Seasoning with Sea Salt

salt in spoon

Salt is one of the most important ingredients in any kitchen. It adds its own flavor while accentuating the flavors of the foods it touches. Since salt is so crucial to all aspects of cooking, we take care in sourcing the best salt that we can.

Just like any other pantry ingredient, salt can be refined and unrefined. We use unrefined sea salts from France and Portugal, both sourced through Eden Organics.

Our French sea salt comes from the Isle of Noirmoutier. It has a sunny, tropical climate with gentle winds, making it an ideal location for fine sea salt. Because the isle is a national nature preserve and is environmentally protected, we know that the water used to make the salt is unadulterated. Their salt is made in the most traditional way, and it involves no processing, washing, or blending. This method ensures that the salt retains all of its trace minerals for robust flavor and plenty of nutritional benefits.

Our Portuguese salt comes from the salt marshes in the southern part of the country, and is also produced and harvested in an environmentally protected area. This part of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea has an ancient tradition of sea salt production, and we’re happy to continue in this tradition. Like our French salt, the Portuguese location is warm and sunny, with abundant winds to aid in salt evaporation.

There are many other wonderful unrefined salts out there. The only way to find the salts best for you is to get out and taste! See our tips below to learn more.

MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR SALT

We’ve adapted these tips from Mark Bitterman’s fantastic book, Salted. Bitterman is the owner of The Meadow, a salt store in Portland, OR and New York City.

Use only natural, unrefined salts: Industrial salts have been stripped of all of their natural minerals and often inundated with additives to further whiten the salt and prevent clumping. Many salt additives contain aluminum, which we avoid in our kitchen. We purchase our sea salts through Eden Organics, but you can find many high-quality salts online through retailers like The Meadow, Saltworks, Salt Traders, and Kalustyans. Whole Foods and other reputable grocery stores can also carry high-quality salts. Be sure to look for unrefined salts in well sealed containers (preferably glass).

Salt to suit your taste: Most Americans eat too much salt, but that excess doesn’t come from the home kitchen — it comes from processed food. When you cook at home, taste as you go and add enough salt to make the food taste great to you! Salt levels are personal, and you’re unlikely to add so much salt that it is harmful if you salt to taste.

Salt towards the end of cooking: Yes, you do need to season most foods while they’re cooking, but salt has the greatest impact when sprinkled on right at the very end. Pick out an impactful finishing salt and use it with pride right before serving.

Use the right salt for the right purpose: Some salts, like ground traditional sea salts, make good all-purpose salts—they work just as well in baking recipes and soups as they do for finishing touches. Others, like flaky fleur de sel, should be used only to finish a dish. As a general rule of thumb, flaky and/or fragrant salts work best at the end of cooking or at the table, while fine, ground salts work well during cooking. In many of our products, we leave room for you to salt to taste. Dive deeper into the science of salt with us to learn how to pick and choose the best salts for you.

Our beautiful array of natural sea salts

Colorful, natural, sea salts

NERD OUT ON SALT

All salt, no matter if is poured out of a Morton box or pinched from a tiny box of the finest fleur de sel, comes from the sea. Some are carefully evaporated using intricate and traditional systems of pools and rakes. Others are industrially mined from ancient seabeds that are now thousands of miles inland. While there are many important differences between types, varieties, and styles of salt making, all salts are made up primarily of sodium chloride molecules. Some especially mineral-rich sea salts can contain up to 15% additional minerals (primarily calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and potassium), but most are at least 90% sodium chloride. And that’s very, very important. Why?

Humans need salt to survive.

Salt is one of the only foods that you simply cannot eliminate from your diet without falling into complete organ failure. We use salt to dictate how water and nutrients move in and out of cells, and it is found throughout all of our bodily fluids. Salt regulates blood pressure and fluid volume inside and outside of cells, and it works alongside potassium to support muscle contraction, the permeability of cell membranes, and proper nerve function. In fact, sodium and potassium in the nervous system levels actually control the nerve signals that we perceive as thoughts! Chloride ions also help to enable nervous system signalling as well as muscle contraction. They regulate the blood’s ability to carry carbon dioxide out of cells and the body, help the body maintain a healthy pH balance, play a role in protein digestion, and are essential components of sanitizing agents throughout the body.

Salt’s relationship to water in our bodies is just as important. Eat too much salt (even by just a minute amount), and the elevated sodium levels will trigger thirst. Eat too little and we run the risk of headaches, nausea, muscle spasms, seizures, brain swelling, and comas. Because we lose sodium through sweat, urine, and in the production of stomach acid, we have to eat it in order to not run low. Fortunately, we crave it, and most of us will never run the risk of eating too little salt.

Salt in food

Whether added when cooking or naturally present in seafoods, sodium chloride salt is the only natural source of what we call the “salty” flavor. There are salt substitutes available (mainly potassium chloride), but they don’t have quite the same tang as regular sodium chloride salt. In addition to providing its own flavor, salt is both a taste enhancer and a flavor modifier. It decreases the sensation of bitterness and sourness while increasing the sensation of sweetness and umami. Because of these qualities, salt is great at improving the flavors of healthy foods that we may not be naturally inclined to eat, like broccoli or bitter greens.

When salt dissolves into water, it is able to readily penetrate foods, and it reacts with both plant cells and proteins. In fact, salt’s importance in the culinary world is evident given the numbers of foods to which it has lent its name: salt, sauces, salads, sausage and more all share the same (Latin) root: sal. Because salt is able to draw water out of cells via osmosis, the presence of sufficient amounts of salt in foods reduces moisture and spoilage, allowing for the growth of good, salt tolerant bacteria like lactobacillus. We would not have charcuterie or pickles without a heavy dose of salt.

Salt preference is learned through repeated exposure and eating experience. That is, if you eat salty foods on a regular basis, you will cease to find them salty; likewise, you will find lightly salted foods bland if you constantly nosh on canned soups and takeout.

Despite having a very good sense of the experience of eating salt, we still don’t know how we actually taste it. Because there are sodium receptors on every cell in our bodies, it is likely that salt activates just about every cell in the mouth, not just our taste buds. So instead of just stimulating our tongue like savory or sweet flavors, we may actually fire up our whole mouth, creating a cacophonous buzz. This buzz is what makes salt so enjoyable, but also what makes it hard to study.

Ideally, we would get all of the salt we need from our diet. However, food-based salt is fairly hard to access. Animal meat is the only food that contains nutritionally relevant amounts of salt; there is very little salt in most fruits, vegetables, and seeds. In order to meet our salt needs on a regular basis, humans have come up with many different methods for procuring salt from the ocean.

Summer truffle salt

Summer truffle salt

Salt formation

Salt is formed when sea water evaporates. As it occurs in the ocean, sea water is about 3.5% mineral salts. At this concentration, the salts remain dissolved in the water in their ionic (or charged) form. Once seawater starts to evaporate, the mineral salts becomes more concentrated in the water. If it continues to evaporate, the seawater will reach what’s called it’s solubility threshold. After the seawater passes the threshold, it can no longer continue to hold the salts in solution, and small crystals will begin to form. At first, these crystals are invisible to the naked eye. Eventually, the dissolved salt ions will become more attracted to the invisible crystals than to the water molecules, and will grab on to the formed crystals. Once enough ions have joined up, the salt crystals become visible.

While we think of salt as simply the sodium chloride we use in the kitchen, the word “salt” actually encompasses many other mineral compounds, and they can all be found in seawater. Each mineral compound crystallizes (or precipitates out) of seawater at different concentrations and solubility thresholds. For example, calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate will begin to precipitate out of seawater before sodium chloride, while magnesium chloride and magnesium sulfate will precipitate out later. This phenomenon allows salt producers to select for different minerals to include in their sea salts: Remove all of the calcium salts before sodium chloride forms and you’ll have very little calcium in the mix. Let the sodium chloride salts sit in the sea water for some time after they’ve formed and they’ll contain more magnesium.

Industrial salt producers strip as many trace minerals as they can from the sodium chloride to create a highly pure product. Artisanal producers, on the other hand, can produce signature products by making the most of these additional trace minerals. As you can imagine, we strongly prefer one product over the other.

Sea salt is the perfect final touch for ghee-slicked Yucan crunch.

Sea salt is the perfect final touch for ghee-slicked Yucan crunch.

Industrial salt production

We’ve been producing salt on an industrial scale since the 1920s. The process aims to produce salt for both culinary and industrial use at low cost and high levels of purity. Mined rock salt makes up about a third of industrial production; the remainder is produced through rapid evaporation of seawater.

Rock salt, no matter if it is mined by a giant corporation or a small company, comes from salt deposits formed by the presence of receded ancient sea beds. It is found in either shallow yet vast swaths of bedded salt or deep trenches of salt called salt domes. Most industrially mined rock salt is used for road deicers, but some goes toward the production of animal feedstock and a small amount is refined for culinary use.

If industrial salts are not mined, they are made by evaporating seawater. First, the water is concentrated until calcium carbonate and other non-sodium salts precipitate out. Then, the sea water is moved to a second evaporation pond, where sodium chloride crystallizes. The salt is pumped quickly out of the evaporation pond to prevent other minerals from forming. These salt crystals are then rinsed in brine to remove any lingering minerals. Most of these salts are used for industrial purposes and not used for cooking.

The purest salts are made in an expedited process called vacuum pan evaporation. Here, a seawater brine gets mixed with carbon dioxide and sodium hydroxide, and these compounds precipitate out other “undesirable” minerals. This refined brine is then boiled off in vacuum evaporators to create salt crystals. The result are tiny, cubi, identical salt crystals with a purity level of up to 99.99%. These crystals can be rolled or milled to create different flakes and shapes. Most free-flowing salts like kosher, table, and other food manufacturing salts are made in this manner.

Industrial salts have more problems than just their lack of beneficial trace minerals. Because moisture is completely evaporated out of industrial salt, the crystals are prone to clumping and caking if exposed to any amount of moisture in the air. Compounds like sodium aluminosilicate or sodium ferrocyanide can be added at levels as high as 13 ppm. Many salts are fortified with iodine; much iodine comes bound to the sugar dextrose to cut its bitterness. (People who suffer from autoimmune thyroid conditions should be careful with iodized salts — they can cause more harm than good.) Calcium oxide and calcium carbonate are also often added as whitening agents.

Furthermore, industrial salt production can be damaging to the environment, as much of the production takes place in sensitive marsh and lake ecosystems. They generate significant waste in the form of concentrated mineral-filled water, which can be lethal to aquatic life.

Preserved lemons rely on high-quality salt for pure flavor.

Preserved lemons rely on high-quality salt for pure flavor.

Artisanal salt production

Unlike the (relatively) new industrial salt making process, artisanal-style salt production has been going on since at least 6000 BCE. However, the basic methods remain similar. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and they are produced much like a agricultural crops: beds are managed, salt is harvested when it is ready, and the resulting salt is minimally processed.

These salts are commonly made using a solar evaporation method in which salt water is directed to a series of shallow evaporative pools where it concentrates and eventually precipitates salt. Hot, dry locations can perform all of these steps in the open air, producing fleur de sel, sel gris, and/or traditional sea salts. The difference in salt names reflects not only the appearance of the salt, but also how it was harvested. Fleur de sel is carefully skimmed from the top of the salt pools. It appears sporadically and is highly seasonal, hence its high price tag. If the fleur de sel sits for too long on the top of a salt pool, it will become large and heavy and sink to the bottom of the pool. At this point, the salt is now called sel gris. It can be raked off the bottom of the pool every day or so. If sel gris is left at the bottom of the pool, it will continue to gain mass and weight, eventually turning to what is called “traditional” salt. Traditional salt is very coarse and heavy, and it needs to be ground into smaller pieces before use. It can be harvested after several days or even just once every few months. If you’re buying an unrefined sea salt without a fancy name attached to it, it is likely traditional sea salt.

Rainy and more temperate locations often use greenhouses to aid in evaporation and shield the salt pools from the rain. These salt farms will pump seawater into the greenhouse and throughout the salt pools. Some make use of water purification practices to rid the seawater of potential pathogens and undesirable pollutants. Because the environment is cooler, many of these farms also need to use heat to crystallize the salt. One such salt is called “shio.” It is the most delicate of all artisanal salts with a soft, downy texture.

Each of these different techniques reflect the salt farm’s geology, tradition, economics, and personal preference. The precise salinity of the seawater used also dictates many of the farm’s methods. Most artisanal salt producers maintain a high amount of trace minerals of their salt by manipulating the speed at which the salt crystallizes and is harvested from the salt pools.

Mined artisanal salts are less common than evaporated salts because they can be hard to locate and even harder to mine. Like the industrial version, mined salts are called rock salts—they are found in rock, after all—and they are found in halite deposits all over the world. Yet the methods of mining and scale of operation set the artisanal miners apart from industrial-minded companies. Artisanal rock salt is never refined or stripped of its minerals, and it is produced on a far smaller scale. Even some of the largest artisanal mines in the world produce less than 10% of the amount of salt that industrial mines produce in a year. Artisanal mines also rely on hand labor instead of coal and diesel-powered machinery, keeping their carbon imprint low.

Perhaps the most famous salt mine is the Khewra mine located in the foothills of a hill system in northern Pakistan called the Salt Range. It is the second largest salt mine in the world, and is now a major tourist destination. Salt from the Khewra mine is known as Himalayan salt, despite the fact that it is not technically from the Himalayan mountain range. (The mine is about 200 miles from the Himalayas.) Himalayan salt has been the subject of a great deal of press over the last decade and a half, as it is purported to be higher in trace minerals and lower in harmful contaminants than evaporated sea salt. Other researchers have claimed that Himalayan salt is far too high in harmful minerals like fluoride and bromide. However, because the salt mine is so vast, there are countless different varieties of Himalayan salt, each with their own mineral makeup. Some may be better than the average sea salt, and some may be worse—it depends on the salt. Companies like The Meadow can provide a mineral analysis of their Himalayan salts if there is concern.

Serve a platter of salts at a dinner party to encourage exploration.

Serve a platter of salts at a dinner party to encourage exploration.

Salt and health

Salt has, of course, had its fair share of publicity issues. Many scientists belief that high salt intake (really, it’s the sodium in the salt) leads to an increase risk of heart disease. This is because increased levels of sodium in the blood will raise blood pressure. If sodium intake continues to be high, blood pressure continues to be elevated, and the risk of heart disease increases. But the problem is likely not in home salt shakers. Instead, most Americans eat massive amounts of sodium because they also eat massive amounts of processed and restaurant-prepared foods. These products and dishes often contain far, far more salt than the average person would add at home. In other words, the solution to chronically high blood pressure is not to stop seasoning food at home. Instead, it should be to cut out processed foods and to cut back on restaurant dining. (Remember: high end restaurants are often just as culpable as fast food.)

In addition, we’re not totally sure the exact influence of common table salt on our blood pressure. Researchers on the pro-salt side of the debate argue that total salt intake is less of an issue when it is eaten in balance with other minerals, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium. One of the best ways to do that is to focus on eating a healthy, real food diet full of bioavailable, nutrient-dense foods—that, and avoid things like salt-injected meats and canned soups.

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2 responses to “Seasoning with Sea Salt

  1. Wanted to call your attention to geographical confusion in the allusion of the southern marshes of Portugal being on the Mediterranean Sea. Portugal’s coastline is entirely on the Atlantic Ocean.

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