Seasoned Salt

By Lucinda Hutson

Mexican market and street-cart vendors use creativity and artistic displays to entice customers and draw attention to their fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, without piercing the skin of an unpeeled mango half, vendors will score the flesh in a crisscross pattern, turn the mango inside out and open it like a flower, or partially carve the peel from a whole cucumber to make it resemble leaves sprouting from an exotic blossom.

They even make plastic cups look pretty—filling them with colorful chunks of ripe pineapple, oranges and jicama, then sprinkling the top with pomegranate seeds when in season. Wedges of juicy papaya and crimson watermelon also call to passersby.

What gives these fruits and vegetables extra flavor and color? The ubiquitous dusting of chili powder (or a dousing with fiery red chili salsa), a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice and sprinkling of salt. In the produce sections of Central Texas grocery stores and Mexican markets you’ll find lively seasoned salts in shakers (Tajin and Trechas are the most popular brands) flavored with dried chilies, salt, chili powder and perhaps a bit of sugar and citric acid, which adds a mouth-puckering lime-like tartness. Chili-seasoned salts taste delicious sprinkled over summer fruits, veggies, salads, grilled meats, seafood and poultry—and don’t forget popcorn!

Flavorful salts are especially tasty when used to rim margarita glasses and tropical fruit and tequila cocktails. Pique taste buds at once with sweet, salty, fruity and tart flavors. Imagine colorful prickly pear or mango margaritas with a chili-salt rim. Yum! A trip to Mexico with each sip! For a treat, pour icy shots of tequila blanco (keep the bottle in the freezer) accompanied with a platter of fresh summer fruits cut into wedges and chunks and sprinkled with chili-seasoned salt and lime juice.

It’s easy and fun to make your own flavored salts; here’s what you’ll need:

Kosher salt: large, flaky crystals adhere better to glasses and dissolve less easily than table salt. Kosher sea salt is also available. Or experiment with specialty salts like French fleur de sel, pink Hawaiian sea salt or other coarsely ground and flavored salts.

Citric Acid: this crystalline compound looks like sparkling salt and is water-soluble. Extracted from citrus and acidic fruits, it’s sometimes called “sour salt” and is used in mouth-puckering candies. Its tartness adds flavor to homemade seasoning salts used to rim glasses, though you just need a pinch. Find it where pickling and canning supplies are sold, in Middle Eastern groceries and online.

Citrus Zest: fresh lime, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine or a combination.

Dried Chilies: try a mixture of dried red chilies for color and flavor, such as arbol, cayenne, ancho or guajillo, or add a pinch of fiery, dried habanero if you dare. Boost the flavor by quickly roasting them for a minute on each side on a hot comal (griddle), but take care not to burn them. Remove the seeds and stems, then grind the peppers coarsely in an electric spice or coffee grinder. Many spice companies also sell pure ground chili powders, but make certain they don’t already contain salt and other spices.

Master Recipe for Seasoned Salt
Makes about 8 tablespoons

I like to make a master blend of flavored salt, and from it, make several variations. Let this recipe inspire your own creations. In small increments, add more sugar, a pinch of citric acid, spices and other ingredients to your own taste.

4 T. Kosher salt
1½ t. freshly grated lime zest
1½ t. freshly grated orange zest
1 T. granulated or turbinado sugar
¼ t. citric acid

Using a mortar and pestle or the back of a wooden spoon, gently grind all the ingredients in a small bowl. Spread the salt out on a large plate to dry for several hours, stirring occasionally. If needed, place the salt in an oven heated to 200°, turn off the heat, allow to dry and then grind gently again. Store in a tightly sealed container.

Variations (from the Master Recipe)

Spicy Mexican Seasoned Salt

Freshly made, this beats commercial brands of chili-seasoned salt. Use it for rimming glasses or for topping popcorn, fresh fruit, salads and grilled meats.

4 T. Master Recipe
1–2 t. sugar
¼ t. citric acid
1 t. fine quality paprika
½ t. freshly ground arbol or cayenne chili
1 t. ground ancho chili

Combine the ingredients using the Master Recipe instructions.

Pink Peppercorn Citrus Salt

I love this fragrant and zesty salt speckled with pink peppercorns and orange and lime zests. It’s gorgeous on ripe honeydew or cantaloupe, sprinkled on seafood or salads and as a rim for fruit-flavored cocktails.

1 T. Master Recipe
1 t. freshly ground pink peppercorns
1 t. sugar
¼ t. lime zest

Combine the ingredients using the Master Recipe instructions.

Hibiscus Flower and Orange Zest Salt

Pretty and exotic, this purple-hued floral salt made with ground flor de jamaica (hibiscus calyx) is tart, tangy and delicious on drink rims or sprinkled over seafood and fruit salads. 

1 T. Master Recipe
1 t. coarsely ground flor de jamaica
¼ t. sugar
½ t. orange zest
¹/8 t. citric acid

Combine the ingredients using the Master Recipe instructions.