The beautiful thing about cooking with a plate of pink Himalayan salt plates is that the material is about as predictable and well-behaved as a shaved cat in an electrical storm. At least that is how it appears when you first start to use them. Salt is hygroscopic, meaning it has a tendency to drink pure water out of perfectly fine air. Hauled straight out of the mountain in Pakistan, Himalayan salt blocks have varying mineral densities that alter their thermal expansion coefficient, so different parts of the same plate can expand at different rates. At the same time, salt crystals in Himalayan salt blocks are strangely elastic, so the strains of such thermal expansion and contraction can be largely absorbed. Bringing us full circle, fissures and irregularities can appear from rapid heating and cooling, while rinsing and drying them can fuse them back together again. In short, your Himalayan salt brick or plate or block is a little like The Picture of Dorian Gray painted by Georges Braque, secretly reflecting the vagaries and adventures of your kitchen life in its glowing pink cubic crystals.
The prospect of a kitchen utensil harboring unspoken truths about our private kitchen lives, our sordid failures and glittery triumphs, is upsetting to some people. To them, there may be nothing to say but, “Stick with stainless steel.” Many others are not so much averse to the intrinsic mysteriousness and seemingly endless misbehaviors of salt plates, as they are flummoxed. For the benefit of the latter, I would like to share a recent letter I received from a particularly courageous Himalayan salt block user, and offer some replies as best as I can.
I recently bought the large salt block and have a couple of questions/concerns.
My salt block has fissures/cracks going all the way through. After cooking on it, there is a difference in the height from one section to the other. Is this a cause for concern? The gaps between the fissures also seem to be widening. ANSWERS, SEE BELOW.
While somewhat translucent when first unwrapped, after cooking with it, it has become cloudy and mottled. Concern or typical? You mentioned that you’ve tested them up to 900 deg. I had mine in a 500 degree oven for a while before transitioning to the burner, but should I be more careful with the temperature? (This applies to the above concern as well, I suppose.) ANSWER: IT IS ALWAYS NICE TO BE NICE. IF YOU CAN HEAT UP YOUR PLATE SLOWER, IT WILL LAST LONGER. I DO OFTEN JUST PUT MY PLATE RIGHT ON THE STOVETOP, HOWEVER, STARTING AT LOW TEMPERATURE, BEFORE CRANKING IT UP.
Finally, mineral deposits are forming around the cracks/fissures (again after cooking)—it looks like a basement wall that is efflorescing. Is this typical? I haven’t yet come up with a storage solution, so it is just sitting out on a cabinet wrapped in a paper towel. Any recommendations on how I should store it? Is moisture a concern? ANSWER: POSSIBLY YOUR HOUSE IS VERY DAMP, AND THE BEST THING TO DO IS TO KEEP IT IN A WARM SPOT THAT WILL MINIMIZE CONDENSATION. THE MAIN THING IS TO BE SURE TO PAT DOWN YOUR FRESHLY WASHED SALT PLATE WITH A PAPER TOWEL, AND LEAVE IT OUT IN THE DRY AIR UNTIL COMPLETELY DRY. IF YOU HAVE AN ELECTRIC RANGE OR OVEN, YOU CAN POP IN IN THERE FOR 5 MINUTES AND THAT WILL ALSO DO THE TRICK. GAS RANGES PUT OUT TOO MUCH HUMIDITY TO FUNCTION AS DRYERS, ALAS.
Well, one other thing: In my inaugural fried egg, I overheated the block, burned the butter seem to have managed to pit the surface. Should I expect that normal usage (and clean up) will tend to smooth out the rough spots? I was somewhat disappointed by how much the egg stuck to the surface. Again, will that smooth out and improve with use, or do I need more (unburned!) butter? COOKING IS AN INEXACT SCIENCE (FOR MOST OF US). BURNING BUTTER CAN CAUSE DISCOLORATION OF SALT BLOCKS, AND IS TO BE AVOIDED IF YOU WISH TO KEEP IT PRETTY. HOWEVER, PITTING AND THE LIKE ARE SOMEWHAT INESCAPABLE. REGARDING STICKING: THIS IS NOT A NO-STICK FRYING PAN. EGGS WILL STICK, SO JUST BE VERY AGGRESSIVE WHEN SCRAPING IT OFF TO SERVE WITH YOUR SPATULA. YOU GET MICROSCOPICALLY LARGER AMOUNTS OF SALT THAT WAY TOO, SO IT TASTES BETTER! I ALMOST NEVER USE ANY OIL WITH ANYTHING I COOK ON HIMALAYAN SALT PLATES. SCALLOPS, STEAK, EGG, DUCK. MUSHROOMS ARE AN EXCEPTION…
Fissures and cracks: The salt plate at top (click for a larger view) also pictured here (definitely click for a larger view) has been rather heavily used, in this case heated on an electric hotplate rather than a gas burner. To me, it is more beautiful than ever, and shows very few signs of actual wear or degradation from washing and dissolving.
These are more or less inevitable in any Himalayan salt block. Microfissures will develop when the massive block of salt is subjected to an irregular heat source such as a gas burner. However, I find these fissures do not affect the salt plate as a cooking surface, and can even bring new beauty to the piece. To the right are some close-ups of the types of fissures I typically seen in a salt block that is subjected to extreme heat. However, what G.B. is experiencing is presumably more severe. One of my favorite salt blocks anywhere has exceptionally varied levels of mineral density distributed throughout. While this makes for one of the most beautiful Himalayan salt plates I have ever seen, there are some trade-offs in terms of its long-term prospects as a high temperature cooking plate. When the plate is heated, different parts expand at different rates and different amounts. The result is a certain instability. That said, this piece is still holding up pretty well after having fried many an egg on our stovetop. Note that for the sake of keeping this salt piece beautiful, I have not subjected it to the most brutal of treatment, such as flambeing, or mistakes such as burning butter or oil or animal fat.
Click on the image of my Himalayan beauty to see it up close, and you will see that there are some definitely variations and fissures running throughout, many of which are doubtless harming the structural integrity of the block. Beauty is ephemeral. Still, so far she has served up many a breakfast with her fairness undiminished.
But moving on to the less savory results that can be had with Himalayan salt blocks, The Cracken.
I inspect all the Himalayan salt plates we sell at The Meadow. I do my best to assure that every block and brick and plate and tile has enough structural integrity permit use in most kitchen activities. That said, folks are creative in the extremes they can subject a poor salt block to–and are also, at times, just unlucky in the salt brick they procure. Let it be said, if your salt brick breaks, I will gladly replace it unless the breakage comes as the result of some gross negligence.
I have since used it for a series of meals, using it more or less daily for a spell, heating it up in the broiler (gas) to sauté scallops, heating it on the stovetop (gas) for flank steak, and variously cooking about a dozen of other things ranging from fillet of sole to whole sardines to veggies.
As expected, the salt block has cracked, but it has not exhibited all the various forms of unsettling behavior I imagined–like breaking, or worse, splintering. In fact the Himalayan salt tile seems to have stabilized, and I continue to use this plate in a show of defiance, and in humble admiration for the unplumbed mysteries of salt.
Fissures and cracks are a fact of life, in Himalayan salt, occurring naturally as a result of the forces they are subjected to deep in the earth, and from the trauma of quarrying them. There are still some forms of behavior–such as alligatoring I have observed on the surface of a salt skillet of the executive chef of a large resort here in Oregon–so I cannot say without seeing it whether the issues experienced by G.B. are serious enough to affect the performance of the salt plate. However, it is safe to assume G.B. has one of the more temperamental instances of Himalayan salt plate, so the solace I offer is simple: use the salt plate taking care to observe some of the handling practices mentioned above, and keep me posted.
For more information, see my previous posting on recipes for Himalayan Salt Plates.