The Secret Ingredient: Smoked Salt
I am addicted to salt.
If allowed to bring only one thing to a desert island, I wouldn't even have to; the one thing I need to survive, salt, would be in the ocean all around me.
One day last year, I walked over to the supermarket with spring in my step--it was my salt cellar renewal day, time to replenish my collection of salt. I stand at the shelves and ponder my options. I saw the famed Maldon sea salt, in its stately box, on the bottom shelf. I thought it would be expensive, and I almost left without it, but something made me check the price. It is English, so for a hefty box of gourmet salt, I only had to fork over a couple of pounds. I was so thrilled, I actually ate a few of the salty flakes right out of the box. And I was temporarily sated.
When I got back to the States, I found myself again milling around the salt aisle at my favorite gourmet shop on the Upper East Side. There I saw it--something I had never spotted at Sainsbury's. Smoked Maldon sea salt! My eyes grew wide; I drew in a sharp breath. I looked around to see if any of the other shoppers had spotted it. How could there be any left on the shelves?
I took it down, and held it in my hand. It was a little pricier than regular salt was in England, but I didn't care. I had to have it. I told you in my first The Secret Ingredient that I am a shopaholic; now I was shopping for salt. It may be have been one of the best hours of my life.
I stashed the box away, and went right home to taste it. I put a few flakes on my tongue, and I felt it. The salinity was there, the same as I remembered it, with that distinctive mica texture. But there was also a subtle, exotic aroma. This delicate smoke, sweet, woodsy, reminiscent of chimney clouds sniffed from the ski slope. Not overpowering, not overwhelming--just right. It was as if the salt were wearing a perfume elegantly entitled eau d'oak.
The flakes of Maldon sea salt are harvested in beds along the River Blackwater in England, in the country's driest town. There, they still rake the salt crystals to harvest them, as they must have done since forever. The salt flakes have a characteristic flat crystal shape, which imparts a texture as well as a salinity to food. It is, somewhat like its French counterpart fleur de sel, a lovely finisher. Maldon smoked salt is cold smoked over oak to impart a very gentle smoke flavor. Although, you have the option to explore as many varieties of smoked salt as you can, for a range of smokiness.
So, what do you do with it? I offer three variations here: Roasted Trout with Smoked Salt and Fresh Woody Herbs, Smoky Spaghetti Carbonara, and Smoked Salt Caramels.
But I would also try seasoning filet mignon with nothing but smoked salt and searing it the French way in butter. I would make a fresh Chermoula using smoked salt, and omit the cumin, and then serve it instead of cocktail sauce with boiled or grilled shrimp. I would use it on homemade caramel apples. I have added it to crema to top black bean soup. I would crush it and use it to rim glasses for chili-infused margaritas. I would also use it to season lobster tails before grilling in the summer, or add it to clam bakes. If you're looking to ever add a subtle smokiness to red meat and shellfish--along with a bit of that "What is that?"--then this is the Secret Ingredient for you.