Exploring Salt: The World's Favorite Seasoning (Plus Recipes)
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.— Genesis 1:9-10
As Timeless as Water and Rock
How did it begin, the wondrous blue marble we call home?
Proponents of evolutionary theory envision a random but nonetheless dynamic progression over millions of years. Those who hold onto Creationism acknowledge a Divine creator and the formation of the earth just a few millennia ago.
Whatever your belief, it is clear that the salty ocean waters (and thus salt) have long been a part of our existence. As the antediluvian seas retreated, they left behind salt—exposed in playas and dry lakes, folded into rocks, sheltered in caverns and coursing through lakes and streams.
Today salt is easy to obtain—it’s everywhere—and it’s inexpensive. But at one time, it was one of the most valuable commodities on earth.
A Part of Us
Salt is an integral part of our being—so much so that it is one of our five sensory tastes (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.) Before our birth, we were suspended in our mother’s wombs in a saline ocean. For thousands of years, salt has been used to disinfect, purify, and embalm.
In the preparation of food salt can preserve meats and act as a tenderizer; when used as a brine it will sharpen and enhance the rind of aging cheese. Salt aids in the pickling of vegetables; and the inclusion of salt in yeast dough will greatly improve the crumb of a loaf of bread.
Salt is the one flavor that sharpens and brightens all others. Any confectioner will tell you that even sweet tastes are enhanced with a pinch of salt.
You are the salt of the earth.— Matthew 5:13
A Part of Our Ancient History
To taste salt is to taste our history as humans on this earth. There are numerous Biblical references to salt. But Egyptian writings about salt pre-date even those of the Old Testament. As far back as 6050 B.C., salt was mentioned by the Egyptians as a religious offering; it was a valuable trade commodity between Phoenicians and their rivals in the Mediterranean; it has been said that the city of Rome might have begun as a salt-trading center; and in ancient Greece salt was deemed so valuable that it was exchanged as payment for slaves, giving rise to the expression “not worth his salt.”
Man-made salt-ponds along the shores of the Mediterranean date back to Roman times and salt was already being mined in the Alps when Rome was founded.
Food storage is vital for the preservation of society. Today we have the conveniences of canning, refrigeration, and freeze-drying but these certainly were not available even 100 years ago. Whether hunted or grown and harvested, food is rarely available when it is needed, unless it is somehow stored. Salt's ability to preserve food was a foundation of successful civilizations. It helped to eliminate the dependence on the seasonal availability of food and it allowed travel over long distances. Salt rations (“salarium argentum”) were given to Roman soldiers—the etymology of our word “salary.”
About 4,700 years ago (around 2,700 B.C.) the Pen-Tzao-Kan-Mu was published in China, one of the earliest known writings on pharmacology. A major portion of this writing was on salt.
The Bible contains thirty references to salt—using it as a metaphor for loyalty, usefulness, and permanence. Such was the value of salt in ancient times. In the Middle East the only source of salt was the Dead Sea area—hence, it was valued, it was treasured.
Salt and Civilization
Technology has made salt one of the most commonplace commodities on earth, but thousands of years ago underground deposits were unobtainable; salt harvests were located in just a few precious areas. Salt routes crisscrossed the globe and ships bearing salt from Egypt to Greece traversed the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. As early as the 6th-century Moorish merchants routinely traded salt ounce for ounce for gold and in Abyssinia, slabs of rock salt, called 'amôlés, became legal tender.
Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia.
As peoples transported salt and searched for new sources, roads were formed and new civic centers established. For example, Salzburg is literally the “city of salt.”
The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.— Isak Dinesen
Salt in the 21st Century
You might be wondering—if salt is so cheap, so plentiful, so ordinary, why did I write this article and why is it so important?
Not all salts are created equal—my husband, the geologist, doesn't understand—but salt isn't just salt.
The salt that we consume is 98 percent sodium chloride; it's the remaining 2 percent that makes the difference. That 2 percent contains subtle flavors and aromas imparted from the waters and surrounding minerals from which the salts are harvested.
Types of Salt
The standard recipe salt. Fine-grained and contains anti-caking agents and (often) iodine. Use in cooking and baking, where precise measurements and table salt's consistent grain and strength are required. Store in a shaker of any kind.
The go-to salt for chefs who appreciate the lack of additives and the coarse grain (easier to get a 'pinch'). Use to to season anything cooked in a saucepan or sauté pan. You won't need to use as much as table salt. Store in a salt cellar.
Crystalline Sea Salt
A by-product of evaporating seawater. Available in fine and coarse grains, prized for its pure flavor. Use in baking (fine grain) or cooking (coarse grain). If coarse, store in a salt grinder.
Also known as gros sel. Most comes from Brittany where the clay soil lends a grey tinge. The trace minerals give it a complex flavor. Use as a finishing salt on cooked dishes and prepared salads.
Fleur de Sel
Expensive and worth the cost. These crystals, like snowflakes, form on the top of salt flats and achieve a delicate texture from the bea freezes that blow across them. Use by sprinkling on your finest foods (such as aged steak, heirloom tomatoes, or a salad of baby greens with artisanal oil and aged balsamic vinegar) just before serving. The instant they touch your tongue they explode with flavor—think of them as Nature's pop-rocks.
The first three recipes are from my files, and the rest I was happy to find on the internet. In each, salt is not just a seasoning, it's the star of the show.
Lemon Rosemary Sea Salt Shortbread Bars
1 3/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons water
- 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
- Combine the flour, table salt, zest, and rosemary in a medium mixing bowl. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Blend the egg, egg yolks, and water together in a small bowl. Set aside one tablespoon of the mixture. Add the remaining egg/water mixture to the flour/butter mixture. Stir to combine and form a rough dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead two or three times, until the dough sticks together. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Remove dough from the refrigerator, unwrap, and place on a floured surface. Pat the dough into a 6-inch by 5-inch rectangle. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a 10-inch by 7-inch rectangle.
- Cut the dough into half-inch wide strips. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet; brush the tops with the reserved egg/water mixture and then sprinkle the sea salt on top. Press the salt down so that it adheres to the cookies.
- Bake until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Dark Chocolate Salted Brownies
- 12 ounces unsalted butter, 1 1/2 cubes
- 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, 2 squares
- 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 tsp. espresso powder
- 3 eggs, large
- 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Line a 9-inch square pan with foil—the ends of the foil should extend over two sides of the pan to use as "handles" to help remove the brownies from the pan once they are baked and cooled. Lightly butter the foil, or spray with non-stick cooking spray.
- Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add the cocoa powder, espresso powder, and sugar and then whisk in the eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly blended. Stir in the vanilla and flour.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the edges are set. The center will still be soft. While the brownies are still not, sprinkle the salt on the top and press gently so that it adheres to the top of the brownies. Let cool to room temperature, remove from the pan, and cut into squares.
Bruschetta with Sautéed Spinach
- 1 tablespoon plus 12 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 8 ounces spinach, washed, stems removed, and chopped
- 8 small slices artisanal bread, lightly toasted
- gray salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in heavy large sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and stir 15 seconds, until fragrant. Add spinach and sauté until tender and wilted about 3 minutes.
- Drizzle 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil on each piece of toast. Top with spinach and then sprinkle with grey salt and black pepper.
New York Salt Potatoes
This recipe by Julie (BakedIn) creates the most amazing crunchy-on-the-outside but creamy-on-the-inside potatoes.
Parmesan Crisps with Thyme
Scott and Chris are husband and wife and work as a team on the beautiful website CafeSucreFarine. These parmesan crisps are light and crisp and would make a stunning addition to a cheese tray, as an appetizer with cocktails, or the topper to a crisp green salad and creamy soup.
Lavender Salt Scrub
As you know, salt isn't just for seasoning. It makes a wonderful exfoliant. This recipe from BuildingOurStory is so easy to make, and it smells wonderful. Make it for yourself or make it as a gift.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Linda Lum