Over the past three weeks, we've seen the science behind how salt works, the value of specialty salt, and the incredible variety of flavored salts. If your appetite's whetted and you've purchased some specialty salt of your own, this week's Salt Mining is devoted to making your salty investment work best for you.
For guidance, I turned to Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow. Bitterman won the James Beard award for his book Salted, an exhaustive guide to salt, with recipes. His descriptions of his products are poetic, his knowledge encyclopedic. He preaches the thoughtful application of salt and a deeper understanding of its relation to cooking. The man knows his salt.
Treat Salt Like an Ingredient
Bitterman argues that these days salt is mostly treated as a process, like browning or marinating: it's something you do to food to make it test better, rather than an ingredient added to the flavor profile (beyond making something taste salty, of course) of a dish. Specialty salts, with their own flavors and characteristics, deserve to be considered as ingredients in their own right. Bitterman advises skewing your salting towards the end of the cooking process, so you can balance the natural flavors of the food with a carefully selected salt.
But wait, haven't we seen some clear benefits from adding salt early while cooking? You bet. But these approaches aren't mutually exclusive; you can season with plain salt early on and finish with more nuanced salts before serving.
What I love most about Bitterman's approach is how it forces us cooks to think about what salt does to our food. Not just about the breaking down of cell walls and the amplification of flavor, but the impact of the crystals themselves: in Bitterman's terms, to consider salt "as an ingredient with heart and soul and integrity." Only when we think about what we want from salt can we figure out how to use it.
Expand Your Salt Vocabulary
The easiest way I found to learn more about using specialty salts was to think about the vocabulary used to describe them. Bitterman described to me a number of flavor/impact profiles a salt can have. To name a few: mineral, bright, electric, fruity, sweet, rounded, buttery, heavy, and earthy. Some of these flavors come through more than others when tasting salts, but it's not a stretch for most that I've sampled.
Some spectrums emerge in these terms. Salt can taste heavy and full-bodied like whisky or clean and refreshing like vodka. It can be tart like pickle brine or sweetly complex like fruit. Sea salts hailing from the Mediterranean tend towards sharp, bright, and oceanic, while grey salts from the French coast are heavier and more full-flavored.
When viewed this way, salt can be treated like any spice, provided it's used properly. For me, using salt this way comes down to three elements: complement, contrast, and textural surprise. Take a frequent breakfast of mine: avocado and lime juice on toast. I top it with crunchy grains of earthy red clay salt, which contrast with the bright lime juice while enriching the avocado's subtle mineral flavors. The crunchy crystals are also a welcome rejoinder to the avocado's creaminess.
Bitterman shared a story about a salted caramel he encountered made with Djibouti dew, a "bright and electric" salt to contrast smoky burnt sugar. The pairing also takes advantage of the salt's texture, tiny pearl-like spheres, to pop against creamy candy.
It's worth paying attention to salt's texture on its own because the shape of a crystal impacts how it tastes. Large and dense crystals will melt slower, prolonging a salty flavor. Fine grains yield a jolt of saltiness but dissipate. Flaky salts are wild cards in the mouth, giving bursts of salt while also lingering.
So there are some guidelines to get the most from your salt. There are no hard and fast rules; we taste the subtleties of salts differently, and some people like certain crystal shapes over others. So above all else, taste salts before you buy them, treat them like ingredients in their own right, and use them thoughtfully.
A Specialty Salt Starter Kit
I asked Bitterman to share some specialty salts for someone looking to start a collection. These five salts cover a range of applications and take advantage of the unique flavors and textures of sea salts:
- Fleur de sel, a sea salt with balance of flavor and texture, is what Bitterman uses instead of kosher salt.
- A flaky salt like Maldon offers bursts of salinity as you bite into large flakes; it makes salt taste exciting.
- Sel gris or grey salt has a heavier, mineral-forward flavor best used on grilled meats and roasted vegetables.
- Smoked salts can taste heavily or lightly of smoke and add richness to foods while contributing new dimensions of flavor.
- Japanese salts are highly idiosycratic, and offer ways to flex your newly salted creative muscles.
So there you have it: your Spice Hunter's guide to salt. Any nagging questions you want answered? Sound off below.