‘My favorite mineral’
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
Pass the NaCl.
For those who need a bit of brushing up on the periodic table of the elements, that’s salt – the marriage of sodium and chloride. It flavors our meals, preserves raw food, spurs hand-wringing among physicians, and occasionally gets tossed over superstitious shoulders.
And lately it has been found in varieties undreamed of back when Grandma filled her shaker with Morton Salt.
Like the girl under the yellow umbrella says, when it rains, it pours.
“There’s really something magical about salt,” says Bradford Heap, chef-owner of Salt the Bistro in Boulder. “Use it the right way, with a judicious hand, and there’s really nothing it can’t enhance. Meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, sweets.”
Quite a bit of alchemy for something that is basically a rock that melts in your mouth.
In an era that has seen an explosion of ingredients in every aisle of the grocery store, salt is enjoying a renaissance of its own.
You can find the most common of upscale salts, fleur de sel from France, in Safeway and King Soopers. Gourmet markets offer much more: pink Himalayan salt, plus grains from Australia, Hawaii and South America. Salt is smoked over alderwood and the staves of oak barrels that once held wine. Artisan saltmakers infuse it with herbs, spices and minced truffles.
Chefs rhapsodize about it.
Every salt on our tables, whether home or restaurant, is made from sea salt or mined inland from veins left by ancient oceans. (Kansas has massive deposits of such salt.)
Globally, salt mines date to at least the Iron Age. And salt licks, small surface deposits of the mineral, were used by animals and humans alike.
The four common varieties: kosher salt, iodized table salt, sea salt and fleur de sel, a sea salt hand-harvested for the crystals that form atop salt evaporation ponds.
There are three main factors in how salt enhances food as a morsel arrives on our palates: the salt’s crystal shape, which varies and affects flavor distribution; the moisture content; and residual trace minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus and calcium.
“Salt is the only mineral we eat in its direct mineral form,” says Mark Bitterman, author of “Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral,” and the selmelier – or salt master – at The Meadow shops he co-owns in Portland, Ore., and New York City. “It’s one of the basic flavors our palates respond to. And it’s one we seek out, and it’s been that way since neolithic times. If you look at the spread of civilization, it was largely based on access to salt.”
While salt mavens aren’t nearly as wonkily evangelical as connoisseurs of other food products – wine, whiskey and oysters come to mind – they do champion their favorites. Praise is meted out for flavor, delicacy, texture, eye appeal and, in the case of smoked salts, aroma. Solvency, the ability to melt on the tongue, is also gauged.
Some salts are kitchen workhorses. Need to season your pot of water before dropping in the linguini? Drop in a handful of kosher salt. Others require a delicate hand. Finishing salts, such as Mayan sea salt and Murray River flake salt, are just that, meant to be used a few grains at a time as grace notes to dishes.
So why salt and why now?
Janet Johnston, co-owner of two Savory Spice Shops in Denver, points to the general expansion of knowledge and product availability seen across the board in contemporary culinary America.
“Because salt is a necessity in the kitchen and brings harmony to a dish, people are open-minded and ready to expand their salt selections,” she says. “What’s happening now is that the variety available in salts, in both appearance and flavor, gives us even more exciting ways to finish a dish.”
For all its virtues, salt’s importance is easy to overlook.
“It’s so ubiquitous,” Heap says. “It’s on every table, and we take it for granted. But for centuries it moved in the circles of power and money, even driving them.
“Armies were assembled to protect it. Historic trading agreements were created to acquire it.” (Mark Kurlansky addressed this in his fascinating book, “Salt: A World History.”)
Among other things, Heap is enamored of salt’s versatility.
His staff uses a kosher variety as the house cure on salmon, where the salt leaches moisture from the fish’s flesh and infuses it with flavor and its natural preservative quality.
They also use Cyprus salt, from the Mediterranean island nation, as a finishing agent on a dessert whose main ingredients are caramel and dark chocolate. “It enhances the flavor and also provides a bit of textural crunch,” Heap says.
Mary Nguyen swears by salt. She is chef-owner of Parallel 17, a Vietnamese restaurant in Denver.
“Salt is one of the most underrated ingredients, and it’s very important in my kitchen,” says Nguyen, who has 12 types of salt in her home pantry. “I’m sort of an atypical woman, in that I don’t really like sweets but love salts. These new types of artisan salts are an amazing way to add another layer of flavor to dishes.”
Using the proper amount of salt is an art.
Heap offers a rule of thumb: “If you can detect the presence of salinity at all, there’s too much salt in the dish. You just want it to taste good.”
Salt has been in the news in recent weeks, with public-health experts exhorting the Food and Drug Administration to force food manufacturers to start cutting the salt levels in their products. Americans eat about 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt daily, according to the FDA, more than double what they need.
But salt per se is not the problem, Heap says.
“Processed food is the issue,” he says. “These mega-food corporations use a slurry of cornstarch, salt and sugar, then try to find ways to make it food.
“If you use a modest amount of salt on fresh, raw ingredients, it’s generally not an issue.”
Good news for the health-conscious: Many sea salts are intense enough that just a few grains go a long way in flavoring a dish.
“It’s my favorite mineral,” Heap says.
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