No one knows whether the practice of salting food originated with religious rites, as an experiment with flavor, or with some chance observation of its curative properties, but earliest man recognized the culinary and dietary importance of the salt crystals that formed naturally by the seashore. The salting of food even predates the discovery of fire and cooking, and salting today remains the most effective way to enhance the flavor of foods.
Almost every culinary tradition in the world evolved around the availability of salt. Historically, thousands of artisanal saltmakers flourished at the heart of major economic centers and ports of trade. The salts produced from each of these saltmakers brought something unique to the table, with crystals varying with the saltmaking techniques, climates, lands, and mineral contents of the seas from which they were made. For this reason, salt is the prism through which the ingredients, dishes, and people of the world can be experienced in all their fullness and variety.
When gold was discovered in the American West, frontiersmen needing salt to season and cure their foods created massive demand for salt. Aided by technological advances, businesses like Richmond & Company (which later became Morton’s) began to produce salt on ever larger scales, and a century vast international consolidation of salt production ensued. Most companies were wiped out, but key producers of some of the world’s most esteemed gourmet salts survived.
Today we are in the midst of a resurgence of artisanal saltmakers around the world, with some of the best salts coming from places like Japan and the Philippines, which have resuscitated their ancient saltmaking traditions. What is exciting and new, for anyone who eats, is that the emphasis is now on quality and distinctiveness rather than on cheapness and production volume.
The best way to reap the benefits of artisanal salt is in finishing. The idea is to skew the salting of food as much as possible toward the end of your food preparation. In other words, cook with little or no salt, and then fling salt crystals that will respond optimally with the flavor, texture, and even appearance of your food to give you the most flavor, most satisfying texture, and greatest beauty.
Finishing salts are traditionally-made salts that are tuned to work specifically with certain types of foods. The magic of finishing with salt is that it allows salt’s complex crystals to come into a much more intimate and dynamic relationship with your food, and your palate.
The three major factors that contribute to the qualities of a salt are mineral content, moisture content, and crystalline structure. In each of these areas, artisanal salt differs radically from industrially produced salts. Where artisanal salts are unrefined, rich in trace minerals, have complex crystal structures, and contain residual moisture of varying degrees, industrial salts are refined, totally devoid of trace minerals, have unyielding block-like crystals, and are kiln fired to eliminate any vestiges of moisture.
In fact, purity is the goal of the industrial salt manufacturers. Cargill, the largest manufacturer of industrial salt explains their sea salt products: “After the harvest and an initial rinse in saturated brine, our salt is 99.5 percent pure [sodium chloride]. Most of the 0.5 percent impurity is water—the rest is mostly dust from the air. Both are removed in our refining process.” These industrial makers pursue pure because their business is sodium chloride, with as much as 95% of their manufacturing output going to industrial sodium chloride applications such as road de-icing agents, pesticides, and other manufacturing uses. Table salt is a relatively small aspect of their overall manufacturing output.
Where industrial salt is harsh tasting and has limited nutritional value, the minerals, moisture, and crystals of traditionally-made sea salts provide a host of culinary and nutritional benefits. The minerals, moisture, and crystals of the salt are key, as they are the factors that will determine not just its taste by itself, but more importantly, its behavior on food.
Mineral diversity brings depth and richness to the flavor of the salt, ranging from briny minerality to sweet butteryness. Moisture content in salts like fleur de sel and sel gris in brings body and suppleness giving the salt resiliency when sprinkled on warm moist foods such as steaks and dense soups, a supple crunch, and a wealth of useful qualities in cooking. Crystalline structure affects the delivery of saltiness. Flake salts dissolve fast and completely, for brilliant flashes of pungent saltiness. The complex, irregular granular crystals of fleur de sel give a modulated and well-behaved saltiness. Larger crystals give explosive contrasts to food that change from one bite to the next, for intense layering of flavors in a single bite.
The Meadow’s salt sets have been composed to help everyone, from professional chefs to rabid foodies to regular-eatin’ folk of every stripe, gain a working understanding of finishing salt. With just a handful of salts we can explore the physics and chemistry of salt on food, and unlock the infinite possibilities of their combined forces.
Secondary properties include culinary tradition, health benefits, cultural and geographical associations, beauty, and economic and environmental appeal. While some salts suffer from the snob appeal of being hard-to-find, expensive, or endorsed by celebrities, even these have a place.
The Meadow’s Starter Set of finishing salts contains a selection of six salts that effectively illustrate how minerality, moisture, and crystal structure determine the behavior of finishing salt on food. Crystals shaped in flakes, pyramids, granules, chunks, strata, fractalized blocks, contain a complex mix of trace minerals, and may also contain varying degrees of residual moisture.
The marvel of finishing salts is that no single set of definitions can fully explain them. However, here are some ground rules for working with these finishing salts: 1) use less salt—or none at all—during the preparation of a dish, leaving your food with its natural flavor before finishing with salt; 2) appreciate salt as a object, opening yourself up to the mineral burst of an undissolved salt crystal on your food; 3) experiment freely, be playful, taking the opportunity to use your own creativity to explore your unique food, cooking, and taste preferences. Once you achieve success using finishing salt you will never go back.