what is lying around in today’s salt flats. There is also the controversy that commercially produced table salt—whether hard-rock mined; solution mined (water pumped down drill holes to mix with ancient salt beds, pumped back to the surface as brine, and evaporated by natural and/or mechanical methods); or mechanically evaporated from lakes, seas, or oceans—is healthier than non processed salts (fleur de sel, Himalayan and Peruvian rock salt, and naturally occurring colored salts).

Himalayan salt—which actually comes the Khewra Mine in the Punjab region of Pakistan, 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the Himalayas—is often touted as being the purest in the world. This is somewhat misleading since its proponents claim it contains up to 14.38% of trace minerals (actinium, aluminum, antimony, arsenic, astatine, barium, beryllium, bismuth, boron, bromine, cadmium, calcium, carbon, cerium, cesium, chlorine, chromium, cobalt, copper, dysprosium, erbium, europium, fluorine, francium, gadolinium, gallium, germanium, gold, hafnium, holmium, hydrogen, indium, iodine, iridium, iron, lanthanum, lead, lithium, lutetium, magnesium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, neodymium, neptunium, nickel, niobium, nitrogen, osmium, oxygen, palladium, phosphorus, platinum, plutonium, polonium, potassium, praseodymium, protactinium, radium, rhenium, rhodium, rubidium, ruthenium, samarium, scandium, selenium, silicon, silver, sodium, strontium, sulfur, tantalum, tellurium, terbium, thallium, thorium, thulium, tin, titanium, uranium, vanadium, wolfram, yttrium, ytterbium, zinc and zirconium). Truthfully, I use this salt on a daily basis, but question whether digesting cesium, barium, mercury, plutonium, polonium, selenium, strontium, thorium, and uranium can be classified as being healthy no matter what the quantity or half-life might be. Frankly, this 300-million-year-old chemical concoction pretty much tastes like ordinary table salt. When cut into slabs and used as cooking and baking slabs it does seem to season things, such as fish, better than a granular garnish.

Most table salt in the U.S. also originated 300-million years ago and is found so deep beneath the surface of the earth that—except as a consequence of fracking for natural gas—it, like Himalayan and Peruvian, has been isolated from modern pollution. Some of this is mined as hard rock, but most as solution mining (only 5% of the salt mined in the U.S. becomes table salt). It too has a percentage of trace minerals/elements as well as the other natural byproducts (magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate, potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and calcium carbonate) found in these salt deposits. Sometimes using natural evaporation processes, but most often mechanical ones, the trace compounds are removed until achieving 99.9% pure sodium chloride. For health reasons that are often mandated by law, potassium iodine is added to the pure salt. Because consumers don’t like their table salt to clump, anti-caking agents like magnesium silicate, magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, calcium phosphate, and calcium carbonate are added.

Kosher salt refers to large crystals, usually plate or pyramid-shaped, of table salt. Large crystals of salt were used for the kosher process of rubbing on freshly butchered meat to absorb (desiccation) the blood, hence its name. If you choose to use it in cooking you have my blessing, but these large crystals don’t always completely dissolve.

Sea salts are extracted from today’s oceans using the ancient methods of natural evaporation in man-made pools. The first crystallization takes place as a surface scum that, before it sinks to the bottom of the pool, is carefully harvested by hand. This is fleur de sel. While the French claim it with capital letters (like Champagne vs. champagne and Brie vs. brie) this process is used all over the world. It is labor intensive and dependent upon weather and so is quite expensive ($10-$30/lb.) but worth it. It generally includes more minerals, has a lower sodium content, larger tabular crystals, and a substantial (5-10%) residual moisture content that causes a rapid, almost explosive, release of flavor. It has no value in cooking, only as a garnish added just before eating. My favorite comes from Atlantic Saltworks in Glouchester, MA, but then I’m a New Englander.

Natural sea salts often take in trace minerals from the pools in which they were evaporated. The grey color in French sea salts comes from the clay; Alaea salts from Hawaii are red from the iron-oxide rich volcanic clay; and some pinks from a type of bacteria—don’t grimace, it’s a source of beta-carotene. Natural rock salts are also colored by trace elements. The pink in Himalayan and Peruvian salt is iron oxide, in other words, rust. Persian blue, however, is strictly optical resulting from a very dense crystal lattice structure and the color has no taste or mineral aspect.

I leave it up to you to determine which of these salts are “pure” as I turn to my favorites: the impure salts, also known as infused, flavored, and smoked salts.

Like with fish and meat, salt can be placed in a smoker. Smoke adheres to salt crystals and this is where hickory and chipotle flavors come from. Vikings smoked their salt and they probably weren’t the first to do so. If you have a smoker don’t hesitate to insert a bowl or tray of salt along with the fish or meat.

Flavored salts are simply the addition of other material to the salt. Truffles, thyme, basil, garlic, violets, and things of a similar nature are simply ground fine in a blender along with the salt, spread on a tray, and allowed to air dry for a couple of days or oven dried at low temperatures. I have truffle salt and ghost pepper salt on my kitchen counter and they certainly can dress up an otherwise ordinary dish.

Infused salts are a bit more complicated since a reduction liquid is mixed with the salt and really should be carefully oven dried with frequent stirrings over a couple of days. Whiskey flavored salt or, for those who are completely lazy, lemon flavored for quick tequila shots. Since there are only five flavors that we can taste (sweet, sour, bitter, savory, salty) infused salts can set up interesting contrasts (lime salt, thyme salt, maple salt) to delight the palate.

Now for the bad news: infused salts are often created to imitate natural—i.e. more expensive—colored sea salts, especially the black volcanic and red clay varieties. Also, the flavorings might or might not be pure (for example, vanilla salt).

So if you find yourself “searching for that lost shaker of salt,” forget it. Put some real flavor into your cooking, whether it is a gourmet meal or simply popcorn. If this doesn’t work, “I know it’s my own damn fault.”

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