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Mint Julep in Himalayan Sea Salt Shot Glass.

Salt Goes Gourmet

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The most basic of all seasonings becomes anything but banal.

By Amelia Levin September 2015

First it was bread. Then it was charcuterie and craft beer. Now, chefs want artisan salt.

But not just any salt. They want sustainably made, unique finishing salts that add taste, texture, and interest to their dishes. Gone are the days of run-of-the-mill sea salt showered over everything.

“Food is trending toward local, and more chefs are interested in local and American-made salt,” says Mark Bitterman, a selmelier, author, consultant, and owner of The Meadow, an artisan salt and gourmet foods shop in Portland, Oregon, that sells to chefs and other food professionals. “Historically there were many states in America with salt works, and now those old traditions are coming back.”

Historically, Bitterman explains, salt has been made one of two ways: by drying out seawater or through mining. He cites J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, a seventh-generation maker in West Virginia that harvests water from the ancient Iapetus Ocean underneath the Appalachian Mountains. The salt works then dries out the water using solar energy to achieve a natural, pure product.

From another continent comes Himalayan pink salt, the most popular mined salt from Himalayan mountain rock, which as the name suggests is pink-colored. And then there is fleur de sel and sel gris, natural gray sea salts that are gathered by collecting small amounts of sea water at a time.

Bitterman says some salt works in warmer climates use the sun to naturally dry out the water and extract salt crystals. He cites a Guatemalan salt works that uses the traditional French method to make sea salt by bringing in water from the ocean and transferring it from pond to pond so the water evaporates in the natural sun. Crystalizing pans collect the crystals, which are raked off by hand. And, because salt naturally does not bio-accumulate—unlike vegetables and other produce that will retain toxins—any pollution or impurities in the seawater won’t make its way into the crystals.

Though many salts are labeled “sea salt,” Bitterman warns there is little regulation around the use of that label, particularly in terms of the eco-friendliness and sustainability of the methods used to produce it.

“Many sea salts [that claim to be gourmet] are just seawater boiled off over propane or natural gas, and they have a tremendous carbon footprint,” Bitterman says. Even worse, some commercial-grade sea salt makers destroy the natural eco-systems by dredging up massive amounts of ocean water.

In the U.S., Bitterman explains, many traditional salt works closed during the meatpacking era of the early 20th century when large-scale salt production was moved to the stockyards of Chicago.

Today, many commercial makers of table and kosher salt use chemical processing and mechanized refining, thus stripping the crystals to create pure sodium chloride—virtually the same product used to de-ice roads, but simply ground finer.

“People are increasingly concerned with the actual integrity of the ingredient,” Bitterman says. “They want to know how food was grown or produced, and the same thing now holds true with salt.”

On the flipside, he notes, artisan and naturally made salts have a health component. Unrefined salt contains trace minerals like magnesium that—in moderate amounts—can actually help with blood pressure and electrolyte balance.

Another advantage is that artisan salts taste better, and they add extra texture when used as a finishing element or garnish for proteins, vegetables, and salads. There are three major types of finishing salts, says Bitterman: fleur de sel, sel gris, and flake salt like Maldon.

Fleur de sel is ground finer so it’s better on delicate food like fish. Flake salt acts as a nice crunchy garnish and a flavor enhancer for vegetables and salads. Sel gris has bigger, chunkier crystals with higher moisture content so it’s great on meat because it won’t just melt away on contact with warm food.

For instance, at Chef Jose Garces’ Argentine steakhouse Rural Society, which recently opened at the new Loews Hotel in Chicago, executive chef Cory Morris piles a pinch of naturally made Maldon flake salt on the wooden serving board next to a sliced, wood-grilled ribeye from Uruguay. The salt adds a little extra crunch and brings out the fat and flavor in the leaner, grass-fed meat.

Kolin Vazzoler, executive chef of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California, uses xroads Philippine Sea Salts, a salt works since 2008 that is located in the Pangasinan Region and known for using indigenous and eco-friendly salt-making methods with water from the South China and Sulu seas.

Chef Vazzoler makes a Valrhona dark chocolate budino, or custard, with extra virgin olive oil and xroads’ Ilocano Asin Philippine sea salt to bring out the contrasting sweet and savory flavors of the dessert. Occasionally, he’ll swap that salt for one mixed with Pinot Noir for a richer flavor.

Chef Vazzoler also tops his Santa Barbara spot prawn crudo dish with xroads’ Sugpo Asin Philippine sea salt, a naturally pink salt with undertones of shellfish that helps bring out the citrus flavors of the tomato and yuzu in the dish.

Chef/owner Matt Spector at JoLe Restaurant in Calistoga, California, also uses xroads, finishing meat and fish as they come out of the pan or off the grill with the chunkier crystals. “This sea salt has a clean, non-metallic taste and a mellow finish that complements many of our dishes,” he says. “We don’t want our food to be salty, just enhanced. And we love the story that goes along with how the salt is made.”

Smoked salts, made by smoking artisan sea and other salts, offer another dimension to dishes and can recreate an outdoor grill even when the food has been prepared indoors.

At Heathman Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Oregon, Chef Michael Stanton has bought Alaska alder-smoked salt from Bitterman for his nettle risotto to introduce a meaty, umami flavor to the vegetarian dish. He’s also sprinkled it over a poached pear dessert for a surprise element.

“We try to showcase the salt as well as the food so that it becomes an integral part of the dish,” Chef Stanton says. He also uses a vanilla-spiked salt with crab dishes as well as lavender salt for tapioca-butterscotch pudding to replicate salty caramel, and Black Diamond flake salt adds extra color contrast atop super-green, fava bean crostini.

Stanton likes Takesumi Bamboo Japanese from Bitterman’s shop as a crust for rolled lamb loin. “This salt has an almost fatty flavor that goes great with lean meat,” he says, adding that it dissolves when eaten and creates a carbonated, Pop Rocks effect.

Naomi Pomeroy, chef/owner of Beast which is also in Portland, uses many of Bitterman’s salts. He recalls a special dinner where she rolled his Halen Mon (aka, the Van Halen), in 24-karat gold dust for a pretty topper. This organic sea salt is smoked over the wood chips of a fallen 800-year-old oak tree for a sweeter flavor.

Salt is such an important ingredient to play around with because it’s the most important one you use as a chef,” Bitterman says.