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A salt for all seasoning

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    Salt comes in myriad forms, from the flaky fleur de sel, the chunkier grains of sel gris, to quarried and cut blocks like these Himalayan salt blocks.Mark Bittterman

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    Specialty stops like The Meadow in Portland, Ore. and New York City specialize in myriad types of salt, like these offerings that range from Atlantic-rimming Guerande in the Loire Valley of France to red Molokai sea salt from Hawaii.Mark Bitterman

Everything in moderation, right? Well, maybe with some things – but when it comes to shaking out the white stuff in the United States, we are mighty salty dogs.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States of America is the second largest salt producing nation in the world (China is first), with $1.7 billion of the crystalline mineral for myriad uses across 16 states (although, surprisingly, culinary endeavors only account for about 4%). That’s a whole lot of salty stuff. But do you know what you’re sprinkling when you pick up that salt shaker? And could it shake out a little better? According to Mark Bitterman, author of Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral and co-owner with his wife, Jennifer, of the bi-coastal salt emporium The Meadow, the answer is a well-seasoned yes.

“We sell over 100 types, but there are thousands,” Bitterman says. “There may be 20, 50, maybe 100 varieties of tomatoes, but with salt, every climate of the world makes different salt. The technology and geography makes them different.”

But while you could spend a near lifetime getting to know all the myriad types available, there is one common denominator that links them all together. “It’s really the most distinctive of all humanities food cultures, but it’s the one ingredient that every single person eats,” Bitterman says. “Not everybody eats meat, not everybody eats pork, not everybody eats celery! But perhaps with the exception of one nomadic tribe in Africa, every society in the world eats salt.”

But with so many different kinds to choose from, what’s a home cook to do? First piece of advice from Bitterman: Steer clear of mass produced industrial salts, which are pretty much all your table salts, kosher salt, and even some sea salt. Why? Manufactured salts contain chemical additives and lack the 84 minerals found in natural salts.

You can basically break down the thousands of salts into two basic, meaningful categories: cooking and finishing. Bitterman advises that every home cook should possess his or her favorite of each of these. When trying to determine your favorite salt, make sure you learn about the different sizes and textures that are out there. This will help you find a favorite.

“What we don’t want is to be saddled with too many mind boggling types that you don’t know what to do with.”

So what do you pick? Think in terms of three categories of what Bitterman refers to as foundation salts:

1. Fleur de sel. This hand-harvested sea salt has very fine, granular, irregular-shaped crystals. It contains a lot of moisture, so if you put it on moist food like pork chops, fish, boiled veggies or scrambled eggs, it doesn’t dissolve and disappear. “Moisture makes it hang out and gives you a little crunch,” Bitterman says. Fleur de sel (which is French for "flower of salt") makes a great finishing salt for delicate to medium body foods like chicken or pork loin, for baking, or even sprinkled over unsalted butter slathered on toast. It’s a little pricier than other salts because there’s less of it to harvest, but Bitterman says you can cut costs by getting to know the globe. “We sell a fleur de sel made in Guatemala that’s actually inexpensive. It’s a great all-purpose cooking salt.”

2. Sel gris. Also known as gray sea salt, sel gris is like fleur de sel’s less-expensive kid sister. Coarse and a bit chunky, crunchy gray sea salt is great on hearty foods like steak, lamb and root vegetables as a finishing salt. But, Bitterman cautions, it’s so hefty that it can overwhelm more delicate foods. The way to get around that? Crush the chunkier crystals with a mortar and pestel or do like Bitterman does and mash them under the flat end of a butcher knife.

3. Flake salt. The most common version of this sea salt type is Malden, but there are many kinds available. Unlike granular salt, flake salt is parchment-paper fine and less minerally in flavor. “Instead of dissolving gradually in your mouth, it’s all ‘Pow! Snap!’ in salty flavor and then it’s gone,” says Bitterman, who advises that flake salt is exceptionally good on green salads and fresh veggies. “You get that explosive little pop that vanishes and then the beauty of the fresh veggie flavors come rushing forward! It’s a lot of salty sensation without a lot of salt.”

For more on the myriad different natural salts out there, check out The Meadow website at www.atthemeadow.com.