Hold the Pepper: No longer satisfied with the humble tumbler, salt is now grated onto food tableside and hand-plated by chefs at finer salt-positive eateries.

Shaking It Up

Salt, always necessary, is now also cool

By Sara Bir

Our earliest memories of the taste of salt are not of the presence of salt, but the presence of lots of salt: the experimental nibble of Play-Doh, the accidental gulp of seawater while at the beach. Otherwise, for most anyone who grew up in America in the 20th century, salt is an afterthought. It’s in nearly every packaged food, from soft drinks to leathery fruit snacks. It graces every table, every kitchen. Beyond its edible applications, salt softens water, de-ices roads and sets dye.

The appeal of sweet tastes is learned, but humans are born with a hankering for salt; our bodies need it to live. Nowadays, between mouthfuls of pretzel rods, french fries and kalamata olives, the prospect of facing death via salt deprivation is all but impossible. Salt is everywhere.

It’s also everywhere in the stylish sense. Ordinary iodized table salt has given way to chunky Fleur Gris, fluffy Fleur de Sel, and amber-hued smoked salt. In addition to the quite popular new Berkeley restaurant Sea Salt, there are dining destinations the world over named Pink Salt (Sydney), Rock Salt (Seattle), Old Salt (New Hampshire), Salt Lick (Texas), Pinch of Salt (England), Grain of Salt (India) and, simply, Salt (Sydney and Denmark). Chefs place exotic salts atop entrées with the same care society ladies affix diamond necklaces. Salt, which has always been a necessity, is now a culinary accessory.

But not every salt has culinary prestige. The ubiquitous navy-blue cylindrical cardboard box with its umbrella girl in the mustard-yellow dress may be a nostalgic image of Americana, but it won’t win you any points with your foodie friends. No, it’s colorful salt, unprocessed salt that has increasingly seized the attention of chefs and gourmets in the past decade. Boutique salt producers have crept up as part of the artisan food movement, filling the need of the dining public for foodstuffs with natural quirks and irregularities that industrial conglomerates have spent decades trying to wring out of most everything we eat.

Table salt–sodium chloride–is one of many salts, but it’s one of few actual rocks that people eat. Other salts have countless industrial applications, but they tend to taste acrid, which accounts for the abysmally low ranking of the salt substitute Nu-Salt in a salt taste-off hosted by this summer.

Historian and food writer Mark Kurlansky’s 2002 book Salt: A World History helped pique a salt-hungry country’s interest in the storied background of the little crystals whose presence in the shaker is now so taken for granted. (Read Salt with a glass of water handy; it’s guaranteed to arouse a reader’s thirst.) As long as people have eaten food, they’ve sought sources of salt, often at great expense and labor. Tales exist that salt was more valuable than gold–tales which, it turns out, are exaggerated. But Roman soldiers were indeed paid in salt, and the control of saltworks fueled economies and influenced trade routes. Without refrigeration, salt was vital for preserving food.

The hand-harvested salt of those bygone days varied in color, crystal size and quality from region to region, so it’s not surprising that scientists strove to make advances to achieve the most uniform results possible. But in doing so, salt lost its personality.

Generally speaking, salt comes in two forms: refined and unrefined. Most of today’s boutique salts (sometimes called “designer” salts for their cachet, although they are harvested rather than designed) are unrefined and therefore not pure sodium chloride; it’s the presence of other minerals that gives artisan salts their unique colors and flavors. There’s black salt, pink salt and red salt, such as Hawaiian red Alaea sea salt, which gains its pigment from volcanic clay. Oddly enough, these salts usually tout themselves as “pure”–which in their case means “additive-free,” because no anticaking agents or iodine were added.

Iodine, one of the most contested salt additives, has been added to most commercial table salts since 1924, when researcher David Marine introduced the concept of fortifying everyday foods with nutrients. Some sea salts contain traces of naturally occurring iodine, but those who choose not to cook with iodized salt almost definitely obtain enough from eating produce grown in iodine-rich soil and occasionally eating processed foods made with iodized salt.

Sea salt tastes, not surprisingly, like the sea. It’s also not as zesty as other salts because it has a higher moisture content. And for every sea, there is a sea salt. Fleur de Sel is a rare type of sea salt that forms on the surface of the sea during warm summer months. Its delicate crystals must be harvested by hand.

Cautious consumers may wonder what the advantage of using salt that costs $6 an ounce is over something that’s a buck a pound, and the answer is variety, both in flavor and in texture. Unless you have money to burn, using Peruvian pink salt to season a pot of chicken soup is a waste–reach for the kosher salt or refined sea salt. Boutique salts are best used as a finishing touch, a garnish. Their texture is one of the biggest reasons to build up a wardrobe of salts–think about how coarse salt works on a thick pretzel but would overpower a delicate potato chip.

Boutique salts offer crystals of many shapes–some flaky, some sturdy, some hollow. You can crush glimmering crystals of unrefined salt to the size you desire with a mortar and pestle or rolling pin, and then the sky’s the limit. A good slab of meat or fish loves a crowning of superior salt, and a tossed salad or simple side of steamed vegetables comes alive with a sprinkling of flakes.

Boutique salt’s life span as the Hot New Thing may be winding down, but that’s probably for the best. It means our constant companion, sodium chloride in all its glorious, glistening forms will no longer be a trend, but a fact of life. The Morton umbrella girl and Maldon sea salt will coexist in one cupboard, and a bounty of crystals will excite our palates for years to come.

From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.