Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Herbal Salts & Gourmet Salts - Make your own!

I have been asked if I carry exotic salts from the Himalayan Mountains and if my sea salt is from the Dead Sea.  I know these questions come from popular media and marketing that have touted the benefits of these exotic salts, many of which are uniquely colored and very expensive.   But is the higher price tag worth it? And is there really something special about these salts of many colors?  Well let’s explore this by first explaining the four basic types of salt.
The Four Basic Salt Types
There are four basic types of salt: table salt, mined salts, sea salts and kosher salt.
About 100 years ago, the Morton Salt Company fixed its place in our kitchens by adding an anti-caking agent to table salt, creating a perfectly pourable, uniform product, hence the slogan, “When it rains, it pours.” They also included iodine, because many people were deficient in this natural element. (Hardly anyone is anymore.) And to mask its mineral aftertaste, they added a form of processed sugar. When you get down to it table salt is quite a chemical conglomeration.  And mixing salt with sugar might not be the way to go, particularly now that there are so many tasty options.
 Mined salts, also called rock salts, are extracted from the earth like other precious mined commodities, and are generally processed by being boiled in brine from which the liquid evaporates, leaving mountains of chunky salt crystals behind. Some of these crystals are actually slabs, which are large enough that you can bake or grill foods directly on them, seasoning the food with luscious natural brine. Before it is processed, table salt is a mined salt.
Sea salts are formed when salt water evaporates from pools and cliffs. The crystals are then carefully scraped off. There’s a lot of variability in the structure of salts left behind by sea water. Fleur de sel, or “the flower of salt,” is the caviar of all sea salts. Its lacy “flowers” form only on warm days when the winds are calm on the Brittany coast of France.
Kosher salt can be mined or from the sea. Its structure—tiny, stacked pyramids —is what makes it so valuable. Its shape helps it dissolve much better than common table salt, and it’s easy to pick up by the pinch. Plus, the large surface area of the crystals imparts a lot of flavor, so you can use less. Relatively inexpensive kosher salt is the everyday cooking favorite of chefs and food lovers. 
What Salt Means for Your Health
Almost all Americans consume too much salt. In fact, the average American eats about seven pounds of salt each year, and that’s about double what health experts recommend. Avoiding processed foods is one way to reduce sodium intake. Salting after cooking is also an obvious sodium reducer. Relying on a bounty of herbs and spices for flavor is another fantastic way to cut down on those seven pounds. But there’s nothing quite like salt for great cooking.
My husband was very anti salt.  He would leave it out of recipes, never add it when cooking, and generally find ways to work around it and without it.  He did not eve like to have it on the dinner table.  I, on the other hand, enjoyed salt in moderation so added it after foods were cooked, especially when cooked by him.  My husbands new hobby, however, is gourmet cooking and what he soon realized watching the food network and reading up on cooking was that it is very valuable to the palate.  It elicits wonderful, flavorful compounds from every food you may want to eat. It preserves many of those foods as well. It amplifies and elevates flavors in a way that simply makes things taste more like themselves. It keeps colorful foods colorful. And it helps to combine and seal in flavors as nothing else does. Salt makes foods sing.  And if you want to be a gourmet—your food must sing.
There came the dilemma, what salt should we then use.  I understood that gram for gram; fancy gourmet salts contain just as much sodium as common table salt. So the key is to use less.  And that’s exactly why some people prefer sea salts—you really can use less because the rich flavor requires less to get the same enjoyment.  When gourmet salts are combined with flavor-boosting herbs and spices, and especially if they’re used primarily as a finishing flavor, it’s possible to reduce your sodium intake dramatically. In addition, you may benefit from the trace minerals and elements present in salts from various parts of the globe, and you won’t find any of those nutrients in regular salt.
Blend Herb Flavors With Salts
One of the ways to minimize salt intake and up the flavor capacity is to blend herbs into salts.  The good news is it is not hard and you can experiment to create your own blends with very little expense.  Salt crystals can extract and absorb essential oils and flavors from herbs with little effort and no special tools.  Famous chefs have done this well recently.   Sara Jenkins, chef-owner of Porchetta, sells Porchetta Salt, created with earthy Mediterranean herbs, and wild fennel pollen.  While Dario Cecchini, a butcher in Tuscany, has packed aroma form lavender and rosemary, into an ultrafine Italian sea salt he calls Profumo del Chianti.  Justin Esch and David Lefkow, share a dream of making everything taste like bacon. If you agree with my husband that bacon goes with everything, you might like their BaconSalt line, which includes several flavors like Hickory, Maple and Peppered.
Create Your Own Gourmet Salts
Delicate salt crystals will extract and absorb the essential flavor compounds from your favorite herbs and other added ingredients, creating a perfect infusion. 
To craft your own seasoned salts, start with a ½ teaspoon of kosher or sea salt.  Stir in an herb or herb combination, gently, as salt crystals are delicate.  You can use fresh or dried herbs; keeping in mind that dried herbs have a concentrated flavor and stronger taste so less will be needed compared to fresh herbs.  Once blended, you can keep your salt in a tightly lidded container for about a month.
Here are some flavor families to get you started, but don’t be afraid to experiment:
Citrus zest: grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange
Robust Herbs:  basil, cilantro, rosemary, or sage
Sweet or Floral Herbs: lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, rose, dill or mint
Savory Herbs: marjoram, oregano, parsley, savory, tarragon, thyme; or whole bay leaf
Herb seeds: whole caraway, celery, coriander, cumin, fennel, poppy, or sesame
Garlic: 3 fresh cloves, finely diced, or 1 teaspoon dried
Onions: finely diced fresh shallots, onions or scallions
Peppers: whole peppercorns or finely diced dried chilies
I resisted making herbal salts commercially for years because I craft most of my blends to be salt-free for those with dietary restrictions.  In fact I went so far as to make Salt Substitutes instead of flavored salt.  But recently I began to work with rock salt and found that if you blend herbs with rock salt you get wonderful flavors and a long shelf-life because you can use the salt and herbs whole then grind them onto or into dishes as you prepare them.  So using the same grinder jars I use for my Herbal Salt Substitutes I was able to craft Gourmet Herb-Seasoned Salts with mined rock salt.  If you want to try either of these wonderful products, visit our e-store at http://www.backyardpatch.etsy.com/ .

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