Salts Of Land And Sea
I’m mildly fascinated by the seeming conflict between health-inspired foods that offer reduced salt and the proliferation of salt-sparkled edibles. Even staid brands of canned beans offer versions containing trendy sea salt or none at all, and everything from dressings and rubs to chocolates and ice cream come in salt-free or salt-inspired flavors. If some of us fear salt, most of us love the stuff, and rightly so, since we literally can’t live without salt. True, around 27% of black folks and about 15% of white folks are salt-sensitive and really do need to monitor intake in order to keep their blood pressure levels stable. That said, the critical need for salt in the human diet is well established, though most health experts suggest keeping sodium intake to around 2,000 milligrams each day. Salt ferries nutrients into cells and regulates blood pressure and body fluid volumes, among other things. Salt is what butterflies are seeking when they land on roadkill and why sweat bees follow hard working people around.
Though there are dozens of kinds of salt in today’s markets, all salt is not created equal. Least healthful is common table salt (refined sodium chloride), found in almost every processed food on the grocery shelf. Chemically treated for appearance and pour-ability, concentrated sodium chloride is blended with aluminum, sugar, and calcium silicate to prevent clumping. Refined salt lacks the treasury of minerals found in unrefined sea salt, which contains a complex of over 80 components, including iodine, minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, and a multitude of trace minerals.
Salt Of The Sea
Sea salts are increasingly popular, probably because unrefined salts have a soft, complex taste that enhances natural flavors without overwhelming them. Around here, true locavores use only locally sourced salt from Oregon (Jacobsen Salt Company) and Washington (San Juan Island Sea Salt), but many cooks prefer fast-dissolving kosher salt in hot foods, saving flavorful sea salts for last minute use. Each kind of salt has its own particular qualities, which is why lots of cooks keep around a dozen kinds on hand. For everyday cooking use, medium coarse sea salt and kosher salt are excellent, inexpensive and widely available. Flaked sea salts melt fast, providing more salty zing with less sodium. Natural “finishing” salts offer a specific, unique flavor, from black or red Hawaiian lava salt and Indian black sanchal salt to slightly sweet French grey sea salt.
Naturally occurring fleur de sel, delicate “sea flower” salt, is considered by lots of chefs to be the very choicest table salt (if they believe in table salt at all). Maldon and fleur de sel are prized finishing salts, as is flake salt from New Zealand, which has a particularly bright, sparking quality. Indian sanchal or black salt (actually a pinkish tan) has an unusual, distinctive flavor that adds authenticity to Indian food. Use fragrant black sea salt from Pakistan sparingly on salads, steamed vegetables, rice and pasta for a powerful taste experience. Smoked sea salt adds a delicious, tangy savor to grilled fish or roasted vegetables. Coarse, chunky Hawaiian red salt is colored by volcanically heated red clay, with a mild, subtle flavor. Coarse sea salt is perfect for crusting baked fish or blending with fragrant herbs for bath salts.
Making Salt Blends
Salty seasoning blends have been around forever (ask your mom), but it’s super easy and very rewarding to make your own. As a rule, you’ll need about a tablespoon of seasonings for each cup of salt. When experimenting, make smaller batches, using about a teaspoon of flavorings for a quarter cup of salt (in case the experiment bombs). For the most uniform results, the herbs, garlic, citrus rinds, peppercorns and so forth should be finely chopped, grated, or pounded in a mortar and pestle before blending with salt. Chunky, coarse sea salt is cheap, but melts unevenly both in food and in the mouth. A medium sized coarse or flaked salt is traditional for blends and looks most attractive (nice if you’re making gifts). Table salt can overwhelm seasonings with a flat, metallic tang, and very fine textured sea salts may need an extra boost of flavorings.
Many spices will gain potency if lightly toasted before grinding. I use a dedicated coffee mill for grinding peppercorns, smoked paprika peppers, roasted cumin seed, garam masala, and so forth, but a good blender works well too. Most food processors don’t really work efficiently on small amounts, but if it’s all you’ve got, add a few tablespoons salt to the herbs and grind them together until you get the right consistency.
Lemon Pepper Salt
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 cup kosher or medium coarse sea salt
finely grated zest of 2 organic lemons
In a dry frying pan, toast all peppercorns over medium heat to the fragrance point (about 1-2 minutes). In a blender, grind peppercorns with 2 tablespoons salt. Add remaining salt and process until evenly ground, then stir in grated lemon zest. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.
Italian Salt Blend
1 teaspoon toasted white peppercorns
1 cup kosher or medium coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons stemmed and chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
In a blender, grind peppercorns with 2 tablespoons salt. Add remaining ingredients and process until evenly ground. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.
French Finishing Salt
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence *
1 cup sea salt
Blend well and store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.
If you don’t have Herbes de Provence, make some:
Though the blend is actually of relatively recent origin, making Herbes de Provence involves combining herbs traditionally used in Provencal cookery. Experiment freely to find combos that please your palate; leave out lavender if you don’t care for the flavor, or add other dried herbs. Some folks like to include oregano, parsley and savory, but I think too many ingredients muddle the mix.
Herbes de Provence
Combine 1 tablespoon each of dried lavender blossoms, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, basil, and fennel seed. Stir well to blend and store dry. Crumble with your fingers when adding to sauces, dressings, marinades, soups, etc. Makes about 1/3 cup.