Salt Mining: The Great Wide World of Flavored Salts
The jury may be out on the human tongue's ability to negotiate the subtle differences of specialty sea salts—though I think we definitely can—but there's no doubt in my mind about the whizz-bang effect of flavored salts. I say "flavored" because this broad category of salts delivers powerful flavors, be they minerals, infused ingredients, or special cooking methods. When I'm shelling out for specialty salt, these are the crystals I'm most likely to reach for.
Flavored salts are punchy and dramatic, best used for finishing to preserve their flavors and striking colors. With a few of these in your pantry, you can complement virtually any fresh ingredient on the plate.
Some of my favorite salts are mineral-rich varieties harvested from the sea or quarried from mines. They're best identified by their color, usually along the pink-red-maroon spectrum, depending on the specific minerals trapped in the crystals.
The red salts, often called "alea clay," "molokai red," or "volcanic," possess an astounding earthiness reminiscent of fertile soil. I love them with sharp, acidic, or buttery flavors, for which they act as an assertive period to lingering tastes; they make a simple grapefruit and avocado salad astoundingly good. Crystals come in a variety of sizes, but I prefer the larger ones, which melt slowly and let the flavor of the salt linger.
Another notable salt in this category is kala namak, a volcanic salt from India with a dark brown, almost black color, due to a whopping amount of sulfurous minerals. The flavor and aroma speak powerfully—and I mean powerfully—of cooked eggs. My salt buddy CityMinx loves it for that, though I, loathe to eat eggs even on the best of days, am still recovering from my first encounter.
Smoked salts range from delicate flavors of singed wood to the kapow of an uncleaned grill blackening yet one more burger. When used carefully, they impart delicate smokiness to all manner of foods, including meat, fish, and vegetables like roasted cauliflower.
As a rough rule, the darker the salt, the smokier it'll smell and taste, but I highly recommend tasting before purchase if at all possible so you know what you're getting into. I'm partial to the lighter smoked salts for their barbecued flavors of slow-cooked fragrant wood. To my taste they do the best job of complementing food without overwhelming it. That said, sometimes you want a real sucker punch of smoke (think on a mild puréed soup).
Smoked salts are processed in one of two ways. The cheaper, faster, and generally less tasty method is to coat salt crystals with liquid smoke oil and some maltodextrin to prevent clumping. The pricier but generally more nuanced way comes from cooking salt out of solution directly over smoky fires. Smoke particles become trapped within the crystalizing salt as the brine evaporates, infusing everything with full-bodied smoky flavor. Like with any other spice, ask your spice vendor directly about a smoked salt's origins to make sure you're getting the best.
Infused salts have flavors added to them during processing. Common additions include herbs, vanilla, saffron, mushroom, chiles, truffles, lemon, and even bacon. These salts act like extracts, sucking up the flavor of whatever they're infused with, getting stronger with time—but with the added benefit of a range of textures to accentuate those flavors.
Why not just add fresh herbs and a sprinkle of sea salt? Convenience is certainly part of it: I don't always have a quartet of fines herbes on hand, but I always have herb salt. But the flavor is also different.
My lemon salt, for example, can't be replicated by a sprinkle of lemon zest; it has a more matured, rounded lemon flavor, powerful enough that chicken salad and shortbread just aren't the same without it.
Exotic infused salts like truffle and saffron, though expensive, offer a way to stretch a pricey and rare ingredient without losing its flavor and nuance. You may wince at spending $20 on a tiny jar of truffle salt, but it has a transformative power on roast beef or fried potatoes like nothing else.
It's easy to infuse your own salts at home: just grind whatever you'd like to infuse into a fine power, stir into salt, and leave in a sealed jar for a week. Proportions will vary by ingredient, but you can always add more flavoring if need be; the salt will preserve whatever's added to it.
What are your favorite salts?
Did this miss your favorite salts? Any infusion blends to share? Let us know. Next week will wrap up the Salt Mining series with tips on how to use all your new fancy salts, so stay tuned.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.