February 24, 2004 6:48 PM   Subscribe

Is Salt The New Olive Oil? The New York Times [registration required] thinks so and Peter Hertzmann, on his superb a la carte website, offers an expert analysis of the difficulties of seasoning well. Even the greatest chefs feel insecure with salt, even though most of them would consider it to be, by far, the most important ingredient of all. At least those I've asked. [I always ask them what 3 ingredients they couldn't do without]. It's cheap; it's essential and there are now so many kinds to choose from. Will this current brouhaha be enough to convince the larger population that much is lost in using only the industrial, refined stuff? [Of course, for someone from Southern Europe, olive oil and good sea salt aren't exactly new, so take this with a grain of you know what.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (28 comments total)
I felt silly paying $10 for a few ounces of fleur de sel, but there's nothing like it for vegetables or steak. It's great on chocolate, too, or on foie gras. The flavour is nice, but what's truly wonderful is the texture. The flakes are just the right size and shape to perch on top of the food waiting to explode into little salty sparkles in your mouth. And while it's expensive, if you confine yourself to a pinch on your food every few days then that $10 of salt lasts for years.
posted by Nelson at 7:36 PM on February 24, 2004

Uhhhhh. Am now so very much wanting a good steak (and very much wanting to try some fleur de sel). Great post, Miguel (and thanks for the tip, Nelson).
posted by logovisual at 7:58 PM on February 24, 2004

Is it an urban rumor, or truth, that humans can't taste anything without at least a little bit of salt? Seems like I've heard it a lot.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:10 PM on February 24, 2004

nelson you just gave me a salt on... mmmm. my family has always used sea salt, but just the garden variety cheap stuff you get at the local grocery... this fleur de sel is something new to me and i hope i can find the portuguese variety in toronto.
posted by t r a c y at 8:12 PM on February 24, 2004

Kudos for the links Miguel!

A couple of years ago my baby brother and his intended shocked me when I asked them [separately] what they wanted as a holiday gift.

"A good salt grinder" they said.

This from two people that consider Hot Pockets to be haute cuisine!

Salt doesn't have 'notes'! It's just salty ....
posted by Jos Bleau at 8:16 PM on February 24, 2004

Thanks Miguel.
Cool link. I have been using homemade Baharat
in a lot of things lately but I bet using a different salt might be the thing
make it taste more authentically middle-eastern.

posted by arse_hat at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2004

Thanks Miguel!
posted by daver at 8:59 PM on February 24, 2004

not positive about their international shipping policies/rates, but a variety of fleur de sel brands are available in the new gourmet food section of amazon.
posted by rorycberger at 9:20 PM on February 24, 2004

as a sidenote, i can't wait to hear what my friends/relatives say when they see salt on my wish list.
posted by rorycberger at 9:21 PM on February 24, 2004

I've done and administered blind taste tests on supermarket kosher salt, processed table salt and expensive fleur de sel and other "gourmet" salts. If you're sprinkling a bit of salt on a slice of tomato from your garden and immediately popping it into your mouth, the sea salt (or any other large crystal salt) is worth the price because of the subtle mineral flavors and, most important, texture. If you're sprinkling salt on a steak or vegetables to be grilled, seared or fried, no one, yes, no one, will notice the difference between the finest fleur de sel and the basest supermarket table salt, except the cook, having greater control distributing a pinch of coarse grained kosher supermarket salt than a salt shaker filled with Mortons. If you're making a soup or pancakes or anything where the salt will be fully dissolved, well, sodium chloride is NACL is sodium chloride - if you're paying more than the cheapest you can find, you're spending money on branding or the pronouncements of gourmands going on the words of chefs that are talking out of their asses because it sounds good to them and they're too busy anyway to bother performing any kind of experiments that actually test their taste.

Salt is arguably the most important ingredient in cooking. But, unless the diner is able to experience the texture and flavor of the salt directly in the dish, it matters little what type of salt you use. The only part of Hertzmann's article that I fully agree with is the last sentence:

It is important for both the new cook and the experienced one to continually taste the food being prepared and to use salt to coax the maximum flavor from it

Anyone who has honestly done so knows that, while the use if salt is vital in any dish, with a few exceptions the type of salt used in a dish is unimportant.
posted by dchase at 9:24 PM on February 24, 2004

Well done, Miguel. My (first!) pain de compagne is in the oven as I type and now I am wishing I had a nice brined chicken slow roasting in my imaginary wood-burning brick oven. sigh.
posted by shoepal at 9:30 PM on February 24, 2004

No, thank you - you're very welcome. :)

The thing about fleur du sel is that it isn't a quarter as salty as the refined, processed stuff. It's crunchy and layered, like freshly cut Parmesan cheese. Also, you can buy it in 5 kilo bags for next to nothing (it's the same stuff as in the arty-farty 250 grammes bags) if you go straight to the importers and wholesalers - enough for 20 people for 2 years. The best are from Portugal and Brittany - the Portuguese is much whiter; the French is grey; but they're both scrumptious.

As Nelson says, you should only use it as a sprinkle; never for cooking (gross sea salt, i.e., kosher, is best) so it lasts forever. For instance, it's delicious on strawberries, oranges or biscuits. It doesn't make them salty; just brings out their natural flavours. With tomatoes, it makes them sweeter. Good fleur du sel (Duh! There is no bad!) is a sugar substitute, rather than a salty condiment.

in Southern European cooking, salt is rarely used to salt. It's used to draw out moisture; enhance natural flavours; sweeten acidity and season in a non-salty sense. For instance, the best way of cooking really fresh Atlantic whole fish (with the scales and everything) is to cover it in a thick coat of sea salt and bake it in the oven for 25 minutes. When you serve it, you break open the crust and the inside is moist and fresh, far more luscious than if it was steamed, boiled or grilled.

So much so, that you have to add a few pristine flakes of fleur du sel to the fish; because it's too discrete, despite the two kilos of sea salt it was covered in! A kilo of real sea salt, for reference purposes, costs about 25 cents.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:35 PM on February 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

dchase: You're absolutely right regarding saltiness. In fact, table salt, being more concentrated, is cheaper than all the other kinds, if your only objective is to make things saltier. Besides, most table salt is ground sea salt.

However (for instance, when salting water for pasta) it's far too salty and much easier to misjudge - though technically I agree, if the dose is well judged, the result is the same. But it's so easy to go overboard - and nothing can rescue something that's oversalted.

All Portuguese cooks, however poor, will at use crystal salt for seasoning while cooking and leave table salt, well, for the table - mainly for making stuff saltier. The point is that there are many types of salts and each one has its place. Salted peanuts and almonds are nice with fleur du sel, if you dip them in it just before eating, but they're great with simple table salt, if you're roasting and serving them as they are.

However, I have to disagree about your (to my mind) excessively scientific cast of mind. Texture and crunchiness are very important, but so is the flavour (not to mention all the rich mineral and health benefits). Fleur du sel is watery; it dissolves in the palate; revealing itself slowly; it brings out the flavour of meat, cheese, fish in a gradual fashion, in a way which is not uniform. On a steak, for instance, it's lovely to diversely bite into chunks with no salt, little salt or a lot of salt. This can't be achieved with table salt, which dissolves and spreads. Also, not to be gross, fleur du sel absorbs the meat juices, i.e. blood, and so each flake is a mini-steak.

Here at home we have little ramekins of fleur du sel everywhere and sprinkle it on everything. Just last night I crumbled some on good old McVities Digestive Biscuits (I always crumble it in my fingers beforehand; never in a mill, which makes it too fine for my taste) and was amazed by the difference it made. All of a sudden, I had gigantic, ultra-delicious Ritz biscuits. I hastened to the larder to retrieve an artisanal ewe's cheese we were keeping for a special occasion and...bliss!

So I don't think it's as simple as you say, to say the least. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:04 PM on February 24, 2004

The Vikings beat the Saxons there, and Maldon beats Saxa.
posted by riviera at 11:28 PM on February 24, 2004

Miguel: that's part of what dchase was saying. That fancy large-flake salts can make sense if you're going to eat immediately after salting, before the salt can dissolve. dchase's steak example was salting before cooking, after which all you'll likely have are ions on and in the outer layers of the meat.

And, I dunno, it's hard to say that blinded tests are wrong. In the circumstances where people who haven't been told which is which can't tell something salted with fleur de sel from something salted with Morton's kosher salt, there probably is really only a placebo-effect difference.

The test I'd like to see is a blinded test between fleur de sel and artificially-generated large-flake salt with a few extra minerals thrown in.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:53 PM on February 24, 2004

Well, unfortunately I use almost no added in any of my cooking, due to congenital hypertension. It does, however, lead to some interesting experimentation trying to replace it...
posted by Samizdata at 1:01 AM on February 25, 2004

For instance, the best way of cooking really fresh Atlantic whole fish (with the scales and everything) is to cover it in a thick coat of sea salt and bake it in the oven for 25 minutes

As soon as los Carnavales end, I'm heading out to Galicia!
posted by sic at 1:44 AM on February 25, 2004

There's a nice Jeffrey Steingarten piece in It Must Have Been Something I Ate, where he is touchingly disappointed to find - after commissioning a blind taste test of different salts by professional blind taste testers (!) - that there is little discernable difference between the cheap and the expensive.

All the points about texture stand though. Being a parochial Englishman, I like Maldon.
posted by bifter at 3:41 AM on February 25, 2004

Great post, thanks!
posted by arha at 3:42 AM on February 25, 2004

My impressions of Portuguese cuisine, based on three weeks spent there five years ago, was "Why is everybody so infatuated with French and Northern Italian cuisine when this stuff is available?" Amazing regional cuisine differences, always fresh ingredients, huge portions, low prices. The guys I traveled with - my band members - loved it, and they are Hungarian country boys who like their food salty.

One of my favorite dishes was salted cod soaked only a day to leave it salty, and then shredded and served raw with olive oil and olives.
posted by zaelic at 4:06 AM on February 25, 2004

I'm in Texas. We use rock salt. We apply it with shovels. Fancy-schmancy chef-shaped Texans use ice tongs.
posted by Opus Dark at 4:35 AM on February 25, 2004

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that salt is not the most important ingredient. It is not a good idea to get a taste for salt as it is an artery hardener and in fact blands food out if misused.
The natural saltiness of most ingredients is sufficient for most recipes.

Salt roast fish is teh roxxors, though.
posted by asok at 4:40 AM on February 25, 2004

factoid: All salt is sea salt. Salt may vary according to its source, but whether its evaporated in brine ponds on the normandy coast or mined from veins hundreds of feet under Oklahoma, at one time or another, it was in the sea and is therefore sea-salt.

Beware all marketing terms.
posted by Fupped Duck at 5:56 AM on February 25, 2004

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that salt is not the most important ingredient.

I am following close behind on that limb. I rarely use salt while cooking anymore. While the reasons I stopped doing so have little to do with health concerns, I don't think that I should start to use it once again.

/sic - creo que el pescado a la sal es andaluz, no gallego.
posted by magullo at 6:22 AM on February 25, 2004

The natural saltiness of most ingredients is sufficient for most recipes.

I completely disagree, depending on the freshness of your ingredients. Fresh, natural food should rarely have salt. It's the processed and preserved foods that are laden with salt (and sugar!). In fact, one of my consistent observations is that as people learn to cook with good ingredients, they tend to undersalt because they're used to their ingredients being inherently salty.

Health food stores often sell sea salt in bulk, cheaply.

Great link!
posted by mkultra at 6:53 AM on February 25, 2004

I love salt, too.
But: It's just Sodium Chloride, no matter how you cut it.
posted by spazzm at 7:36 AM on February 25, 2004

The best salt? Seaweed stock/broth slow cooked and filtered leaving a salty brine that is a replacement for salt. Seaweed has the full spectrum of minerals and is much healthier than plain old salt (even sea salt) and IMO much richer taste. I make chicken stock with seaweed and use this as the base for soups, rice, etc.. it has magical qualities, when mixed with saturated fat such as cheese to help carry and absorb the fat-soluable minerals it will raise the dead.

I go for nutrition #1 and taste #2, you need to know nutrition to be a good cook. Most of the time the old traditional wisdom is the best way. For example fish soup made with fish heads imparts nutritional factors that are hard to get other ways that most of us no longer get because we are sissys about eating fish heads. Or, the Turkey carcass from Thanksgiving is the most nutritious part of the Turkey when slow cooked in stock, but most of us just throw it out.. how shameful and wasteful.

Spazzm, sea salt is not just Sodium Chloride, it contains a long list of minerals vital to human health and nutrition.
posted by stbalbach at 7:56 PM on February 25, 2004

On a steak, for instance, it's lovely to diversely bite into chunks with no salt, little salt or a lot of salt
This can't be achieved with table salt, which dissolves and spreads
Agreed, but it can be accomplished with coarse kosher salt as well as dramatically more expensive sea salts. If you do a blind taste test between the two you will not notice any difference. Once dissolved, the only thing the fancier salts bring to the party are trace minerals, the flavors of which are well drowned out by the numerous flavor compounds of the food being salted.

If the salt is tasted with the dish in it's whole form, fancy salts (and I proudly stock several in my pantry) are well worth it (those who argue that the freshest vegetable sans salt is the ultimate experience have never tried an heirloom tomato just plucked from the garden, sliced, and sprinkled with the finest fleur de sel). But if the salt will dissolve in the cooking process, no one but a super taster will notice the difference between supermarket salts and artisanal sea salts. Coarse kosher salt definitely makes a difference in non-baking situations because of the control the cook has when distributing with a pinch of the fingers (as in your steak example). But that's not due to the origin or price of the salt, but it's shape. There is no such thing as salt that "tastes less salty", there are only salts that contain less salt by volume due to their shape (and thus taste lest salty because, well, there's less salt in a serving).

It's not simple at all, it's just that basic ingredients like salt are rarely as romantic as the dishes they're used in ;)
posted by dchase at 8:58 PM on February 25, 2004

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