Varieties of salt from around the world
I recently read "Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes” by Mark Bitterman, and came away with a whole new appreciation for the common grain of salt. For centuries, harvesting salt was a small, localized enterprise. Each region of the world created a unique type of salt with its own color, texture and flavor profile.
In its primitive cultivation, salt water was collected from marshes around ocean beaches and estuarial flatlands. This thick paste would be boiled in cauldrons until all the moisture evaporated, leaving behind slightly damp, pure salt. Because of the different mineral content in the various areas of collection, each salt was special.
If you’ve ever visited the Homestead at the Rehoboth Art League, you can see one of the cauldrons used by the early settlers in this area. Although it’s now filled with flowers, that large black pot on the front walk would have been set over a roaring fire and filled with strained water from the local salt marshes. Once the water vaporized, the remaining crystals would be sold as a seasoning and preserving agent.
That labor-intensive process changed with the industrialization of salt production in the mid-19th century. And, until recently, all you could find on grocery shelves was the ubiquitous blue box of iodized salt decorated with a girl and her umbrella. Early in the 21st century, tastes changed once again, ushering in an appreciation for artisanal salts from around the world, each with its own provenance.
We’ve shown a few of the most popular (and available) salt varieties in the photo. On the far left, there’s coarse pink salt from the Himalayas. Considered one of the purest salts, it has virtually no industrial pollution because it’s harvested by hand in rural Pakistan. The larger size of the crystals dictates the best uses for this salt would be in dishes or preparations where it can completely dissolve, such as seasoning pasta water or cooked sauces.
The next salt is one of my favorites, sel gris, or gray sea salt from France. This salt is quite moist (see the way it mounds in the spoon) with a surprising crunch. A variety that’s also harvested by hand, this one is from the Mediterranean Sea. It's ideal for salt rubs or as a finishing salt, sprinkled on meats and vegetables just before serving. We use this on our scrambled eggs and omelets to add an elegant touch to breakfast.
In the middle spoon is the brick-colored alaea or volcanic red salt from Hawaii. The color comes from the addition of alaea clay to the harvested salt. Unfortunately, many of these sold in the United States are manufactured from ordinary salt crystals treated with the volcanic clay. That may explain why we found the flavor of this somewhat flat and dull. If you want to try an authentic, handmade version of this salt, you’ll need to go to Hawaii and make friends, because export is prohibited, and this salt may only be given away as a gift.
A subtle rosy hue is characteristic of the next salt, Sal Rosa de Maras or Peruvian pink salt. The source of this delicate beauty is not an ocean but a hot spring that’s been flowing in the Andes Mountains since the time of the Incas. With a higher salinity than seawater, the stream flows into an ingenious array of saltpans terraced on the side of the mountains. Once the moisture has evaporated, the salt is harvested with woven baskets. Without a bracing bite, this salt is best for delicate dishes, especially added to the crunchy crust of a crème brulée.
On the right is a quite humble, yet versatile, sel de mer or sea salt that is also harvested from the Mediterranean. These bright, white crystals are larger and shinier than the sel gris from western France. This salt has a crisp, sunny disposition that is well suited to many applications, from enhancing the subtle flavors of roasted potatoes to highlighting the richness of a grilled steak. Bitterman advises seeking out sea salt that lists its source of origin, or you may end up with something industrially produced from San Francisco Bay water.
This is barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the vast range of salts available from around the world.
For a start, I’ve included a few recipes from Bitterman’s book for those of you who might like to experiment with different salts for different dishes.
2 to 3 C sel gris
8 juniper berries
lemon juice, as needed
Scrub the lemons and cut the tip off one end of each lemon. Cut the lemons into quarters lengthwise, leaving them attached at the intact end. Pack the lemons with as much salt as they will hold, stuffing salt into the cuts.
Insert one juniper berry into each lemon. Pack the lemons into a sterilized wide-mouth quart-size glass jar. Pack the lemons as tightly as possible, pushing them down into the jar. If the packing does not release enough juice to cover the lemons, add more until lemons are covered.
Seal the jar and set aside for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking the jar each day to keep the salt distributed. They’re ready to use when the rinds have become soft. Rinse the lemons before using as a relish for pan-simmered chicken, grilled fish or rack of lamb.
Himalayan Salt Brittle*
softened butter for pan
1 C sugar
2 T agave syrup
1 T unsalted butter
1 pinch baking soda
1 T coarse Himalayan salt
Coat a sheet pan and metal spatula with butter; set aside. Measure the sugar into a dry nonstick pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sugar begins to melt and lump, about 5 minutes. Add the agave syrup, stirring constantly until the foam subsides.
Once the mixture thins and turns a deep amber, remove from heat.
Immediately stir in the butter and baking soda. Stir for about 10 seconds, then pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with salt and wait 30 seconds. Slide the spatula beneath the sheet of sugar to loosen it from the pan and flip it over.
Push the sheet to enlarge it until it’s about 1/16-inch thick, then allow to cool and harden. Break into shards to serve.
large pinch of fine-grain alaea salt
juice of 1/4 lemon
2 oz vodka
2 dashes bitters
6 drops Worcestershire sauce
1 t horseradish
3 drops Tabasco sauce
3 grinds black pepper
3 oz unsalted tomato juice
small pinch of fine-grain alaea salt
1 celery stalk for garnish
Spread salt on a dry plate. Moisten the rim of a highball glass with the inside of a lemon rind. Place the glass rim in the salt and turn to coat; set aside. Combine lemon juice, vodka, bitters, Worcestershire, horseradish, Tabasco, pepper, tomato juice, small pinch of salt in a shaker over ice. Mix vigorously for 5 seconds and pour liquid into glass with a bit of ice. Garnish with celery stick.
* adapted from Mark Bitterman