By Amy Reynolds
Photography by Jody Horton
Salt is the most universal condiment found on the planet. And not just the iodine-laden, burned-at-1,000-degrees-Fahrenheit shaker salt we all know, but the sun- and earth-baked, mineral-filled, rainbow-hued, sea and rock salts dotted across the globe now gaining in popularity. With an almost 5,000-year history of making and breaking the strongest of empires, inciting wars and causing the construction and destruction of countless cities, salt might be considered the most valuable treasure in human history.
Marriage, murder and marauding have all been committed in the name of salt.
Why all the hoopla? Salt is an essential nutrient in the diet of all creatures, and the only rock eaten by man.
Salt maintains the permeability needed to transmit nutrients across cell walls. Sodium mandates electrolyte balance as well, and is an important component in our lymphatic systems and the health of our blood.
Aside from aiding human health, salt was also the earliest food preservative, making it possible to transport goods over greater distances for longer periods of time—expanding our access to more varieties of food.
Salt has been used in the past for currency, trade and soldiers' pay. Modern uses range from salt domes for storing nuclear waste, oil and natural gas reserves to rock salt used to melt ice- and snowbound roads in cold climates. According to the Salt Institute, a nonprofit salt industry trade association, salt deposits are often found adjacent to petroleum deposits, and petroleum geologists use salt in their game-theory evaluations of where to drill for oil.
At its most humble, salt is used to soften water, scrub cooking pots, soothe aching muscles and skin issues like eczema and psoriasis; when mixed with water, it makes a gargle for a sore throat. Salt even affects us every paycheck. The Latin word for salt is salarium, from which our salaries are drawn today.
There are three main techniques for harvesting unrefined salt. Sea salt comes from the evaporation of sea water; rock salt comes from the mining of salt deposits and residual salt originates from the evaporation of a water/salt slurry. More than 80 important trace minerals, including calcium, potassium and magnesium, can be found along with the sodium chloride in these salts.
"Refined salt is less expensive than hand-harvested and sea salts because the beneficial trace minerals are removed and sold separately," says Naomi Novotny, co-owner of global salt importer/ provider SaltWorks in Woodinville, Washington. These natural trace minerals, she notes, are similar to our own bodily fluids, easily absorbed and helpful in regulating our body's functions. Consumers and chefs are starting to appreciate this, regardless of the higher cost.
"People are more conscious of the quality and origin of their foods," says Novotny, pointing to the ever-growing popularity of artisan and specialty salts as evidence. "Artisan salts with trace minerals have more flavor and better texture, so you tend to use less."
Matthew Buchanan, chef/owner of The Leaning Pear in Wimberley agrees, and considers himself quite the salt aficionado— his pride and joy being a 10-compartment salt cellar which he proudly displays with little prompting.
He explains that "finishing salt" is just a fancy name for a flakier, more delicate salt that's added to foods already prepared— salads, soups, even cantaloupe. It's for experiencing the texture and color as well as the taste. Cooking salt, however, is typically coarser—Sel Gris or Alaea Hawaiian Red Clay, for example—and takes longer to dissolve. It brings out robust flavor in a dish without the added texture and crunch. Infusion salts are flavored finishing salts imbued with essences like chiles, truffles, merlot—even chocolate.
"I am a big fan of sea and infused salt," says Buchanan. "Sel Gris is always a component of our garden panzanella, and I am currently using black and white Cypress flake for our local fried-green tomatoes." He warns against using finishing salts too early in the cooking process—especially for items with higher water content, such as watermelon. "It'll dissolve, and you'll be left without that crunch." He suggests using fats and oils to act as a barrier between the salt and water.
Salt in all of its forms continues to remain as important today as it was 5,000 years ago. The current popularity of the natural mineral salts for culinary uses, as well as for spa treatments, offers a variety of opportunities to experience salt's beauty and diversity. Fortunately, given the boom of international trade in the past 20 years, partnered with the internet, artisan salts from all over the world are locally available and can be enjoyed by anyone willing to try something new.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Mineral salts come from more than 20 countries
• Himalayan rock salts formed during the Jurassic period, before there was pollution as we know it on Earth. They are considered intensely pure and full of health benefits, containing up to 84 trace minerals and iron
• French Sel Gris and Fleur de Sel are younger and hand-harvested every year as opposed to the Pure Ocean salt, which stays in the pond five to seven years before harvesting
• Murray River Australian flake salt is made by flooding salinated land and harvesting the flakes that form after water evaporation
• Salt cannot be “organically grown” since it is not a plant. The certifications to look for are Nature & Progrès (France) and BIO-GRO (New Zealand)
• Flake salts like Cypress flake are from shallow ponds and have a more concentrated brine. These are labor-intensive but result in a fabulous, flakey characteristic perfect for finishing a dish
• Natural salts gain their beautiful colors from their varied natural environments. The gray color in Sel Gris comes from the minerals, the Alaea Hawaiian salt has red clay mixed in, Himalayan pink is due to the iron content and the Murray River delicate pink color comes from a salt-tolerant algae