Teresa Gooden–Bulls Bay Saltworks

HandPicked Nation

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Editor’s Note: Bulls Bay Saltworks is located near McClellanville, South Carolina, nearly forty miles from that southern food citadel, Charleston.

When we heard about Teresa and Rustin Gooden’s Bulls Bay Saltworks, we just knew we had to talk with them.

Their salt is delicious, small batch and completely handmade. It’s some of the finest salt we’ve tasted. Check them and their salts out as soon as you can!

How she found the time we don’t know, but Teresa was gracious enough to answer our questions.

We hope you find our conversation interesting and instructive.

Handpicked Nation: Teresa, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to talk to us about your terrific salt products. 

So, you were looking to re-jigger your lives (to be a little more self-sufficient and sustainable) and lo and behold, you end up being in the salt business. Tell us a little about that journey.

TG: When we started our little homestead on a single acre in McClellanville in 2011 we were striving o be as self sufficient as possible.

We attempted to holistically but intensively produce as much of our own food as possible and reduce the amount of inputs and outputs, we composted almost everything, thinned the trees and used them for fence posts, planted a large garden, got a flock of chickens and then a few of pigs.

Generally, we tried to think about simple solutions for a slower paced life.

HPN: Is it really true that you started making salt accidentally? Tells us the story of about harvesting seawater for brining a hog.

I suppose our environmental consciousness has led us to develop taste consciousness.

TG: Yes and no.

In the spring of 2012 we decided to host a potluck hog roast to get to know the folks in our community and bring people together over a shared meal.

We are lucky to live only a few miles from the water so Rustin collected a few buckets of sea water to brine the hog with. He then decided to cook the sea water on the stove to make salt to season the hog with–so making the salt was intentional, we just had no idea where it was going to lead us!

Rustin put the grey-looking salt he had boiled down into a small bowl on the smoker and sprinkled the hog with it every few hours as it cooked.

Once the hog was ready we realized that the salt had been smoked too, that was the accidental part. Once the food was being served everyone was talking about the salt and we knew we should consider making more so I began selling it as a value added product along with the vegetables I was growing for markets and chefs.

HPN: Were you two food-obsessed people before this venture? What, in your background, made you so taste conscious?

TG: We’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled quite a bit and enjoyed many regional cuisines.

From the Everglades to Alaska, Rustin and I have almost always worked outside with or exploring nature. We love to cook and value foods that have been humanely and ethically grown, this led me to a nine month long apprenticeship in Urban Farming that really zeroed in on small scale sustainability

I suppose our environmental consciousness has led us to develop taste consciousness.

HPN: In a sense, you’re in business with the bi-valves that are in charge of keeping the saltwater you use as clean as possible. Tell us about the circle you’ve created from water to finished salt.

TG: The oysters and clams are definitely responsible for the pristine waters of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge as one oyster can filter almost two gallons of water per hour.

Every molecule of water in Bulls Bay probably goes through a clam or oyster at least once a day. The bivalves make the water clean enough that we don’t have sediment or contaminants to worry about.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is responsible for keeping the shellfish population healthy and they do an outstanding job. They have an oyster shell recycling program in place that helps construct and shore up oyster habitat in addition to setting regulations that prevent overharvesting. It also helps that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge.

Most people do not know that Cape Romain is one of the most productive estuaries on the East Coast.

Water collection is the first step to having a finished product and a number of factors impact our water collection days.

We monitor the closures of the shellfish areas around our collection site (a heavy rain can close an area.) We have not dealt with a closure yet and we try and maintain about 500 gallons in storage tanks at all times in the summer.

The biggest factor in the collection process is the tide.

We prefer to get water when the highest tides of the month hit. There is an increase in salinity that we do not want to miss. When we first started out it was easy to get the biggest tide of the month, but now we need to get water weekly so we take what we can.

We usually collect 500 gallons at a time and transfer it to tanks outside our greenhouse until it is needed. We have a tank inside the greenhouse that we keep clean, filtered water in, that is ready for evaporation.

The second step is to fill up our small tubs with the clean sea water and wait. There are a number of factors that impact the evaporation time and only a few that we can control.

Temperature is the big wildcard that we have to work around. It is easy to control the humidity and airflow and we are always fine tuning our system to maximize our evaporation.

In the summer months we can harvest salt almost every day and try and maximize the amount of water in the salt tunnel. We generally start seeing salt crystals form in 10-14 days in the summer and about twice that in winter.

We did have a two week period without seeing any new crystals being formed once. It was scary! It was due to a really wet couple of weeks. Once the sun came back we were back in business though.

Once enough tubs are ready to be harvested we try and do it in the early morning before the sun melts us. It can get to be over 150 degrees in the summer. We do some rinsing and grading with harvested salt.

We like to keep the larger crystals for the grinders and the smaller ones for restaurant use.

We let the salt drain for a few days before putting it in a custom made dryer to get the ideal moisture level. Some batches head right for the smokers and some into our packing facility. It really depends on demand.

HPN: Give us a quick salt primer. Do you infuse flavors into your salts? Are there different flavors that come from different water, different environments? Tell us about your terroir, tastes and textures.

TG: No flavors or any other ingredients are added to our current products.

By collecting our water from an outstanding pristine water source we easily retain the crisp flavor and mineral rich sweetness in the salt. Regional salts will always vary in taste and that taste is a direct reflection of the main ingredient–the sea water or land, if the salt is mined.

Salt is the original seasoning and its exciting to have many varieties in your kitchen to experiment with.

HPN: Now this is a slightly different question. Describe the flavors found in your product line. How is Carolina Flake different from Carolina Seal Salt, for example. Take us through the products you offer.

TG: We are currently making five distinct sea salts.

Our original, Carolina Sea Salt (also locally known as the Charleston Sea Salt) is carefully settled and filtered to remove any suspended sediments–like the pluff mud that made our first batch grey–and then solar evaporated. These crystals have been described by Selmilier Mark Bitterman as unique due to their moisture content, making them similar to a sel gris. Break a large rock crystal apart and find a moist center even when the outside of the salt rock is completely dry. This salt is a fantastic replacement for your table salt and comes in a refillable grinder.

We take the same salt and smoke it with oak wood for about twenty hours to create our Smoked Sea Salt. The bold smoky aroma translates well onto fried eggs, kale chips, grilled chicken and is a delightful way to season tofu. Every numbered small batch of our Smoked Sea Salt is slightly different from the next and totally unique.

Our signature product is our Carolina Flake. This finishing salt is crafted for chefs and home cooks in mind with delicate flakes full of a briny crunch. Pinch and sprinkle these flakes over a wilted salad, grilled fish or simply bread and butter. Pastry chefs and bakers love to use the snow-like flakes to top caramels, chocolates and baked breads.

The Bourbon Barrel Smoked Flake has a story all of its own. The bourbon barrels originate from Kentucky where they’ve been used at Heaven Hills Distillery, these aged barrels then travel to Charleston where they are re-used by Bittermilk to age their Old Fashioned cocktail mix. From there we pick up the deliciously fragrant barrels and disassemble them to smoke the Flake salt with. (To complete the circle we’ve also began making salt cellars from the bourbon barrel wood.) Two favorite applications of the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Flake is atop a grilled ribeye or sprinkled over a tomato sandwich.

Finally, our Carolina Margarita Salt is the perfect rimming salt for your home bar and is a favorite among mixologists. Its powdery texture rims a glass perfectly or dissolves instantly as an ingredient in your next cocktail. It comes with in a four inch tin ready for use.

HPN: Take us through your method of salt-making, from gathering the water, your solar-powered evaporation, packaging and on and on.

TG: Our ideal water collection is during a full moon, when it hasn’t rained for a while and always on a high tide. We can’t always adhere to this schedule in the summer as we are getting water sometimes twice a week into holding tanks.

We drive the water seven miles home and let it sit for a while to settle the suspended sediments. The water is then pumped into our greenhouse into another holding tank and then into smaller food grade tubs where it sits for several weeks to evaporate.

Once the salt is formed we lay it out to dry then store it in bins until it’s time to package.

Individual states govern food packaging laws and as the first to market salt company in South Carolina since the Civil War era, we discovered there were no rules in place for salt harvesters.

We have been working with the State Department of Agriculture to set the standard for salt makers and must meet the requirements as food producers.

We began by arranging a trade to package our salt in a local restaurants’ kitchen, TW Graham & Co. during their off hours in exchange for supplying them with our salt. Now, under the guidance of our Inspector, we have built our own packaging area on site which makes things run much more smoothly.

As a bootstrapping young company, we are growing when can but have just hired our first employee, making us a team of only three, as a result we all wear many hats to get the jobs done from harvest to shipping and distribution.

We’re a busy bunch and are excited about growing our team.

HPN: What advice would you give someone interested in launching a small-batch food business?

TG: Create a stellar product then continue to make it better.

Use the best ingredients you can find, source from your community, and collaborate if possible.

We work with other makers who are using our salt for their own creations such as sauerkraut, lip balm, ice cream, chocolates, charcuterie, candied apples, cookies, cocktail mixes and more–all of them are so inspiring to me!

HPN: Is there a story that’s funny now that wasn’t so much awhile back?

TG: During the summer of 2013 we had a devastating house fire.

At the time, we had salt stored in bins in the kitchen. There was this ‘Breaking Bad’ moment when the firemen and police were kind of checking us out from a distance.

They saw big bins of white rocks and had to be thinking the worst!.

Luckily one of the firemen knew Rustin and that we were making sea salt. We weren’t asked about it but there was a real uneasy feeling for a few minutes, its kind of hilarious now.

HPN: Lean+Meadow said this on her blog: “Not only is the process and the story such an invigorating part, but the people, like Teresa and Rustin, who make their life’s work about producing innovative, quality, and natural products from the land–and sea–is what pulls at my heart strings most. It gives me goose bumps.” Talk a little bit about how it feels to be an inspiration to people.

TG: It’s completely humbling. I look at the makers I mentioned above, I think about how passionate and driven Lean is, the insane talents of Blake Suarez who does our design work with Fuzzco, Olivia Rae James who has taken countless photos documenting our story, the endless support and promotion from friends like Tara Justine Webb, Chef Air Casebier, and my husband Rustin and am completely enamored with their talents.

I feel as though these people have offered so much more in the way of inspiration and challenge for growth to me than vice versa.

HPN: Teresa, thank you for taking time to talk to us today and for the great information you imparted. Continued success to you and Rustin and Bulls Bay Saltworks.

T: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it. Thanks for showcasing our company.

Photo credit: Rinne Allen