I was rooting around in the murky depths of my spice cupboard the other day looking for turmeric or tarragon or something else beginning with T, when it occurred to me that I have an awful lot of salt. Not just grease streaked, half-full shakers of Homebrand table salt, but gourmet salts in such a plentiful riot of colours, origins and varying grades of coarseness that no sane individual could possibly use them all.
I thought I’d better take stock and do a proper inventory, partly out of professional curiosity but also to ensure my salt obsession didn’t require psychiatric intervention or at the very least a new kidney. All up I counted eleven different varieties of salt, including a sandwich bag full of fleur de sel that looked a lot like 300 grams of crystal meth. (Thanks Mum.) Clearly, I love salt. But so do all of you, so you can stop pointing and sniggering, thank you very much.
As a chemical compound, our little mate sodium chloride, or NaCI, comes from two fairly toxic substances. The first is sodium, an extremely reactive metal which can end violently and explosively when met with water, so stand well back if you come across it after a swim. Chlorine, as we all know, is disagreeable enough to make your eyes sting if you open them underwater, but that’s in its diluted form. As a gas it was one of the first chemical weapons used in WWI, a devastatingly effective one at that, and is a very nasty element indeed. But mix these two little beasties together and you end up with common table salt. Variations in the taste and texture of salts happen when you start adding other minerals and impurities from its source, harvesting or manufacture.
We are crazy dependent on salt, and not just from a chemical point of view. Up until around 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history. A portion of Roman soldiers’ wages were paid in salt, known as ‘solarium argentum’, which gave us the word ‘salary’. Salt was also immensely important in trade. A disappointing slave purchased with the precious mineral was said to be ‘not worth his salt’, and in medievil times an individual’s status was indicated by his proximity to the host’s salt cellar, hence ‘above or below the salt’.
But above all, we love to eat it. Salt makes things taste good. Salt rescues us from the filthiest of hangovers. The science behind the awesomeness of salt as a foodstuff is far more complex and fiddly for me to explain here (and not just because I don’t understand it) but at a basic level salt suppresses bitterness in food, enhances sweet and savoury flavours and jacks up the potency of aromas.
What I’m talking about is like a tequila shot, and the balance that the lick of salt at the end brings to the lemon, but it’s happening at a subtle, molecular level. Try adding a teensy, tiny bit of salt to your coffee grounds; it should result in a smoother, less bitter beverage once brewed and is way better than ruining it with sugar.
The big problem with salt of course is that we need a lot less of it in our diets than we currently consume. This can be mostly attributed to food preservation techniques during the ages of exploration and now global food production. Salt is added to everything that you eat that comes out of a jar, a can, a box or plastic wrapping. And not just the obvious things like potato chips and tomato paste. It’s in ice cream, cereals, sweet sauces and yoghurts. Like sugar, salt is also incredibly handy at disguising complete lack of natural flavour, as evidenced by its abundance in anything labelled ‘LOW FAT’. Now, in leiu of a plausible segue, I’d like to share with you a little story.
Back in 2010 I happened to find myself in Cuba for a long weekend with five mates. The US trade embargo had been in place since the 60s and Havana was a city of very little resources or fresh produce. Foreigners were barred from purchasing supermarket staples such as eggs and cheese as there simply wasn’t enough for the locals. (We discovered this while attempting to buy milk for our Kahlua. Our only option was a tin of condensed milk. If you place any value at all on the enamel of your teeth, do not do it. EVER.)
One evening we ventured into a lonely restaurant on a side street where the proprietor and his staff were practically falling over each other to pull us over their threshold. That we were white foreigners clutching American dollars may have helped. We seated ourselves in the empty restaurant, a forlorn pile of crumbling concrete and faded blue paint, and selected the only item on the menu: a mushy paste of black beans with a side of boiled rice.
Dave was the first to take an experimental bite. He gingerly scooped up some of the mush, and raised his fork to his lips.
‘Ohgm,’ he said, and slowly lowered his fork.
‘Ohgm?’ we enquired politely.
‘Ohgm,’ he repeated, his jaw working slowly but with determination. Little snorting noises puffed from his nostrils as his head jerked back and forth, as if daring himself to swallow. When he eventually did, gripping the edges of the table and staring into his lap with a mixture of concentration and shallow breathing, Dave went very still. After what seemed an age he looked up with watering eyes and addressed the table.
‘That is the saltiest shit I have ever eaten,’ Dave rasped, wiping a droplet of snot from his nose with the menu.
‘And that includes salt.’
And on that delightful note, let’s have a closer look at the varieties I found in my cupboard, from dullest to peak hipster, with some tips on when and how to use them.
THE TWELVE PILLARS OF SALTY WISDOM
1. Common table salt
Originally sourced from salt mines or evaporating seawater and highly refined, table salt is fine for cooking when you need a pinch, but it’s missing the trace minerals and flavours that make other salts interesting. Keep this variety handy, if only for getting red wine stains out of upholstery. It truly is the white bread of the salt world.
2. Sea salt
This is the most common alternative to table salt. It’s less refined and more complex than common table and choc full of minerals, leading to a bigger flavour without breaking the bank.
3. Kosher salt
This non-iodised variety dissolves very quickly, which is why you see it in so many recipes. It’s ideal for cooking with meat, and in case you were wondering, has nothing to do with whether Jews can eat it. The name refers to the koshering process where it was used to draw fluids from meat, but the salt itself is not strictly ‘kosher’.
4. Garlic salt
Ditch the Doritos and make homemade pita crisps seasoned with garlic salt; cut up pita bread into triangles, separating the two layers and place on a baking tray. Brush them with a little olive oil and sprinkle some garlic salt across the top. Bake for ten mins or so until crispy and serve with dips, cheese or guacamole.
5. Onion salt
A sneaky enhancement to smooth sauces, gravys and soups when you want to avoid a chunky, chopped onion consistency.
6. Chicken salt
Chicken salt was first manufactured in Adelaide in the 70s by Mitani to add flavour to rotisserie chickens (hence its name) and found its way into fried food bain maries all over the country. It doesn’t actually contain any animal products. The blend varies depending on the manufacturer, but will usually be a mash-up of salts and spices including paprika, turmeric, onion and garlic salts, and ‘natural chicken flavour’. Weirdly, it is largely unknown outside Australia. The poor saps don’t know what they’re missing.
7. Celery salt
My secret weapon. It has a subtle sweetness to it and a strong celery aroma. It’s not a true salt as it’s made from the ground celery seeds and mixed with other salts and spices. You don’t need a lot to taste the difference, but I use a pinch alongside Kosher salt in all kinds of cooking, particularly sauces and marinades.
8. Pink Himalayan rock
Don’t be put off by the prolific trendiness of this stuff. In addition to being the prettiest salt in the cellar, it’s also the purest in the world. It contains 84 natural minerals and elements that occur in the human body, so it’s a handy replenisher as well as being tasty and attractive. Swap sea salt for Himalayan in cooking and finishing.
9. Piper St salt rub
Next time you’re hanging out in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges (either waiting for Leonard Cohen to grace the stage or to don flowy white frocks while reenacting scenes from Picnic at Hanging Rock), pop into Kyneton and the Piper St Food Co. and pick up a tub of their Salt Rub. A tangy mix of salts and spices, it’s perfect for seasoning red meat and simple, citrusy marinades.
10. Black Lava sea salt
Now we’re getting to the business end of the list and I’m getting my full kitchen wank on. As the name suggests, these are large white salt crystals that are activated with volcanic charcoal from the mountains of Cyprus. Particularly delicious with fish and looks really good on grilled tomatoes with fresh basil.
11. Fleur de sel
Known as the ‘caviar of salts’ and translated literally to ‘flower of salt’, this stuff can retail at over $100 a kilo, so don’t be bunging it into a bowl of tinned spaghetti. Hand-harvested from tidal pools off the coast of Brittany, France, the crystals are drawn from the water’s surface and annual harvests are completely dependant on perfect weather conditions. The flavours are delicate, complex and melts as it touches the tongue. A couple of flakes atop a poached egg or caramel slice are bound to induce paroxysms of ecstasy.
12. Bacon salt
This is not in my cupboard. Not yet. But I have it on good authority that once you down a bloody mary with crusted rim of bacon salt, you’ll never go back. You can also make it yourself at home using real bacon, kosher salt and black pepper… Hold my beer.