The more whole foods we buy and prepare ourselves, the more leeway we have to experiment and have fun with artisanal, hand-crafted, mineral-rich salt, both through cooking and at the table. Because prepared foods explain 70%-80% of the salt consumed by Americans, just cooking meals that emphasize potassium-rich whole foods solves much of the problem. With the recent, albeit spotty, revival of traditional artisanal salt-making around the globe, there are many gourmet salts to explore and choose from.
An appreciation of fine salt dates back at least to the 15th Century and Jean, duc de Berry whose bejeweled saltcellars were presented at the table, one to accompany each new course.1 In this spirit, we are beginning to appreciate that artisanal salts, like a good wine, can richly complement most foods. High quality artisanal salt, like the complexity of a fine wine, comes in many varieties, each with its own nuance of flavor and texture, a product of local environment, climate, and artisanal tradition. Also, like wine, salts can be confusing. Let taste be your guide and expect to pay more for quality. Because salt is used in small quantities, if can be the best investment and complement to any meal.
A Guide to Some Popular Sea Salts.
“After thousands of years of struggle to make salt white and of even grain, affluent people will now pay more for salts that are odd shapes and colors.”…Mark Kurlansky
Hand-harvested French sea salts produced at the mouth of the Loire—from Noirmoutier, Bourgneuf, Guerande, and the Ile de Re—are some of the oldest and still most reliable sources of wind and solar evaporated sea salts. These salt marshes and supplementary artificial ponds were first developed when the land was controlled by the Vikings, who needed salt to preserve their catch of cod.
In 1972 a small group of surviving French salt makers formed Le Groupement des Producterus de Sel to create quality and production standards and to begin to expand and market Celtic sea salt to global markets. From these producers come two high-quality, mineral-rich artisanal sea salts, which are the first two listed below:
- Fleur de sel—the finest quality French salt, consisting of delicate flakes that embody a special nuanced aroma derived from organic elements that are incorporated in the evaporation process at the surface of the salt ponds.2 Fleur de sel crystals form on the pond surface and must be skillfully raked off and harvested before they have time to sink to the gray porcelain clay pond bottom. Fleur de sel is expensive and its character and crunch should be savored as a condiment. Like a great wine, its delicate, nuanced character as well as its “crunch” raises it to a level too fine to be used for cooking.
- Sel Gris—like fleur de sel, “gray salt” is an artisanal solar-evaporated, irregular-crystal salt that is full of moisture and trace minerals. It is harvested by raking crystals from the bottom of the clay open-air evaporating ponds soon after they form and sink to the bottom. Thus, sel gris contains small amounts of porcelain clay that gives it a gray coloration. In contrast to kosher and mined salts that lack moisture and dry out foods during roasting, baking, and cooking , the high moisture content (13%) means that sel gris can be used in cooking to seal in a food’s flavor and natural juices . As Mark Bitterman suggests, “Sel gris is the most natural and cost-effective choice for anyone looking to replace artificially refined salts such as table salt, koshering salt, or mass-produced salt.”3 French fleur de sel and sel gris can be purchased on line, http://www.celticseasalt.com/.
- Non-French Sel Gris—other artisanal solar evaporated sel gris sea salts, each with its own character stamped by the land and environmental conditions, are harvested in other parts of the globe. Mediterranean artisans use salt evaporating pans that are lined with basalt, sand, or concrete, which impart a different quality from the clay pans of Brittany. In contrast, Philippine producers line their dark mud salt fields with tiles to assure greater purity and ease of harvesting.4
- Traditional salts—this is a broad catch-all category. Traditional salts are salts that are allowed to accumulate at the bottom of the evaporating pan for months at a time (in contrast to the daily harvesting of natural-crystals sel gris) so that much more can be harvested. While rich in minerals, the resulting crystals are large and irregular and are generally ground mechanically to finer crystals. Sel marin is an example.
- Flake salts—are flat and thin, unlike the dense granules of traditional salts. While some fine quality flake salts such as Maldon from the south coast of England are from carefully raking salts from the surface of brine and are true artisanal products, many flake salts are produced mechanically by rolling granulated salt.5 Flake salts give a short-lived, bold, intense punch to foods.6
- Rock salts—these large, hard-crystal salts are mined from within the earth. Here, they have been compressed by pressure over millions of years so they lack moisture. They tend to be less mineral-rich than solar evaporated salts and their mineral complements vary with location. Their low moisture content and the beauty of colored crystals characteristic of many varieties make them an ideal choice for salt grinders. Himalayan pink salt, which is aggressively marketed by Pakistani producers, is a popular example of rock salt.
- Kosher salt—an industrial salt with a harsh flavor that lacks the natural minerals or moisture of sea salt. Its course texture is artificially manufactured. It is not a true sea salt.7
- “Sea salt”—many salts that claim to be sea salts are really industrial salts from salt water bodies contiguous to dense population areas, such as Morton salt, which is largely mined from San Francisco Bay. Industrial “sea salts” are washed, ground, and often include anti-caking agents.8 It is wise to research and read the labels of any sea salt that you buy.
Storing Sea Salt
Moist sea salts like fleur de sel, sel gris, and other hand-harvested moist salts lose some of their quality when they are allowed to dry out. They should be stored in a glass, air-tight container, with small amounts placed on the table as a condiment and then promptly sealed again after use. Salts that have lost some moisture can be restored by stirring in 1 teaspoon of water for every 8 ounces of salt.9
Salt Shopping Guide:
Andes pink salt (714-522-0700)
Celtic sea salt (800-867-7258) and www.
Sea Works unrefined sea salt (800-656-3668)
Tropical Salt Corporation (877-323-6611)
Specialty Salt Retailers (providing a wide spectrum of salts):
The Meadow, www.atthemeadow.com
Salt Traders, www.salttraders.com
Mark Bitterman, Salted
Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
Sally Fallon Morell, “The Salt of the Earth,” http://www.westonaprice.org/vitamins-and-minerals/the-salt-of-the-earth
Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods.
Joseph Pizzorno, Jr. and Michael T. Murray, Textbook of Natural Medicine.
Rebecca Wood, The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia.
Copyright 2011 Pathways4Health.org