Artisan varieties make plain table salt a four-letter word

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Salt is a big deal now. That shaker of Morton’s is cowering in a corner overpowered by status salts with pedigrees and provenances. Mark Bitterman sells salts at his shop, The Meadow, in Portland, Ore., and New York.

He sells 120 different salts to be specific, but trend wasn’t his motivation. When he was a student backpacking in France, he saw that cooks travelled with their own salts. As he traveled the world, he collected the local sodium chlorides, he studied and his opinions evolved. The result is a book: Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You’ve killed a culinary icon. Could you please read from the kosher salt entry in your book?

Mark Bitterman: I’d be glad to.

Kosher salt is a processed food, with all mineral and moisture qualities intrinsic to real salt stripped away, and with a crystal structure fabricated by automated processes. The flavor is antiseptic, like the bright fluorescence of a laboratory on a spaceship drifting aimlessly away from earth. The texture crackles and bounces on your tongue like an undead pet, a battery-operated puppy with no hair, trying to comfort you with its soulless antics. When we cook with kosher salt we sanctify the artificial, we embrace emptiness, we become unfit for our posts -- a nakedness far worse than embarrassment.

LRK: You do not mince words. How did you come to have these strong opinions about salt?

MB: Honestly, I didn’t know I had strong opinions until I was speaking more publicly about it. Because to me, I feel passionately about all food and I think that salt is something that has this amazing natural diversity -- this natural authenticity to it -- that we connect to and you can see it and you can taste it. When you find the right salt on the right food and it just explodes in your mouth, you get this incredibly new, more vital and exciting flavor. It’s sort of like an affirmation of this quest for something more authentic and exciting in food.

LRK: This is one of those things that you never think about.

MB: I think that’s just it. We take salt for granted. It’s a four-letter word for this white, homogenous, industrialized, standardized product at the bottom of the supermarket shelves. There is nowhere historically that we have been eating this. This is something that was invented about 150 years ago with the advent of the modern chemical industry. Iodized salt, a lot of these cheap sea salts, kosher salt, rock salts, they are all pure, refined sodium chloride and have nothing to do with the natural food that salt has been for thousands of years.

LRK: What are examples that really make salt exciting?

MB: I think whenever you find a salt that was made with such deliberation, with such intensity of purpose, that’s very exciting. This happens more often than you might think. Where I see it happening most often, sort of on a cultural level, is in Japan. There are a number of Japanese salts that are just truly spectacular in what they put into the salt to make them come out the way they have.

A good example would be Shinkai Deep Sea Salt from Japan, which is harvested with seawater that is 3,000 feet under the ocean. They pull the seawater up; they bring it into a greenhouse; they spray that water onto bamboo mats that are suspended from the ceiling of the greenhouse; and that water slowly trickles down and evaporates as it trickles down. They repeat that process for days until they have a concentrated brine. They then take that concentrated brine, put it in a big caldron over a wood fire and stir it continuously without cease, day and night with a wooden paddle, until slowly the crystals form. All the deep-water minerals of magnesium and other minerals get bound up in the lattice of the crystals and you have this super, super fine -- almost frond-like flakes -- that form. It’s this paralyzing, bright, white with a bittersweet taste. That salt sprinkled on top of something fresh and simple is one of the most incredible experiences there is.

LRK: At 3,000 feet you have minerals that you wouldn’t have at another level?

MB: What’s interesting is that in the ocean there is something called the halocline. As the ocean gets deeper, the water gets saltier and different salts pervade. There are many different kinds of salts in the ocean, not just sodium chloride -- the balance and concentration of the salts changes as you get deeper. The Japanese have a real fascination with this. There are even salts that they have made where they combine water from shallow currents and deep currents to make a salt. They are very, very sensitive to these nuances.

LRK: What does a salt like that cost?

MB: It is not inexpensive by comparison to what we are used to paying for salt. A little jar like that might cost you $10-15 for a few ounces, but you only use a pinch at a time. So the per-serving cost is a couple pennies.

LRK: Most of the salts that you talk about that have distinctive flavors, you would be using these at the end of cooking where their flavors would really make a difference in a dish?

MB: That is something that we generally preach in our store: to skew the use of salt toward the end of the food preparation. This is not to say that you shouldn’t cook with salt, but there are many times when you can use less salt or no salt at all while you are cooking. That gives you the option to put salt on at the end where the salt has autonomy, where it can show its colors, where it can interact and play with the food a little bit more vibrantly.

LRK: I realize this is like asking you to pick your favorite child, but do you have a salt that you like as your “everyday” salt?

MB: We have a sel gris. Sel gris is a type of sea salt that is evaporated in open crystallizing pans under the sun. The crystals form on the bottom of the pan and they are then raked up everyday. They have this beautiful coarse texture -- they have a lot of moisture, like 13 percent residual moisture inside of the crystal -- so it has this very pliant, yielding, crystal crunch to it. It also has this beautiful resiliency on food: You can use it as a finishing salt on hearty foods like steak, lamb or root vegetables, but it’s also inexpensive. It’s readily available everywhere; it’s mineral-rich, all-natural and harvested by hand. You can use it in your pasta water, in blanching your veggie water; you can grind it up a little with a mortar and pestle for your baking -- it’s very versatile.

LRK: It could replace kosher salt.

MB: Absolutely. It takes some adjustment to use it.

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