Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The World of Gourmet Salts, a definitive guide...

Salt is no longer just a condiment. It has risen to nouveau culinary stardom as the next designer specialty ingredient, so I've decided to break it all down for you and help you navigate the 'seas of salt.' Yes, I did go there, but then again, by now you should all know what you're in for when you read my articles. Though salt has been around for centuries, sea and artisanal salts have become the new must have ingredient for your pantry if you consider yourself a gourmet foodie. Specialty stores and gourmet sections of your supermarket all now include arrays of this 'jewel of the seas.'

So isn't salt just salt? Well... no. For those with discriminating palates, subtle variations in climate, local vegetation, sediments, minerals in the soils, and the infusion of herbs and spices, have taken sea and artisan salts to the top of the charts. Chef's and home cooks alike are all using salts in ways our grandmothers never envisioned. That is, of course, unless your grandmother was raised in France. The French have long embraced artisanal and sea salts as mainstays in gourmet cooking. There are now many companies on the market, offering salts infused with an infinite variety of herbs, flavors and ingredients, all of which can add that special touch to your meals and desserts. Designer finishing salts are now being combined with chocolates and truffles to bring out fantastic flavors and nuances never before explored.
First we're going to break down the basics of salt, then focus in on the sea and artisanal (or custom designed) varieties.

Salt (sodium chloride) 101:
All the salt that we consume is made from either sea salt, which includes bay and ocean salt, or that which is mined from inland deposits. Himalayan salt, for instance, is mined from deep inside the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet, where it was deposited when the sea covered the area more than 250 million years ago.

There are four varieties of salt:
Iodized table salt: Not much to tell here as this is the basic shaker on the table most Americans are used to. Over 70 % of all salt sold in the US falls into this category. Table salt is refined salt, 99% sodium chloride. It usually contains substances that make it free-flowing, called anti-caking agents, such as sodium silicoaluminate or magnesium carbonate. Most refined salt is prepared from rock salt which are simply mineral deposits that are high in salt. These deposits were formed by the evaporation of ancient salt lakes, and may be mined conventionally, or through the injection of water. Injected water dissolves the salt so the brine solution can be pumped to the surface where the salt is then collected.

Kosher salt: Gets its name because of its importance in making meat kosher, not because it follows the guidelines for kosher foods as written in the Torah. The salt grains are larger than regular table salt grains, so when meats are coated in kosher salt, the salt dissolves more slowly, remaining on the surface of the meat longer and drawing out the fluids (blood) of the meat. Like common table salt, kosher salt consists of the chemical compound sodium chloride. Unlike common table salt, kosher salt typically contains no additives.

Sea salt: Created by evaporating sea water until you are left with salt. The more pristine and unique an area's salt content is, determines its value on the market. Unrefined sea salts are also commonly used as ingredients in bathing additives and cosmetic products such as bath salts, which use sea salt as its main ingredient and combined with other ingredients for its healing and therapeutic effects.

Fleur de Sel: Easily the highest rated salt by the world's leading chefs, this salt is the cream of the crop of Celtic sea salts. Harvesting only takes place in the summer months, when the sun is its strongest. Of note is how these top end salt varieties are harvested. Grey salt and Fleur de Sel are collected by hand with wooden rakes by artisan paludiers (salt harvesters, salt rakers or salt farmers ) who sweep the top of the evaporating sea water. This is the same, 1500 year old method developed by their Celtic ancestors, which earns the grey salt its alternate name of Celtic sea salt. New paludiers study for one year to learn the slow and precise movements and patient methods of the ancient craft. Most are drawn to the profession by a love of nature, working outdoors and the romance of tradition. The average age of a paludier is now under 40, thanks both to a renewed interest in the craft, and the explosion in popularity of sea salt. There are around 200 traditional paludiers in France today working the salt-marshes, producing an annual harvest of 10,000 tons of quality sea salt each year.

Sea & Artisanal Salts

Sea salt that has a soft, flaky texture and is from the water off of the west coast of Wales, where it is freshly harvested from the Atlantic waters that surround the Isle of Anglesey. The salt is also smoked over 800 year old Welsh oak chips, producing a champagne-colored flake with a delicate smokiness. Salt sold under the Halen Môn brand is Anglesey. Crunchy in texture, it is also available in a spiced form with peppercorns, cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, chili and cloves.

A variety of unrefined mineral salts that range from dark grey to black in color, including Hawaiian volcanic sea salt (black lava salt) and Cyprus black sea salt. Indian black salt, or kala namak, is actually a pearly pinkish gray rather than black, and has a strong, sulfuric flavor. Available in very fine or coarse grain.

A Korean salt made by roasting sea salt in bamboo cylinders plugged with yellow mud. The salt absorbs minerals from the bamboo and mud, which in turn leach the salt of impurities. A powerful ingredient in Taoist medicine, believed to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, cure fevers, relieve edema, and serve in remedies of dozens of other conditions.

A grey French sea salt, hand harvested using the Celtic method of wooden rakes allowing no metal to touch the salt. Celtic salts are available ground in different levels of coarseness. Celtic salt refers to naturally moist salts harvested from the pristine Atlantic seawater off the coast of Brittany, France. These salts, which are rich in trace mineral content, are available in coarse, stone ground, fine and extra fine grain.

A salt substance derived from acidic citrus fruits, such as lemon and limes, that is dried and formed into a powder or crystal. When used as an ingredient to flavor foods, it provides a distinctively sour or tart taste. It is a common substance used in canning, to keep the color of fruits from darkening, and is commonly used as a substitute for lemon juice.

Coarse salt is a larger-grained sea salt crystal. Most recipes calling for salt imply finely ground salt, however, many professional chefs prefer cooking with coarse salt because they can easily measure it with their fingers. It is less moisture sensitive, so it resists caking and is easily stored. Coarse salt is useful for making beds for oysters and salt crusts on meat or fish, for lining baking dishes and the rims of margarita glasses. Kosher salt and sea salt come coarsely ground.

Like fleur de sel, this “flower of salt” is so-named because the delicate salt “flowers,” or crystals, comprise the top layer of the salt pans that rest on the surface of the sea. Fior di Sale comes from the Trapani area of Sicily and is harvested by master salt makers. It can only be harvested on windless mornings, when the surface waters of the Mediterranean are unruffled. It is a very white crystal with a much lower percentage of sodium chloride than regular table salt. It is rich in fluorine, magnesium, potassium and all the trace elements contained in sea water. It has a delicate, sweet flavor with good taste, not too strong or salty. A finishing salt, it should be sprinkled on salads, tomatoes, fish, to finish roasts and sauces, on buttered bread and bruschetta. It is extremely soluble and will dissolve even on cool foods.

A light crystal salt with a snowflake like texture. Sea-waters are evaporated by the sun and wind producing salt brine that is slowly heated to the point where delicate pyramid shaped crystals of salt appear. The finished product is light, flaky sea salt. Flake salts are harvested all over the world: the Maldon River in England, Anglesey off the island of Wales, New Zealand and Australia. The pink flake salt shown here comes from Australia’s Murray-Darling River Basin, where a red pigment, carotene, is secreted by algae.

Salts can be smoked or otherwise flavored by mixing them with spices (saffron), herbs (bay leaf, fennel, thyme), berries or other seasonings like truffles. Complex blends can be found, including those that mix sea salts with regionally-themed spices and herbs to create “Mediterranean” or “Southwestern” blends. The salts usually have a lot of visual appeal on top of foods and as plate garnishes because they are crafted for beauty, they make a better presentation than a home cook would achieve by combining sea salt with the same ingredients from the spice cabinet.

French for “flower of the salt.” Like sel gris, it is also raked by hand from the salt ponds (fields) of the village of Guèrande, Brittany, on the coast of France. It is harvested from May to September; artisan paludiers patiently wait as the shallow pools of water evaporate, creating the precious salt crystals. The slightest movement will cause the “flower” to sink to the bottom, so salt can only be collected when the weather is warm and the sea is calm. For every 80 pounds of sel gris produced, only three pounds of fleur de sel is harvested. The salt rises to the top of the water, forming delicate flakes that, upon drying, are white and can acquire a pinkish hue. Long prized by chefs and gourmets for its high quality, fleur de sel provides a very delicate and somewhat earthy flavor. Like sel gris, it is an excellent cooking and finishing salt, smooth with a light crunch.

Artisan salt is hand-harvested in small batches all over the world. It can be evaporated in ponds or salt pans from any body of water. Based on the body of water, the salt will vary in texture and moisture content. The popularity of artisan salt has created cottage industries in artisan salt. Cayman Sea Salt is an example, located in the popular Cayman Islands tourist destination, between Cuba and Mexico.

There are two distinct varieties of salt from the Aloha state. Black Lava Salt: This salt is created with purified sea water that is evaporated in pools with purified black lava rock to add minerals. It is then dried in a greenhouse.

The second is called Alaea: On the island of Kauai, sediment of iron oxide-rich red volcanic clay seeped into the ocean from its rivers. Alaea takes its name from the area’s red volcanic clay. The clay imparts a subtle flavor that is more mellow than regular salt. This natural additive is what gives the salt its distinctive pink color. It is the traditional and authentic seasoning for native Hawaiian dishes such as Kalua Pig, Poke and Hawaiian Jerky. Also good on prime rib and pork loin. Hawaiian Sea Salt comes in fine and coarse grain.

Also known as black salt or sanchal, an unrefined volcanic table salt with a strong sulfuric flavor. Despite its name, kala namak, which is mined in Central India, is actually light pink in color. It is mineral-rich and most often used to flavor Indian dishes like chaats, vegetable and fruit salads.

Certifying organizations include Bio-Gro in New Zealand, Nature & Progres in France and Soil Association Certified in Wales.While the standards are not the same as botanicals, agriculture or livestock, these various organizations are setting up rigorous guidelines for the production of organic salt. They ensure the purity of the water, cleanliness of the salt beds and strict procedures on how the salt is harvested and packaged etc.

This salt is harvested from an ancient ocean now underground, which feeds a spring located 10,000 feet high in the Andes. The salt has a mineral quality. Sprinkle a few grains on sliced ripe tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and potatoes.

Mined from deep inside the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet, Pink Himalayan salt was deposited when the sea covered the area more than 250 million years ago. Often the salt is brought down from the mountains on the backs of yaks. It is available in a variety of grinds, as well as in block form where a grater is used.. The unrefined and unpolluted pink translucent crystals have a subtle, crunchy texture.
A relatively new category of gourmet salts, which can be naturally smoked over wood fires to infuse the salt crystals with natural smoke flavor, or be artificially infused. Smoked salts add a smoke house flavor to a wide range of dishes including roasts, chicken and grilled meats, salmon, soups, salads and sandwiches, steamed vegetables, on corn, egg dishes, on baked potatoes, or as a dry rub. Interesting in color, sprinkle as a decorating garnish—or use as a glass rimmer on a Bloody Mary. Examples include alder smoked salt and tropical sea salts that have been smoked over coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves.

These salts can raise the level of your presentations, adding subtle and wonderful flavors to any traditional dishes you may create, while at the same time, fostering a creativity and propensity to have you think outside the norm of what is your comfort zone. Adding a few jars of these exotic tastes to your pantry will cause you to explore more of the the world with your palate. As I sit here looking at a jar of lavender infused salt and another infused with truffle, I am inspired to go search through my cabinets for some other bought, but long forgotten ingredients that I can take on the culinary journey with me. Today's gourmet trends can be the perfect vehicle when searching out new cultures, flavors, experiences and ideas.

Bon Appetit!

Credits: Some of the photo's in this feature have been provided by Mark Bitterman,, &