The King of Salt Returns
If you've come into the store over the past month looking for Maldon salt, you've either gone away disappointed or left with one of the little travel-size tins (which everyone should have, BTW). And although I saw it on a few shop shelves around town it was getting harder and harder to find. As we would have told you at the time, there was an unspecified problem somewhere in the production chain and Maldon advised that they would be back on line by the end of January. True to their word, the salt from Maldon is once again flowing (in a manner of speaking - more on that later) and is back on our shelves. (We also have a fine selection of wood and ceramic salt cellars!)
So, since we're on the topic of salt, we have many available in the store and as part of some gift baskets so we thought we'd take the opportunity to talk about the essentials:
Whether it's sourced from land based salt mines or harvested from the sea, all salt is simply sodium chloride - NaCl (and for the catchiest explanation of its Periodic background, check out this delightful song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle) but that doesn't mean all salts are the same by a long shot.
Salt gets a lot of bad press, of course, because an excess of sodium can lead to a variety of health problems related to heart, brain, kidney and other functions. But for the average North American, 75% of salt intake comes from processed foods, not the salt on the table. If you're not eating a lot of pre-fab foods high in sodium and taking in other sources of sodium as well, you will be fine and, in fact, sodium is essential to human health. It helps to regulate fluids in the body and maintains nerve transmissions and muscle contractions. As for salt as a source of iodine, which is an additive in common table salt, it's not really necessary. Among the foods that are good sources of iodine are eggs, milk, yogurt, cheddar cheese, cranberries, leafy greens, seafood, baked potatoes, strawberries, bananas and many others. A baked potato will give you about 40% of your daily requirement, a serving of seaweed will give you about 3000%!
Really, you should have three main kinds of salt on hand in your pantry – an everyday utility salt, a finishing salt and a fine salt. Then there are some luxury salts you can splurge on if you like. Let's go through them one by one:
- Utility salt - Now, I do not mean "free running" iodized table salt, which typically includes anti-caking agents. For an everyday salt, Kosher salt is superior. We carry the best, Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. When a recipe calls for "a pinch of salt" this is a product you can actually "pinch" and feel the amount. Table salt is too fine grained and it's hard to pick up an actual pinch's worth. The pyramidal crystal structure of most Kosher salts means it dissolves quickly if you're salting your pasta water or seasoning your soups and stews. If you're seasoning a piece of meat you can see the crystals on the surface and gauge easily whether you've got good coverage or need to add more. Briefly, the term Kosher salt does not necessarily mean that it is Parvé or rabbinically certified. Properly, it should be called "koshering" salt as it is used in the process of making foods Kosher. It just so happens that Diamond Crystal IS approved for Passover.
- Finishing salt - This is where Maldon - harvested by the same family in Essex, England, since 1882 at a site known for salt harvesting since the 1300s! - really is the best - though sometimes fleur de sel or gros sel or sel gris, which use similar harvesting methods, are well suited to the application. These are all salts with a much larger footprint - either in grain or crystal or flake form. Once your dish is cooked or ready for presentation, these salts make the flavour pop and add a kind of bite to the dish. Something as simple as a slice of ripe tomato with a few flakes of Maldon on it is the veritable definition of flavour. This is why you will want to pick up the pocket-sized travel tin. Once you see what the judicious application of Maldon can do for the simplest of ingredients, you will never want to be without it. And consider this: you know those little paper sachets of salt and pepper you get in fast-food places? There is never enough stale pepper in one of those things to add any flavour at all and yet there is enough salt in the same sized square to ruin whatever you might put it on. If you're out and you order a steak and they don't have either Kosher salt or proper finishing salt for you, don't go back to that restaurant - or bring your travel tin!
- Fine salt - You're going to want some of this around as well. Again, not necessarily in the form of plain table salt. For many baking projects you're going to want something that mixes well with your other dry ingredients for even distribution. Kosher salt can lend a rustic note to baking but if you're looking for a refined experience you'll want a much finer grain. Besides, most recipes indicate salt by volume and that's usually based on common table salt. If you're using a coarser grained salt it will not deliver enough salt flavour and if you're using a finer grained salt it will be too salty. Also, if you're pre-seasoning, for example, a delicate piece of fish or scallops, you're going to want to use a fine salt. The larger grains or crystals can have the effect of "burning" the delicate surface of some food products so you want something that can have a very fine distribution during that seasoning stage.
- Luxury, Flavoured salts - We have a terrific selection in store - everything from a variety of smoked and spiced salts to bacon salt, truffle salt, lemon-thyme, roasted garlic - you name it! Each of these has its place and they can make lovely gifts. Application can be limited, of course, but they can be very handy to have in a pinch (a pinch, get it?). Try smoked salts on grilled meats. Try Amola Bacon salt or Vancouver Island Blue Cheese salt on your popcorn. Try truffle salt on your potatoes – extraordinary!
If you've ever been to Tuscany, where the local ingredients are phenomenal and the regional cuisine sublime, there is one thing that, to me, never tastes quite right: Tuscan bread. It's terrible. That's because it's made without salt. And there's a reason for that. Roman soldiers of the time were given a salary - a word with the same latin root as sal/sel/salt - in order to purchase salt for nutrition, for flavour, for preserving rations, etc. A soldier not capable at his job or not pulling his weight was said to be not "worth his salt". Perhaps as a way of keeping the Florentines down in the Middle Ages, Rome imposed a heavy salt tax. The proud Tuscans refused to accept the tax and rationed it instead. It was kept out of the bread and has remained that way for traditional loaves ever since.
If you'd like to know more about the remarkable story of salt in human history, there are two books that you can ask for up the street at Another Story: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky and Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes by Mark Bitterman.
Thus ends today's lesson!