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Back to basics with salt

First We Eat: It not only enhances food’s flavour but traditionally used to celebrate friendship and new homes

Back to basics with salt

Let’s start over. Yes, we are still in the grip of a pandemic. But there’s hope, and food is part of it. To reboot, here’s the first in several parts on culinary essentials — the balancing act of salt, acid, heat and sweetness. Today, salt. Like many cooks, I keep an array of salts on my butcher block.

Historically, salt has been used to make political statements. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a non-violent march against the British tax on salt in his efforts to free India from British rule. Salt became the symbol of protest against colonial oppression as he led a 241-mile walk to the salt mines in Dandi, on the Arabian Sea.

Gandhi was right about salt’s value. “Salt of the earth” or being “worth one’s salt” imply rock-solid value, and salt is a traditional gift to celebrate friendship and a new home. However, according to food scientist Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, excess salt is implicated in digestive system cancers, may cause loss of bone calcium and exacerbate chronic kidney disease. But we need it, as Gandhi knew. A daily gram of salt is vital for our blood plasma, where sodium and chloride ions balance potassium and other ions in our cells. In the kitchen, salt enhances the aroma and taste of food, modifies flavour by countering bitterness or acidity, and is a preservative. We source salt from the sea and inland — water evaporates, leaving the mineral behind.

Maldon salt, from Essex, in southeastern England, has been sourced from the same spot for a century. Its costly, recognizable large flakes are crunchy flavour bombs, ideal on baked goods, caramel ice cream, roasted meats, fish and vegetables. Packaged without anti-caking additives, it tastes mild and pure.

Iodized table salt includes traces of potassium iodide, good with thyroid function. (The thyroid governs the body’s heat production, protein metabolism, and development of the nervous system.) Table salt contains anti-clumping additives to keep the salt flowing in humid conditions. It has a bitter, tinny, metallic finish.

Unrefined sea salt, called sel marin or sel gris (grey salt), is minimally processed in Guerande, Brittany. The seawater’s salinity increases as it is “herded” through channels into successively shallower pools called oeillets. Surface salt crystals are raked off by hand by paludiers (salt harvesters). Moist and grey, its complex taste is due to traces of magnesium chloride, potassium, magnesium, copper and clay particles. The degree of saltiness varies.

Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is considered the finest, most delicate salt from Guerande, where paludiers rake off the fine flakes, which are air-dried in wicker baskets. This expensive mild connoisseur’s salt is good on finished dishes. Finer textured than sel gris, think of it as a condiment more than a salt.

Pink Hawaiian sea salt is coloured by added clay rich in iron oxide.

Pickle makers choose pickling salt, an additive-free coarse salt that does not turn pickling brine cloudy.

Kosher salt is iodine free, additive free, traditionally used to draw out blood and impurities in meat during the koshering process. It is slightly coarse but flaky, and is ideal for daily cooking. It is mild, so you may need to use more.

Korean and Japanese salts are moist, like sel gris, in a mixture of sizes of crystals. Creamy white and fairly salty, a little goes far.

Rock salt, mass produced for use on roads and sidewalks, can be used in old-fashioned ice-cream makers (on the ice, not the cream) to drop the temperature and hasten the freezing process. Use one part salt to five parts ice.

Nearly every dish we cook needs salt. So let’s eat first. Don’t forget the salt.

Herbes Salées

Photo: dee Hobsbawn-Smith.

Salted herbs are a Quebecois staple, a smart preserving method for gardeners faced with winter nipping down their herb beds each year. The types of herbs you use depend on what you grow. My current batch includes basil, oregano, parsley, chives, thyme, tarragon and a wee bit of sage and rosemary. Add minced celery leaves, kale, spinach or chard if you like, or even minced carrot. This only works with fresh herbs, not dried, so mark your calendar for next summer or fall. Good in sauces and gravies, soups, gratins, risottos, etc. Keeps for several months in the fridge. Makes 1 quart.

  • 1 c. minced basil
  • 1 c. minced thyme
  • 1 c. minced parsley
  • 1 c. minced oregano
  • 1 c. minced tarragon
  • 1 c. minced chives
  • 1/4 c. minced rosemary and/or sage
  • 1/2 c. kosher salt

Mix together and transfer to a glass jar. Cover and store in the fridge for a week before using. Keep refrigerated.

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