A Touch of Good Taste

Primer: Salt


February 17, 2015 Guides & How-To's By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Salt is the single most common ingredient in the world and has been a staple of everyday life for thousands of years. Ancient cultures harvested it and prized its ability to kill bacteria and preserve food — and as a plus, it just made things taste better (even from a caveman’s point of view). Today, most of the salt found in your average grocery store aisle is long call away from the kind once harvested by hand; it’s manufactured in industrial plants by the tons — hundreds of tons, actually — and misses the uniqueness of naturally harvested sea salt.

EASY RECIPES: Drunk Kentucky Catfish | Trout with Bacon Brussels Sprouts | Jamaican Jerk Bacon

Not that industrialized salt is bad. It’s both budget-friendly and highly standardized (the industry-standard purity of sodium chloride is 99.7 percent), which means you know what you’re getting with a can of Morton or some other big-name manufacturer. For cooking purposes — especially when it comes to soups and stews, wherein the salt dissolves into the liquid — the increased sum of flavors from using natural salt versus industrial salt is negligible, no matter what the guy behind the neighborhood organic deli counter tells you. In the kitchen, use kosher salt, which is at the chemical level the same thing as table salt, just with slightly coarser and irregular-shaped crystals. But when it comes to the table, adding those finishing touches on a salad or a five-pound hunk of sirloin, you can do better.

These moments call for specialty salt. Location has much to do with its distinction: salt’s source determines its overall chemical makeup, which, in addition to sodium and chloride, includes varying levels of magnesium, calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, and bromide, among other ions from different parts of sea. Artisan salt is also highly irregular in its size and shape, a trait that plays a large role into the effect it has on our taste buds. Though harvesting salt by hand has dwindled substantially in light of industrialization, a few hundred artisans and gourmands around the world remain dedicated to the long-standing tradition, with an appreciation for what sets it apart from its mass-produced sibling. Of all the salts to choose from, these are the three that’ll have all your dashes covered.

Humans are born with roughly 10,000 taste receptors scattered across the tongue and throat. Hardwired to the gustatory area of the brain, they determine how food fits within our five basic categories of taste: fatty, sweet, bitter, umami (a Japanese word, translating roughly to savory or meaty) and, finally, salty. It is clear how our bodies perceive the all other taste sensations; however, the exact receptors that play a role in the sensory taste perception of salt are still poorly understood to scientists.

Flake Salt

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Jacobsen-Gear-Patrol Best for Salads: More often than not, flake salt is produced by heating seawater over fire (though sometimes solar evaporation can yield similar results). The rapid evaporation of water creates thin, pyramidal sheets of salt flakes that are highly irregular in their overall size, so that each one hits the tongue with varying degrees of intensity. They have a crispy texture, creating an intense pop-like effect in the mouth that is ideal for fresh vegetables or unaltered leaves of lettuce dressed in olive oil. Jacobsen Salt Co. (originally a Kickstarter) in Oregon, USA has become a top-tier manufacturer of flake salt, sourcing all of its seawater from Netarts Bay on the northern coastline of the state. It finishes sharp with a delicate crunch, has a low residual moisture level, and a mild brininess that makes it perfect for salads or ice cream.

Sel Gris

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Espirit-Du-Sel-Gear-Patrol Best for Meat: Sel gris (also known as Celtic sea salt) gets its common name from its hue, which can vary from an opaque white to a dark gray depending on its source and the minerals it’s come into contact with. The world’s most coveted sel gris originates in different regions of Brittany, France — famously from Île de Ré (pictured above) and the Guérande Peninsula — where harvesters delicately scrape the salt that has accumulated at the base of traditional salt pans dug into the coastline. With a high moisture level, sel gris is often characterized by a high brininess that shines brightest when paired with meat, helping to cut the fat of steaks and other animal proteins while raising the natural umami flavors.

Fleur de Sel

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Fleur-De-Sel-Gear-Patrol Best All-Purpose: The undipsuted all-around champ of artisanal salts, fleur de sel comes from the same pans as sel gris, but requires a much different, often painstaking method of extraction. As solar evaporation works its magic in the salt pans, very fine, irregular salt crystals form on the top of the brine, which are then raked off and collected. However, if the wind is too strong, or the harvesters are, it’s easily destroyed. Combining elements of both flake salt and sel gris, the residual moisture of fleur de sel prevents it from melting into food, adding a delicate and unpredictable crunch with mild brininess. Pictured above is the Fleur de Sel de Guérande.

Reference Guide

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It would be narrow to call “selmelier” Mark Bitterman’s Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral a cookbook, though it won a James Beard Award for that category in 2011. Though there are indeed recipes featured within, the focus of this book is on understanding the vast world of artisan salts. Salted is a long-form love letter, meticulously researched and throughly expansive, and an essential read for gourmands and historians alike.