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Food
Sea salt adds wave of extra zip and crunch

Thursday, August 28, 2003

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At Manhattan's Esca restaurant, slivers of raw black bass are sprinkled with Hawaiian black lava salt. At Patria, fleur de sel is sprinkled over cantaloupe seared in caramelized sugar, and at Petrossian Boutique and Cafe the same salt is sprinkled on chocolate cake.

At a tasting at Benkovitz Seafoods in the Strip, chefs sampled Roasted Branzini with Hawaiian Black Lava Sea Salt. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette / food styling by chef Henry Dewey)
Click photo for larger image.

Specialty sea salts' crunch, sparkle and zing enhance the flavor and presentation of both entrees and desserts.

Curious minds want to know. What's the big deal? Aren't all salts created equal?

To compare some sea salts on the market, Joe Benkovitz, president of Benkovitz Seafoods, was host to 12 chefs and food professionals at a tasting.

It was much like a wine tasting, beginning with the lightest crystals to the heaviest. Specialty "boutique" topping salts, all agreed, are best used where their contrasting textures contribute to overall flavor and, in some cases, color. Kosher and plain shaker salt were available for comparison.

Benkovitz's chef and fishcutter Henry Dewey brought platters of sushi-grade king salmon, fluke and tuna to serve as the "canvas" for the sprinklings.

Before they began, the chefs were asked what kind of salt they use to season dishes on the line. Without exception, kosher salt is used for sauces, in soups and stocks and in seasoning liquid mixtures. Most also use one or more sea salts, such as fleur de sel and Maldon, for topping dishes.

The scientific facts

Before the tasting, food science author Robert L. Wolke presented background on the differences between land (or mined) salt and sea salt (called solar salt):

Shaker salt is mined by sending down water, pumping up the dissolved salt (brine) and then evaporating the brine quickly to make small cubic crystals that will fit through the holes in a shaker. Solar salt, on the other hand, is evaporated slowly by the sun, which makes larger, irregular crystals.

All salt crystals are shaped in variations on a cube. They can be plain cubes such as shaker salt, or they can be pyramids and other geometric variations. Sizes and shapes depend on how their brines were evaporated.

Fleur de sel is different because its crystals are formed on the surface of the solar evaporation ponds. Its crystals have unique shapes because they can grow only downward from the surface.

Shaker (or table) salt is often considered harsh because of additives. Cubes have flat faces that can stick together if they become moist. The additive in shaker salt is there to absorb moisture and keep the salt free-flowing, but it is tasteless. Dense cubes dissolve slowly and linger longer on the palate than flakier sea salts. Tiny cubes also do not have the crunch that sea salts deliver.

Flavor is not only taste, smell and texture. Wolke added a fourth dimension, time. The difference in taste between sea salt and table salt is a matter of texture and time. The complex flaky crystals of sea salts make them dissolve on the tongue more quickly. That's why some people think they are saltier. There is no smell to pure sea salt. Sea salts that contain algae may have a slight aroma.

Cooking with sea salt, such as adding it to soup or pasta water, is pointless. When a recipe specifies "sea salt" for anything other than as a topping, it is meaningless because there are dozens of sea salts, each of which has crystals of unique sizes and shapes, making consistent measurement impossible. Second, if the salt is going to dissolve in a batter or liquid, its unique crystal structure has disappeared.

Comparing various "doctored salts" -- that is, salts that have other things added to them, such as clay, lava and smoke -- is not comparing salts per se, it is comparing condiments.

Pass the salt

Fleur de sel, Maldon and kosher salt are the least expensive and are readily available in gourmet stores. The others are expensive, from $12 to $24 for 4 ounces and are available mostly by mail order. Are they worth it? It depends on how you choose to spend your disposable income.

Fleur de sel -- Often regarded as the world's finest salt, it is texturally superior to any other. When sun and wind conditions are ideal, fleur de sel, "flower of salt," blossoms on the surface of salt ponds.

Most every panelist has this salt as an all-purpose topping. Says chef Douglass Dick of Bona Terra, "I sprinkle fleur de sel as a finish on foie gras." What about salt in brownies or pies? "I don't think baking requires a pedigree salt," said Squirrel Hill cooking teacher Jane Citron. "I prefer Sea Salt Fine Crystals [sel de mer fin] by Baleine, but sometimes I just use plain Morton's in the blue cardboard round."

 
 
But isn't salt bad for us?

The body needs salt, but not too much. The recommended daily intake for an adult is no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium -- about 1 teaspoon of table salt a day.

That allowance includes commercial products high in sodium, including frozen and processed foods.

People who suffer from hypertension or who have been cautioned by their doctors about sodium intake shouldn't exceed 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily.

People who are in good health and eat moderately may enjoy sprinkling boutique topping salts on their food.

-- Marlene Parrish

   
 

Japanese Nazuna Sea Salt -- Solar evaporation ponds have never been an ideal means for making sea salt in Japan, where humidity is high and rainstorms regular. Earthenware vessels for Japanese salt-making date back as far as the Jomon period (8,000 B.C. to 200 B.C.). Nazuna salt is crystallized in dishes made of Japanese cypress, set in solar houses on Kyushu island. The large, dampish crystals give a big, satisfying crunch.

Chef Kevin Sousa of Kaya thought he might try this on Kobe beef carpaccio. Pittsburgh magazine's Ann Haigh imagined this salt on soft pretzels.

Peruvian Pink Sea Salt -- This salt comes from an ancient ocean, trapped underground, which feeds a spring 10,000 feet high in the Andes Mountains in Maras, Peru. The warm spring water seeps into terraced ponds in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The ponds, which have been hand-harvested for more than 2,000 years, are owned by individual families, who load the salt on the backs of burros for the long descent into town. Peruvian Pink gets its color from bacteria and algae that grow in the ponds. If you dissolve Peruvian salt in a glass of water, there is no pink residual.

This one was unanimously liked. The tasters wished they could sprinkle it on heirloom tomatoes.

Australian Murray River Salt Flakes -- These pale apricot-colored salt flakes were a favorite. Salinity is Australia's worst environmental problem, and support for the producers stimulates the removal of salt from sensitive areas. The salt is produced by feeding saline water from the Murray Darling Basin into crystallizer ponds, where it evaporates at a high rate in northwest Victoria's arid climate. "A crunch, then it disappears," said Citron. "I'd buy this one."

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt -- Artisan salt farmers create this salt from seawater evaporated in above-ground pools. To add minerals, the salt is evaporated with purified black lava rock. Activated charcoal is added for its color and detoxifying effects. It makes a dramatic presentation.

Hawaiian Red Alae Salt -- After drying, this traditional salt of Hawaii is combined with baked Hawaiian red clay. Both the Hawaiian Black Lava and the Hawaiian Red Alae salts get their color and flavor from the added minerals. If you stir either of them into a glass of water, the salt will dissolve and you will be left with red clay or black lava as a residue. This is the tradition in Hawaii.

Sam DiBattista of Vivo thinks he'd make black bass sprinkled with a combination of the Hawaiian red alae and black lava salts. "When I first started using topping sea salts, I got over-enthusiastic and nearly brined my customers. Then I backed off, and now I use just enough to get that critical crunch."

South African Sea Salt -- The best conditions in South Africa are on the west coast, where the climate is perfect for the formation of salt crystals: strong, unpolluted winds and many months of hot, dry weather. This salt comes from the shores of St. Helena Bay, near the Berg river.

The rough cubes are big, up to 1/8 inch on a side, and they deliver a huge crunch and a long-lasting finish.

Mexican Benequenes -- At the bottom of the Rio Salinas gorge are the salinas of Ixtapa: a small brine well, more than 2,000 years old, and seven long thatched cocinas. Inside, the brine is "cooked" in iron pots set atop woodburning adobe ovens. As the salt forms, it is packed into straw matting tubes to form loaves of salt, most available daily in the market at San Cristobal de las Casas. Almost a powder, benequenes (loaves) partner best with french fries, tortilla chips or Spanish salted almonds.

Maldon Sea Salt -- The British coastal town of Maldon, Essex, has been a salt-producing center since the Middle Ages, although legend has it that the secret of salt-making from seawater was discovered there almost 2,000 years ago, when the Romans ruled Britain. The pyramid-shaped crystals give a wonderful crunch and glitter to almost any food.

"I love Maldon's large delicate flakes. They're so thin, almost see-through, and they add a nice little crackle without being too salty," said Post-Gazette freelancer Virginia Phillips.

Danish Smoked Salt -- The tasters didn't open the jar until the end, because the aroma is so intense. It is made by a method devised by the Vikings, thanks to the efforts of one man in Denmark who took it upon himself to rekindle this millennium-old tradition. The salt is produced by evaporating seawater in a vessel over an open, smoky fire of juniper, cherry, elm, beech and oak woods. Smoked salt works best on the simplest of foods -- a steak, baked potato, grilled ribs. You either love it or hate it.

Restaurant reviewer Haigh made a face and rejected it as overwhelming. But Benkovitz's ambassador-at-large Gene Lichter asked for a container to take some home. "If I sprinkle this on my breakfast eggs," he said, "I won't need to fry bacon."

After the tasting, a salt-saturated Toni Pais of Baum Vivant summed it up. "Now I know how it feels to be a baccalao," the Portuguese chef said of the salted cod. "I'm going to have to go home and soak overnight."

All salts are available from SALT TRADERS at the Cooking School of Aspen. Phone: 1-800-641-SALT (7258). Web site: www.salttraders.com.


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.

RELATED RECIPE

BRANZINI TOPPED WITH SEA SALT

    11/4 pound Branzini fish (Mediterranean Sea Bass), whole
    Extra virgin olive oil
    Fresh lemon slices
    Freshly ground pepper
    Fresh thyme and sage
    Sea salt, preferably Hawaiian Black Lava

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Have fishmonger clean the fish and remove the scales, but leave on the head and tail.

Rub the fish with olive oil. Place belly-down on a baking sheet. Put lemon slices underneath the head along with herbs. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and sea salt.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes.

Transfer to platter. Drizzle with more olive oil and additional fresh lemon juice, chopped herbs and sea salt.

Marlene Parrish

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