Worth His Salt

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Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...

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If you’re gonna talk about salt with anyone, Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow and author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral (Ten Speed Press), should be at the very top of your list. He is knowledgeable, to be sure, but also brings a passion and excitement to an item that everyone uses and few wholly understand.

Mark was kind enough to talk with me about his favorite topic and shed some light on this seemingly pedestrian kitchen staple.

There are many aspects to salt that we have forgotten or, really, never knew. Salt was once the most precious commodity in the world – with very good reason. It was difficult to harvest and transport, especially in pre-industrial times, making it a premium good that people literally treasured more than gold. Apart from its commercial value, salt was cherished for the two simple facts that it preserved food and made it taste better.

Those who were able to produce salt did, allowing entire areas to be supported by the trade and creating a product that was a specialty of that area alone. Mark writes in Salted:

"The salts that resulted were unique, each bearing a mineral and crystalline imprint of the elemental and human forces that wrought it. Salt was a natural, whole food, intimately tied to a place and a way of life."

Indeed, salt should be given as much distinction of origin and variety as we assign wine.

I was curious about what started Mark down the salt path in the first place, and he told me of a modest meal along the west coast of France. One bite of a grilled rib-eye "whipped his head around" and he realized that the salt sprinkled on top was turning that simple steak into an "A HA!" culinary moment. According to the waiter, the salt just happened to be from Guérande, made by the restaurant owner’s family who had been harvesting that same salt for hundreds of years.

And there it was. The care Europeans took in procuring their meats, vegetables and fruits extended to salt. Salt was not an afterthought to be liberally shaken over everything, it was an integral ingredient to be handled with as much care and integrity as everything else on the plate. Salt was a point of local pride. Salt had a tradition. Salt had history.

Knowing there was a lack of understanding about all-natural salt and an abundance of mass-produced, nutrient-poor salt in this country, Mark took it upon himself to help people look at the mineral with new eyes. To see it as a distinctive artisan-made food in it’s own right. Just because salt has been mass-produced doesn’t make it any less valuable or precious (it does, in fact, have the opposite affect). He aspires to teach us to be respectful of salt, not afraid. If you use it correctly, then it is an addition to a delicious, healthful meal – not a detractor.

Mark says, "Switching to good, all-natural salt is the cheapest positive change you can make in your kitchen. It should be one of the most revered items you use." Yes, natural salt is initially more expensive, but it is also so much better for you and your taste buds.

As he states in his blog, Salt News:

"Natural salts have a host of trace minerals (upwards of 15% sometimes) and are almost totally devoid of harmful environmental contaminants, and these minerals are part of a salt’s naturally 'pure' make-up. For this reason purity is not itself a terribly helpful term for salt, any more than it would be for rich topsoil, pungent grass, happy sheep, or molding cheese. The unfathomable complexity of these things offer something far more than purity: they offer wholesomeness."

Still not swayed? Have a go at Mark’s ‘litmus test’: Try regular salted butter on bread; then try unsalted butter on bread with a sprinkle of kosher salt; then try unsalted butter on bread with a sprinkle of fleur de sel. He’s pretty sure you’ll notice a vast, and delicious, difference.

Ready to switch up your salt routine? Here is a short primer on the three fundamental kinds of salt:

  • Fleur de Sel – Delicately textured with high moisture and loaded with minerals. Usually snowy white, but can have a pink tint. It’s a great finishing salt for everything. The Meadow’s 'House Salt' is an affordable fleur de sel and one they think is the best standard cooking salt available.
  • Flaked Salt – Maldon is a popular example of flaked salt. It has a light, but sturdy texture and a smooth, flat appearance. Gives an ‘electric’ pop of saltiness and then vanishes off your palate. Ideal for finishing salads, grilled fish or anything with a slightly more delicate texture.
  • Sel Gris – The sister salt to fleur de sel. Sel gris is harvested from the bottom of the salt marshes, unlike fleur de sel which is harvested off the top, so it can have a slight bluish-gray tint. It has a coarser texture, high moisture and is also full of minerals. It is ideal for foods with big flavor and texture, like grilled meats.

Are you already using natural, wholesome salt in your kitchen? What's your favorite way to use it?