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‘Tis the Seasoning

A new breed of artisanal salt makers are shaking up everyone’s go-to flavor enhancer.

Author Salma Abdelnour Photography Claire Benoist

Image – Claire Benoist

GENERALLY SPEAKING, less thought goes into salt than into the shakers used to dispense it. That is, except when the seasoning is under assault, as it were, by health advocates, who remind us that too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which leads to increased incidence of heart attacks and strokes.

A study published by The New England Journal of Medicine found that as many as 92,000 deaths could be prevented each year if we simply lowered our salt intake by just over half a teaspoon per day.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently began an anti-salt initiative designed to cut sodium intake by 25 percent over the next five years, and California and the federal government are considering similar measures.

The good news for the crystal crowd is that not all salts are created equal, so rather than simply pouring it on, diners are increasingly training their palates to appreciate the nuanced flavors that artisanal salts bring to food and moderating their intake in the process. Certain kinds of fleur de sel, a sea salt from France’s Brittany coast, for example, have a subtly seaweedy taste, while some black salts confer a pleasantly eggy, sulfurous note. Maldon sea salt from Essex, England, comes in big white flakes that add a distinct crunchy texture. And Himalayan pink salt consists of tiny crystals that dissolve more easily into food. Other salts are smoked over various kinds of wood, mixed with spices, or spiked with other ingredients such as white truffles or hot peppers to add more assertive flavor.

The majority of exotic salts are used in professional kitchens, where they’re finding their way into everything from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. But home cooks are adopting the trend as well. Take a glance at the spice aisle at any local gourmet shop, and you’ll find that those old cylindrical boxes of table salt—the ones with the girl holding the umbrella with the mysterious rubric, “When it rains, it pours”—are no longer monopolizing the salt section. Instead, sea salts from Greece and France, among other places, are in ever-greater supply, along with row after row of other artisanal salts hailing from every corner of the planet and every point on the color wheel.

SaltWorks, a company based in Woodinville, Washington, and specializing in imported salts from around the world, has seen annual growth ranging from 30 to 50 percent over the past few years, says president Naomi Novotny. The company, which launched in 2001 and moves upward of 25 million pounds of salt per year, now sources more than 50 varieties from 20 countries—everything from Bolivian rose salt from the Andes mountains to black lava salt from Cyprus.

“When we first started nine years ago, people were getting interested in gourmet salts because they were new” to the market, Novotny explains. “Now people are becoming much more educated and even more interested.” But the increasing demand can present a challenge, Novotny points out, since many specialized salts undergo delicate harvesting processes that are subject to climate conditions. For instance, to gather France’s fleur de sel—one of SaltWorks’ top sellers—harvesters begin by channeling the Atlantic waters into clay-lined salt ponds where, if sun and wind conditions are favorable, the minerals form salt crystals on the surface. The crystals are then raked by hand off the top. This is the first year, after a two-year weather hiatus, that newly harvested fleur de sel is on the market, says Novotny.

Regular table salt, by contrast, is collected from subterranean salt mines—which are found worldwide— or harvested by drilling deep wells underground. The salt crystals are then processed to remove trace minerals and dried out to eliminate cakiness. But though it’s plentiful and inexpensive, regular salt doesn’t bring the flavor subtleties or the added texture many chefs and ambitious cooks increasingly crave.

Lately, chef Matthew Accarrino of the acclaimed Italian restaurant SPQR in San Francisco is partial to salt smoked over applewood. “I love it because the flavor is so intense,” says Accarino, who uses it to top off his spiced ricotta fritters. For home cooks, he suggests adding a dash of smoked salt to give a quick, flavorful finish to grilled fish, meat or chicken.

At Boulder’s renowned Frasca Food and Wine, chef Lachlan Mackinnon- Patterson likes Murray River salt from Australia because its fine flakes dissolve quickly, letting the flavor of seafood shine through with no salty aftertaste. He uses it in his hamachi crudo, a sashimi-like seafood dish he makes with thinly sliced raw hamachi (or another high-grade fish) and seasons with black pepper, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and that Australian salt. For home cooks, he recommends making an easy party canapé by dipping apples or apple slices into caramel and sprinkling them with Murray River salt.

Chef Mikey Price of New York City’s Market Table, a West Village restaurant that’s jammed nightly thanks to its ingenious twists on comfort food, favors flaky, coarse Maldon salt from England. He sprinkles it on his appetizer of hush puppies with clover- honey butter, to create a sweet-salty contrast and extra crunch.

“With Maldon salt you get not only the salt hit but the texture too,” notes Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans, who owns six restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne and appears regularly on television in Australia and stateside. “The thing about it is that it’s a nice way to finish off a dish, but people can be heavy-handed with it, so you have to be careful,” he notes. Evans makes an impressive three-minute crudo by cutting raw sushi-grade scallops into thin slices and drizzling them with a fruity olive oil and a squirt of lime, then sprinkling shaved lime zest, minced chili peppers, chopped mint and a sprinkle of Maldon salt on top.

Maine chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier of Arrows restaurant and MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit like what they describe as the “clean, vibrant taste” and the higher iron oxide levels of Hawaiian red sea salt, which gets its color from the clay in the tidal pools where it’s harvested. They use the salt on prosciutto-wrapped melon and mango.

Sometimes salt choices reveal hints of patriotism or nostalgia. In New York, Italian-born chefs Odette Fada of the new SD26 and Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto opt for sea salt from Trapani, a fishing town on the western coast of Sicily. “I’m Italian; I want to use Italian!” says Fada. “For thirty years I’ve been cooking with that salt.” Casella uses organic soffidi sale (which means “whiffs of salt”) from Trapani in his seven-bean salad and pork belly with dandelion greens. He also sells it at his restaurant, which doubles as an epicurean shop.

Seattle chef Mark Fuller of Spring Hill gets his signature salt through a family connection. Fuller’s maternal relatives have been harvesting their pink Kauai Salt Ponds salt for more than four generations on Kauai island in Hawaii—but because of the state’s legal restrictions, salt from family- owned properties can’t be sold in retail shops. “It can only be gifted,” says Fuller. “So they gift it to me, and we use it as a garnish at the restaurant.” The salt is put on the dishes before bread and butter are served, and Fuller occasionally uses it in other dishes, too.

Chefs are also playing around with blended salts, which are mixed with other ingredients to create added layers of flavor. Chris Santos, a star on the Food Network’s Chopped series and chef- owner of The Stanton Social in New York City, makes a fantastic jalapeño salt that he uses to add a spicy kick to grilled vegetables, pastas or burgers, or for lining the rim of margarita glasses. (The salt is easily replicated at home: Just mix one cup of kosher or sea salt with a half-cup of jalapeno powder and an eighth-cup of sugar.) Fada of Manhattan’s SD26 likes to top some fish dishes with a Sicilian citrus-spiked salt, made with bits of orange, bergamot and lemon. She also sprinkles seaweed- studded salt from Italy’s Adriatic coast on her sea bass poached in fish broth.

When she uses that briny, fragrant Adriatic salt, says Fada, “It’s just like walking outside and smelling the breeze from the sea.”

Whatever your personal taste in salt, though, just remember, go easy.

New York–based food writer SALMA ABDELNOUR probably takes too many things with a grain of salt.

THE GRIND

What’s the point of fancy sodium chloride if you’re using a boring shaker? These upgrades are worth their salt.

SALT MILL

Leave it to Scandinavians to design a salt mill that looks like a piece of modern art. www.dwr.com

SALT CELLAR

When shaking and grinding is too strenuous, a salt cellar and a serving spoon are indispensible. www.amazon.com

SALT GRATER

Sometimes salt is so fancy it comes in rock form. That’s when you need a grater. Just watch the knuckles. www.microplane.com

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