Salt Goes Gourmet

Mint Julep in Himalayan Sea Salt Shot Glass.
Mint Julep in Himalayan Sea Salt Shot Glass. Heathman

The most basic of all seasonings becomes anything but banal.

First it was bread. Then it was charcuterie and craft beer. Now, chefs want artisan salt.

But not just any salt. They want sustainably made, unique finishing salts that add taste, texture, and interest to their dishes. Gone are the days of run-of-the-mill sea salt showered over everything.

“Food is trending toward local, and more chefs are interested in local and American-made salt,” says Mark Bitterman, a selmelier, author, consultant, and owner of The Meadow, an artisan salt and gourmet foods shop in Portland, Oregon, that sells to chefs and other food professionals. “Historically there were many states in America with salt works, and now those old traditions are coming back.”

Historically, Bitterman explains, salt has been made one of two ways: by drying out seawater or through mining. He cites J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, a seventh-generation maker in West Virginia that harvests water from the ancient Iapetus Ocean underneath the Appalachian Mountains. The salt works then dries out the water using solar energy to achieve a natural, pure product.

From another continent comes Himalayan pink salt, the most popular mined salt from Himalayan mountain rock, which as the name suggests is pink-colored. And then there is fleur de sel and sel gris, natural gray sea salts that are gathered by collecting small amounts of sea water at a time.

Bitterman says some salt works in warmer climates use the sun to naturally dry out the water and extract salt crystals. He cites a Guatemalan salt works that uses the traditional French method to make sea salt by bringing in water from the ocean and transferring it from pond to pond so the water evaporates in the natural sun. Crystalizing pans collect the crystals, which are raked off by hand. And, because salt naturally does not bio-accumulate—unlike vegetables and other produce that will retain toxins—any pollution or impurities in the seawater won’t make its way into the crystals.

Though many salts are labeled “sea salt,” Bitterman warns there is little regulation around the use of that label, particularly in terms of the eco-friendliness and sustainability of the methods used to produce it.

“Many sea salts [that claim to be gourmet] are just seawater boiled off over propane or natural gas, and they have a tremendous carbon footprint,” Bitterman says. Even worse, some commercial-grade sea salt makers destroy the natural eco-systems by dredging up massive amounts of ocean water.

In the U.S., Bitterman explains, many traditional salt works closed during the meatpacking era of the early 20th century when large-scale salt production was moved to the stockyards of Chicago.

Today, many commercial makers of table and kosher salt use chemical processing and mechanized refining, thus stripping the crystals to create pure sodium chloride—virtually the same product used to de-ice roads, but simply ground finer.


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