Know your salt
Picture from Pinoy Organics
In our modern times precious jewels, gold, oil and money are all means of currency, one could only imagine what would happen if someone tried to buy the Ipad 2 with a handful of salt crystals. Well, rewind a couple hundreds of years and people were doing just that, probably in exchange for a book though.
Think back to a time where refrigeration systems we’re only available at the whim of Mother Nature at winter but where sustenance and nutrition were still as important and crucial as they are today. It’s not surprising then that an item that would help conserve food for longer periods of time and that had obvious health benefits became such a pricey commodity. The rule of the game back then was world domination, man had this inextinguishable need to conquer other countries, so when they couldn’t conquer through land they took to the seas, and this presented quite a challenge since trips would be long and the men would die of hunger: in comes Salt.
Salt was very difficult to harvest and therefore bore a strong trading currency, in Europe the salt routes, providing the transportation of the crystals from sea or rock to the cities, became major trading paths. The Romans increased taxes on salt in times when funding was needed for wars and were lowered in times when famine threats were imminent. In became so important to the empire that it was used to pay their soldiers, which is where the word Salary comes from.
Who knew that modern towns such as Liverpool or Munich would not be around if it weren’t for the ancient industry of salt, or that Lewis and Clark set off to the Missouri river because President Jefferson stated a “mountain of salt” lay somewhere in that location.
Today salt is as common as water, we expect to find it everywhere and we barely think twice before using abundantly while finishing our steaks, flavouring our stews or to be thrown over our shoulders. But for something so immensely important, that Jesus himself said in the New Testament “You are the salt of the earth” and added that if the salt loses its flavor, it is good for nothing but to be trampled; most people are still completely oblivious to all the different types of salt and their proper usage.
The most common hurdle to get over is that Rock Salt comes from rocks and Sea Salt comes from the sea. It’s surprising that most people I’ve asked think that all salt comes from the sea and when it’s called rock salt it’s because the crystals resemble little rocks. In the real world, rock salt is harvested in mines, underground where a natural process has crystallized minerals from trapped water over time. Water is then pumped into these deposits and then evaporated to collect the crystals. Sea salt is harvested from the ocean saltwater slowly and gradually evaporates in saltpans or ponds. A salt crust forms and is collected and treated. How quickly the evaporation takes place will determine the type of salt crystals that will be formed and where the salt is harvested also plays an important role in its final usage.
Now, what does Iodized mean? Iodine is an essential trace mineral in salt without which our body cannot function. In certain countries some of the soils are low in iodine and therefore are not picked up by the vegetables and produce, so to alleviate this problem iodized salt is a quick fix to any nutritional deficiencies.
We’ve covered the historical importance, the process of harvesting and the health benefits of salt, the next step to becoming a connoisseur and a know it all, is to understand the different types of salt you hear Chefs on TV and recipe book blurt out and where and when to use them.
Table Salt – The most common to all of us, is a 97% refined sodium chloride salt with anti caking agents including, sodium silicoaluminate, magnesium carbonate, silicon compounds to help keep a free flow of the grain and when iodized, potassium iodine is added. It will usually be used at the table to flavor food or while cooking common dishes.
Himalayan Pink Salt – These crystals have a beautiful white pinkish color and can be bought either in heavy rock form or already refined in different sizes. It has a very strong flavor and should be used sparingly either in the cooking process or at the table. Usually marketed as being a healthy salt since in its pure form it’s rich in natural and essential minerals.
Fleur de Sel – La crème de la crème. Just like with cream, the tastiest salt is harvested from the top of the saltpan. It comes from around the Guerande and Camargue regions in France where strong winds and humidity create fine crystal formations on top of salt pans. These crystals are then collected using traditional wooden instruments, helping it retain a soft and pillowy texture. Probably one of the most expensive salts, it has a delicate sweet salty taste, a grey pinkish hue and a slightly sticky texture which pairs amazingly on cooked proteins or even fruits. It dissolves rapidly, so it shouldn’t be used for cooking. You would probably be surprised to know that we have our own version of Fleur de Sel in the Philippines hailing from Pangasinan.
Murray River Flaky Salt – One of my personal favorites from Inland Australia, this salt has a very mild flavor, soft like pillows pink flakes and a magnolia pink tinge. As these crystals melt rapidly it is usually better to use it as a finishing salt, on a char grilled steak, a seared sea bass fillet or on a freshly made chocolate caramel truffle. Unlike Fleur de Sel, it has no taste of the sea.
Cyprus Pyramid Salt or Maldon Sea Salt – With a unique pyramid shaped crystal, a strong crunchy texture and concentrated in flavor, it’s not a salt you commonly sea in restaurants and super markets but it is slowly gaining repute. For those who appreciate a full bodied crunch on top of butter slathered toast, with fried eggs or on dips and spreads. These hollow pyramid crystals can be rolled to make flake salt.
Kosher Salt – Pure salt that is used in the kosher process of drawing out impurities from meats and blood. It is always natural, unrefined and is usually presented in small coarse or flakes. Very commonly used in many professional kitchen due to its versatility in pickling, curing, preserving, roasting and overall seasoning of ingredients.
Hawaiian Black Salt – Black or Red Lava salt from Molokai, Hawaii, it has a stunning red or black color that is playful and unique when presented as a table salt. The dramatic colors are due to the addition of activated charcoal (though not in big enough amounts to have health benefits) and the natural storm formation dye.
Kala Namak – Also known as Indian salt, since it is widely used in the region for flavoring and preparing curries, tofu, lassies, chutneys, chaats, raitas and other such Indian delicacies. It has a very strong lingering sulfurous smell (equivalent to the smell of hard boiled eggs) and is purple and black in color. It is a great match for South Asian cooking and should be used in preparation and not finishing.
Grey Salt – An incredibly moist texture, the richness of seawater and its high potency of natural minerals make this salt a great addition to any kitchen. No chemicals, treatments or rinses are used in its process giving it a “moist sand” texture. Available in coarse or ground preparations and best used as table salt, for broths and for roasting meats and seafood.
Flavored and Smoked Salt – These are numerous, varied and usually used as finishing salts where extra flavor is wanted or as part of spice rubs for meats and seafood before roasting or grilling. Black Truffle salt is widely used to finish cream pastas, chili coriander salt can be used to add flavor to a whole chicken and smoked salt is a short cut to adding a smoked flavor to food. Make sure to buy the smoked salt and not the smoked flavored salt, which usually means that artificial liquid smoke has been added to the mix.
Rock Salt – Contrary to popular belief actual rock salt is not used much in cooking and mostly for industrial purposes unless it is specific food grade rock salt.
Most countries with a border to the sea will have their own versions and types of salt. Even though the list above is not exhaustive it should serve as a guide to the different dimensions salt can bring to your everyday cooking. The next time you are in a market and find a strange looking crystal, pick it up and experiment with it. This simple over looked condiment can still surprise you from time to time.