With special salts from around the world, you can finish with a flourish
I am standing in ChefShop.com's Seattle warehouse with president/owner Tim Mar. He places before me a dozen specialty salts in neatly packed plastic bags and dainty glass jars. Gone are the days when salt meant just a blue box of Morton's. We are tasting exotic crystals and flakes from around the world. Known as finishing salts, they are added just before serving or at the table to enhance food and add pizzazz to even the simplest dishes.
Long used by professional chefs, finishing salts are catching on with home cooks. Mar points to an "enormous trend" in specialty salts: His company has seen salt sales quadruple in the past few years. When he started ChefShop.com nine years ago, he carried one gourmet salt. Today he sells a dozen, including Hawaiian red sea salt, Balinese coarse sea salt, chunky gray salt from the Camargue in Southern France, pink flaky salt from the Murray River in Australia, and a Moroccan "beige bloom" new to the U.S. market. With a rainbow of salts to choose from, home cooks can add not just flavor but new layers of color and texture.
To try them outTo taste finishing salts in Seattle, go to ChefShop.com's retail warehouse at 1415 Elliott Ave. W. Sampler sets are available online at www.ChefShop.com (Murray River Pink, Fleur de Sel Guérande, Coarse Bali Sea Salt, Sel Gris de Guérande, Red Alaea Hawaiian, Crystal Lake Salt Coarse, $29.99).
Mar's best-selling salt remains fleur de sel, considered by many chefs to be the best finishing salt in the world. Literally "flowers of salt," the delicate white crystals are skimmed by hand from the top of French salt marshes when the sun and wind line up just so. Given the labor-intensive harvesting process, fleur de sel is expensive; a mere ounce of the stuff usually goes for about $2. In the heat of summer, it's hard to beat a ripe heirloom tomato, but dusted with fleur de sel, it becomes divine. The salt is also amazing sprinkled on fish, meat, vegetables and eggs.
Pure sea salt is as natural as the sea itself, but the current craze brings an endless array of flavored salts, such as lavender or saffron, truffle or citrus.
In ChefShop's nondescript warehouse on industrial Elliott Avenue, we taste natural (unflavored) sea salts. I ask Mar how Japanese salt differs from French salt.
"Taste," he insists. He pours some shiny white crystals into a little white paper cup.
"Very . . . salty," I say. How profound.
Does terroir make a difference, like it does with wine and olive oil? "You can definitely taste the place," Mar says. The first time he had salt from Portugal, the Massachusetts native recognized the familiar Atlantic Ocean.
Mar brings out a glass of water for the overloaded palate. (Oh, why didn't I write about chocolate instead?) Next he pours a sample of the Kechil coarse sea salt from Bali. Tiny pyramid-shaped crystals sparkle in the paper cup like diamonds. This is the first time it occurs to me that salt is truly beautiful. I put a few chunks in my mouth. Crunchy. And the taste? Sweet at first and then, well . . . salty.
At Whole Foods, finishing salts are also big, says Erika Bennett, assistant team leader at the Roosevelt Square store. She said store chefs wowed customers at a recent cooking demonstration by using smoked salts for barbecuing fish and chicken. "People went crazy and we sold out," she said. "It's a fun new fad in food."
Different shades of specialty salts are arranged like an artist's palette next to the cheese section at Whole Foods. I can't resist a small container of Cyprus Flake Mediterranean sea salt for $5.32 from Artisan Salt Co. Artisan claims to sell salt in "every texture, flavor, color and origin," including Peruvian pink salt (known for its rosy color and unevenly textured crystals) and Bali smoked salt (smoked over coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves).
Bennett recommends tossing red Hawaiian salt on white mozzarella balls — its hard crunch is a contrast to the soft, moist cheese — or using the Tuscan salt blend with pasta and chicken. A pinch of truffle salt adds a dose of decadence to your favorite comfort food, such as popcorn or mashed potatoes.
Not only does it taste good and look good, but adding salt after cooking instead of during cooking may even be good for us. Many people tend to cook with too much salt, especially when making soups and sauces, which will evaporate and reduce. The larger grains of finishing salts provide more flavor and less sodium than finer cooking salt. And as we know, too much sodium can cause high blood pressure and other health problems. Americans often consume high-sodium processed and packaged foods. Eating natural, whole foods, finished with a sprinkle of sea salt, is a healthy alternative.
Laurie Riedeman is one restaurant chef who believes in salting to personal taste. At the unusual and fabulous restaurant Elemental@Gasworks, where she is chef/co-owner, she is not offended when customers ask for salt. "All they have to do is ask," she says. When diners do ask, Riedeman gladly provides a small tray with three miniature glass bowls: Hawaiian pink salt, a coarse Balinese salt and a super-fine pink Celtic salt from France. "It's fun for me to see how people react to the different salts," she says.
With any fad there are unhealthy extremes. Popular smoked salts are usually made by literally smoking the salt over wood fires for long periods, and, while they lend a rich, assertive wood taste to foods, they may also contain carcinogens. Read the ingredients and choose only natural salts and flavors. The best salt in the world comes from the clean sea, sun and wind — and nothing more.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.