THE SUBTLE IMPACT OF SEA SALTS

May 1st, 2007

One key ingredient at the cooking school is SEA SALT. Some months ago, we conducted a tasting of various sea salts such as our favorites, Sel Gris, Fleur de Sel, and Cyprus Black Salt. Sea salt as an individual ingredient, like herbs and spices, actually counts for more than a salty flavoring, much like olive oil contributes more than a cooking medium. We consider sea salt an ingredient worthy of the added time it takes to select them. So how do we choose from the hundreds of brands and types available today?

First consideration for sea salts is to remember they are, after all, mostly sodium chloride! Table salt, being 99.9% NACL, is on one end of the continuum and some varieties of sea salt that contain up to16% natural trace minerals and electrolytes on the other end. So sometimes the differences in taste are subtle. The most distinctive characteristic may not be taste at all, but rather the color and texture of these specialty sea salts. Texture in salt is attributed to the way the salt crystallized. The area or region from which it originates determines the crystallization much the same way snow flakes are formed, and the color depends on where salts are collected and how they are processed.

For example, Fleur de Sel and Sel Gris, our everyday salts are both harvested at the mouth of the La Geurande River in the South of France where the saline is thick. In the Celtic style the salt is stirred with wooden rakes as it dries in the sun. When the pure white top layer is formed, it is immediately collected. This is considered prime because it doesn’t always appear as it depends on climate and weather conditions. It is celebrated when it does appear, and it is aptly named, Fleur de Sel, “salt flower.” The salt beneath is Sel Gris, or “gray salt,” taking the gray color from minerals absorbed as it dries on the mud flats. For a long time the gray layer in salt cultivation was left behind, and only the very white salt went to market.

Keep in mind, the natural minerals in sea salts are absent in ordinary table salt. And table salt usually contains added iodine and chemicals for anti-caking that contribute off-flavors and lower its absorbency. Some Kosher sea salts are available today, but generally Kosher salt is mostly like table salt that is a mined salt, and is a good all purpose choice for cooking because it is inexpensive, mostly free of the additives, and it meets the Jewish dietary guidelines for making Kosher meats, as well has being blessed by the rabbi. Though I sometimes still use Kosher salt, my preference is still sea salts that are harvested and dried naturally by the sun, and especially the slightly wet salts that are found in the layers closest to the earth. Wet salts absorb more quickly making them easier (for me, anyway) to control the amount I use than Kosher or table salts.

Black Sea salt is a good example of what we call a finishing salt. It is evaporated by sun in above ground pools that formed naturally from lava flows. “Activated charcoal” is added for color and detoxifying health benefits. As a finishing salt it adds striking color and texture, adding drama and smoky notes to fish, salads, Sushi, grilled meats, and tofu.

We suggest customers TASTE as many sea salts as possible before buying. Many markets do olive oil and salt tastings on Saturdays and kitchen supply shops now offer tastings, too. So take advantage of tasting opportunities–I do, and always learn something. Lenore and I are fortunate that we can ask for a sample before we stock our shelves with a product. That way we can get to know it and decide application before buying. Whenever someone asks about the salts we carry we encourage them to taste before buying.

To learn about salts in general, you might read one of the books on salt, like Salt: A World History or The Story of Salt, both by Mark Kurlansky. Or my personal favorite is the Food Network’s Alton Brown’s chronology of salt www.goodeatsfanpage.com. Also check the web to learn about specific brands and what makes them special and different. For me choosing salts is similar to choosing wines. I ask winemakers, wine store owners, wine reps directly when I can, and when a live person is unavailable, I read what they say about their wines on their websites and backs of labels. This info gets translated in my mind to foods and ingredients that go well with them.

To recap, salt as an ingredient should not be underestimated. When trying to decide which to buy, taste as many as you can first, and read about their properties. Find one that works well as an everyday all-purpose salt, like Sel Gris, the gray sea salt we use. Then experiment and play a little with the specialty salts. I have listed just a few, below. My bottom-line is that sea salt can contribute much more than the salt we need in our diet or the salty taste we crave. We can enjoy those dimensions along with textures and colors and healthy benefits that sea salts versus table salts provide.

Before leaving this subject I must confess my desire to use locally harvested sea salt in my cooking. In fact a good friend waded out by Haystack Rock and collected one gallon of sea water. We put it in a pot and brought it to a boil, allowing the water to evaporate. My friend had done the research on the methods Lewis and Clark used and he said they got 2/3 cup of salt for every gallon of boiled seawater. We watched the boiling pot until someone finally said, “A watched pot of boiling sea water does not make salt!” And then with a flourish from the pot and slight pop, we had our salt. It was pure white and exactly 2/3 cup! (Note: I am a “seasoned” professional; please don’t try this at home. Many more steps and tests for wholesomeness are required for the production of Haystack salt. Perhaps it’s prime for an eager grad-student in search of a topic.)

Some favorite “finishing salts” sea salts from www.seasalt.com
Fumee de Sel – Chardonnay Oak Smoked Fleur De Sel – by Le Tresor
Fleur de Sel is cold smoked with Chardonnay oak chips to preserve the mineral content and natural flavor of the salt.

Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt, fine and coarse. Alaea is the traditional Hawaiian table salt used to season and preserve. Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt is non-processed and rich in trace minerals, all of which are found in sea water.
Maldon Sea Salt Natural product with no additives retaining sea water trace elements for a non-bitter taste. It is very “salty” and means less is required, an advantage for those who whish to reduce salt intake.
Black Truffle Salt Italian sea salt mixed with luxurious dried Black truffles harvested from the Abruzzi region of Italy.