Making Peace With Salt
- 2010 July-August
Even as the FDA harangues the food industry for using excessive levels of sodium, and your doctor tsk-tsks at your high blood pressure, bear in mind that salt keeps us alive. The human body needs it for digestion and for the transportation of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body, as well as to transmit nerve impulses and stimulate muscles such as the heart. Indeed, whether you choose $10-an-ounce Fleur de Sel from Guerande, France, or snow-white Morton’s from mines beneath Detroit, you must keep a stash of sodium chloride in your home. Salt is the only rock we eat. Salt is so important that humans evolved sensors on specific taste buds to register the sensation of salt, just as it did to monitor sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. Presumably, our primitive ancestors developed these flavor receptors as a warning system to help differentiate the good or benign from the poisonously bad. Throughout the eons, salt has also served as the most effective way to cure and preserve meat, fish, and vegetables. The fact that salt also enhances the taste of other food encouraged early humans to eat a varied diet — fish, seaweed, blood — while obtaining important minerals found in sea salt.
Our attachment to salt is evidenced by numerous religious and cultural rituals. Jews, for example, still dip bread in salt on Friday nights to symbolize God’s covenant with Israel, symbolically “preserving” or keeping the contract between God and his people. Muslims and Jews, as well as Western Europeans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Japanese actors have long relied on salt to ward off evil spirits. For the same reason, Western Europeans, since long before the Middle Ages, would rub newborns with salt or place it in cradles to protect their children. And to gain an understanding of the importance of salt to the Romans, look no further than the numerous English words drawn from sal (Latin for salt): salad (the Romans preferred to salt their greens), salami (salted meat), and even salary (the Roman’s often paid their fighting men with salt), which the French later derived into soldier.
Seawater, and thus sea salt, contains sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and traces of other minerals. Ironically, the red, brown, gray, and black salts you find at specialty stores acquire their color because of impurities (most often dirt) captured in the coarsely beautiful chloride crystals. Pink Himalayan salt, for example, is sourced from ancient sea salt deposits in the Himalayas and contains 84 minerals, including pink-inducing iron.
Chemists also play the impurity game by adding iodine, magnesium carbonate, calcium silicate, and more to salt. The processing reshapes the crystal into small, uniform squares that, with the addition of an anti-caking agent, dissolve rapidly on food and taste extra salty. Unfortunately, that processing also strips salt of the aforementioned minerals. Kosher salt is an unprocessed, coarse, and inexpensive alternative to iodized table salt, but it lacks the nuanced flavor of sea salt.
Aside from certain foods, like pretzels or grilled flatbreads drizzled with olive oil, where the crunch and abrupt saltiness are relished, skilled chefs live by the rule that if you can taste the salt in your finished dish, you’ve added too much. Why, you ask, invest in expensive sea salts when the goal is to avoid tasting them?
The answer points to a class of “finishing salts” and an understanding of which dishes will benefit from an extra layer of richness, a spike of intensity, a certain roundness of flavor enhanced by a hint of minerals and the sea. From Bali to Cyprus, New Zealand to Sonoma, sea salt manufacturers simply allow seawater to evaporate (via sun and wind) in a series of large, increasingly brackish ponds. The most expensive French salts are harvested using hand tools and methods developed by the Celts thousands of years ago, and the revered Fleur de Sel actually forms on the top of a salt pond and is harvested ever so carefully only once a year.
Yes, salt is dangerous when abused, but it is also healthy and delicious. With scores of newly available sea salts to experience from all over the world, a new appreciation may encourage you to re-imagine the salt vessel on your dinner table as an altar to divine and delicious decadence.