I first met Mark Bitterman at a food writer’s conference several years back. He gave an impromptu salt tasting that introduced me, and perhaps many of the writers in attendance, to artisan salts. At the time, I remember not being able to taste much difference between the various salts and commenting that the flake and crystal structure seemed to be the dominant characteristic.
After 304 pages of nothing but salt, I see that I was on the right track. Bitterman is a tireless advocate and, if sometimes his metaphors soar into the fantastical, well, chalk it up to exuberance. His case against table salt and Kosher salt is convincing—it is easy to see them as the white bread of salt—and he argues against over-salting largely in favor of salting at the table so the salt becomes a textural as well as seasoning element. There is a section on salt and hypertension which I think focuses too much on providing the numbers instead of distilling them into something more easily digested. But then, to those for whom salt is a poison, nothing in this book is really going to change their minds.
For the rest of us, Bitterman covers pretty much everything you need to know about salt. There are chapters about the history of salt the mineral as well as the seasoning. There is a section on artisan saltmaking that is fascinating. Who knew that all those salt ponds you always see in pictures of the Brittany coast were set in descendingly lower elevations, so that the brine will flow naturally at high tides into the settling ponds where the organic materials settle out first. Much of the differences in salts can be attributed to the amount of trace minerals left in the finished product (as much as 15%) and the rest to the shape of the crystals.
Fleur de sel forms on top of the pond, while sel gris settles to the bottom where it picks up a trace of the grey porcelain clay that lines the French ponds. Fleur de sel (flower of salt) has a flat crystalline structure while sel gris is grainier, more akin to wet sand. Sure, I knew that, but what I didn’t know was that the final ponds were as shallow as ¼ of an inch so that some skill is required to rake the floating crystals. He covers fire-evaporated salts, traditional salts, quarried salts, and hybrid salts that are smoked or have various flavorings, such as charcoal, saffron, or truffle incorporated. There is a section on industrial salt to make his point against the standard table and kosher salts. The Japanese, as you might imagine, have developed their own precise and unique techniques for evaporation of brine.
The middle section is filled with descriptions of various artisan salts, including a quick reference guide with pictures. Here is where you can look up that salt that someone gave you after a trip somewhere. You’ll find good descriptions of the salt and its story as well as suggestions for its use. You’ll also find some flights of fancy in the descriptions of its taste. Who else but Mark could come up with as many different and vivid descriptions of an essentially white product—raindrop, partially melted paraffin, flamingo dander, dry oyster-shell, and gemstone of silvery white and milk—that are immediately clear and precise?
The final section provides recipes that showcase various salts. I haven’t had a chance to try them yet, but they are appealing. Since I happen to have a dozen or so artisan salts I’ve acquired over the years, I have been able to make some good comparisons and see why a Malden flake salt might work better on a salad than a grainy Celtic sel gris. The Hungry Ghost bakery, in Northampton, sells pretzels into which black salt crystals have been incorporated and, aside from the color which is striking, it is clear that that is the right salt for the task as opposed to say, a red Hawaiian alaea. Once you get past the unpleasant memories of crunching pretzel salt, you’ll appreciate the softer crunch of these salts.
For those fortunate enough to have a Himalayan salt block, there is a chapter on its care and use, with recipes. What could be more dramatic than cooking an egg or two over salt, or serving sashimi on chilled salt blocks? For those even more fortunate to have a Himalayan salt bowl, there is a chocolate fondue recipe that you won’t want to miss. The heated bowl will keep the fondue hot for as long as it takes to finish it.
In fact, for anyone who is interested in cooking, this book is a must. Of course, if you do read it, you will immediately run out and get some artisan salts, so if you’re thinking of giving Salt as a present, include a few. Bitterman and his wife sell a large selection in their At The Meadow stores in Portland, OR and NYC as well as by mail order. Locally, Cooks Shop Here has a good selection.
As far as I can see, the biggest downside to knowing this much about salt, is how disappointed you are when your favorite restaurant offers only table salt to complement their fresh ground pepper.
Salt: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes, by Mark Bitterman, Ten Speed Press, $35.