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Imagine a time when salt was as valuable (and as taxed…) as oil is to us today. Life cannot be sustained without salt but, hundreds of years ago, this commodity that we now take for granted was even more critical to our survival. Before the advent of refrigeration, the only way to extend the shelf-life of perishable foods was to smoke them or to cure them with salt: salted cod, cured ham, confit, cheeses… Countries that did not have salt mines or maritime borders had to trade amber, bronze or even slaves to get their supply of salt; it would then reach its destination by boat or on the backs of donkeys. Roman soldiers who were in charge of guarding salt and assuring its safe transit would be given part of their pay in salt, hence the word "salary". Salt was so rare and precious a condiment that it was referred to as "white gold" during medieval times. Nowadays, we get enough salt from our various food sources: salt itself is mainly used as a flavor enhancer.

Different kinds of salt.
All salt comes, or came, from the sea: even salt mined from the earth was once deposited by the sea. But all salt is not the same. Most of the salt extracted from the earth is not refined enough to be suitable for human consumption but is used in other applications, such as salting snowy roads or tanning leather. Let's review the different types of salt intended for use with food.

Rock salt is obtained by pumping water into an underground salt deposit; as the water dissolves the salt, the brine is collected, heated and concentrated, allowing the water to evaporate and the salt to crystallize. It is chunky and mostly used in ice cream making.

Kitchen salt is basically rock salt that has been ground finer. It is still fairly coarse.

Table salt is rock salt that has been refined to remove any other minerals until it is pure sodium chloride. Then, it is ground to a fine texture. White in color, it is the most common type of salt. An anti-caking agent is added to absorb moisture so that the salt will still flow freely in humid climates. Table salt comes in two versions: iodized or non-iodized; in the former, iodine has been added to help prevent hypothyroidism (this goes back to the days where people living far from the sea were not getting enough iodine in their diet and were susceptible to develop goiter).

Kosher salt is not kosher "per se"; rather it is used when kashering meat to make it kosher for eating (the salt is used to draw out the blood). It is somewhat coarse but has a flaky texture due to the particular shape of its crystals. It has no additives and dissolves easily. It tastes "less salty" than other salts, simply because the crystals are "fluffier" and occupy more volume than sea salt, for instance: in other words, there is less sodium chloride in one teaspoon of Kosher salt than there is in one teaspoon of sea salt (keep that in mind if you are substituting salts in a recipe).

Sea salt is the direct result of sea water evaporation. The most common sources of sea salt include the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic ocean. The Mediterranean sea has a higher concentration of sodium chloride per liter of water than the Atlantic ocean. Most of the French production is concentrated in the Camargue area; 90% of all French sea salt comes from Aigues-Mortes and Salin-de-Giraud. Because there are no tides in the Mediterranean, sea water is pumped and travels for 4 months through a network of basins where the salination increases gradually via evaporation. The saturated water finally reaches salt tables where the salt will coarsely crystallize and build up to a height of about 5 inches. The salt is harvested once a year, in September, and gathered into mountains of salt measuring 60' in height and half a mile in length. The process is different on the Atlantic front (Guérande, Noirmoutier, Ile de Ré) because the tides eliminate the need to pump water. Instead, a canal brings high-tide water to a succession of reservoirs dug into the clay soil; in the first reservoirs, the water is decanted, then slowly travels through a network of shallow basins; evaporation through wind and sun increases the salt content of the water until it crystallizes in the last basin. This coarse sea salt is harvested with wooden rakes and piled up on a daily basis between mid-June and mid September. Because the salt crystallizes in clay basins it retains a slight grey tint, whereas Mediterranean salt crystallizes on top of salt and stays white. Sea salt contains traces of minerals such as magnesium and calcium in amounts deemed to be desirable. Slight variations in taste can be detected between Mediterranean and Atlantic sea salt due to the differences in soil and vegetation (sea weeds); salt from Guérande, Noirmoutier or Ile de Ré exhibit very little difference in aspect, texture or taste but Guérande is the only one that obtained a Label Rouge. Sea salt is 100% natural and not refined; no anti-caking agent is added, which means the salt has a tendency to absorb and retain moisture but does not have a harsh taste: the flavor is bright, pure and clean. The size of the crystals is irregular; it varies with the strength of the wind.

Fleur de Sel refers to the first crystals that form when salted water evaporates, if the wind is blowing from the right direction: these fine, fragile crystals float at the top of the water and are harvested separately. Since they did not touch the bottom of the clay basins, they are white in color and possess a delicate, floral, complex flavor (Fleur de Sel de Guérande offers a hint of violet). Fleur de Sel is used as a "finishing salt", sprinkled over raw vegetables, beef tartare, carpaccio or over meat and fish after the dish has been cooked.

It's easy to get acquainted with the characteristics of different kinds of salt: simply dip cut radishes into table salt, Kosher salt, sea salt and Fleur de Sel and sample each one; your taste buds will detect the various nuances.

Kitchen tricks.
While we mostly use it "automatically" to enhance the flavor of the dishes we prepare, salt comes in handy in several different situations.
  • Use salt to draw water out of cucumbers, tomatoes or eggplant so your vegetable dishes are not too "soupy"
  • Add a pinch of salt to egg whites so they will whip more firmly
  • Add a pinch of salt to your coffee grounds before brewing to enhance its flavor and tame the acidity
  • When grilling pork tenderloin, brine the meat overnight to add flavor and keep the meat moist (6 cups water, 2 Tbsp coarse sea salt, 1 Tbsp sugar, thyme and rosemary)
  • Roast whole fish, chicken or prime rib in a salt crust: it keeps the flesh moist and tender, it seals in the flavors and you don't need to use any oil, butter or fat
  • Adding some Fleur de Sel to a dessert will accentuate its flavor: caramels, fruit pies, chocolate mousse, crème anglaise, etc.
  • Chill a bottle of wine by throwing a handful of coarse salt in a wine bucket filled with ice cubes and cold water: the salt brings the temperature down faster
  • Keep aromatic herbs such as thyme or Bay leaves in a jar filled with coarse sea salt
  • Throw a handful of coarse salt on the barbecue to reduce smoke from burning fat

JDV Recipes Featuring Salt
    DessertsCaramels with Fleur de Sel
    DessertsApple Tart with Fleur de Sel
    FishPrawns and Scallops with Fleur de Sel
    LambLamb Shoulder in a Crust of Salt

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