Salt's new spectrum

Whether born of the sea, smoked in wine barrels or formed in the time of dinosaurs, exotic finishing salts are finding a place in our kitchens.

Published September 21, 2005

Pity the salt shaker.

It served us well until TV chefs began touting coarse salt and then gourmet finishing salts to enhance everything from asparagus to ahi. Pushing rocky French sel gris (gray salt) through the wee holes of a shaker is akin to threading a needle with a rope.

Today, we need pinch pots, saltcellars and grinders to accommodate our growing salt habit. Language translation dictionaries might help too, as would geology and geography texts. Mark Kurlansky's 496-page Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2003) provides further guidance.

Globe-trotting chefs have made salt this year's peppercorn (or flavored vinegar or infused oil). Web purveyors and, to a lesser extent, gourmet shops have supplied the curious by charging $1 and more for an ounce of Mother Nature's mineral deposits.

"If you change just one thing in your kitchen, start with the salt," says TV chef and author Michael Chiarello, whose NapaStyle Web site (www.napastyle.com) and catalog (toll-free 1-866-776-1600) sell a line of salts and accoutrements. Chiarello knows that an interesting salt elevates everyday dishes.

As for sodium content, salt is salt. A teaspoon is about 2,400 milligrams of sodium, which is the most the Food and Drug Administration says a person should have in a day. Americans in general have too much sodium in their diets, though much of it comes from processed foods. But because most culinary salts are coarse, you'll get less in a teaspoon than if you use fine table salt.

Many home cooks have already switched from table salt to coarse kosher salt, but even that seems provincial now. There's no turning back to Morton once you've sprinkled salt from France, Wales, Australia or Italy on your sauteed portobello mushrooms.

The same is true for a host of other salts. Historic and exotic, Utah's Jurassic salt is a relic from when dinosaurs roamed the earth 150-million years ago. Hawaiian sea salt gets its delicate sunset pink from volcanic red clay, and how pretty it looks sprinkled on creamy mashed potatoes. Texture is an important component in cooking, and bulky salts contribute that along with a bright flavor burst.

We recently tried a few varieties on pedestrian scrambled eggs, sauteed spinach and grilled salmon, and found that they tasted better for it. For instance, the sulphurous black salt of India, Kala Namak, disappeared into creamy scrambled eggs whereas harsher coarse salt screamed its presence in a bite-by-bite comparison.

Besides being flavorful, finishing salts are a festive garnish with their light-catching crystals. If you want to really test their power, taste them alongside table salt. You'll find the table salt unpleasantly harsh, almost bitter compared with the pureness of the newcomers. (While new to us, many gourmet salts have been staples in their birthplaces for hundreds of years.)

"We cook a lot and we use them a lot," says Sheri Ivison, who with her husband, John, owns Java John's (6626 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 344-5282), a St. Petersburg coffee-and-sandwich spot that also stocks gourmet products. Java John's sells nine culinary salts in bulk, including a lovely Fumee de Sel chardonnay oak smoked salt ($2 an ounce) that we tried on grilled salmon and porterhouse steak. The salt is cold-smoked in French oak barrels that aged chardonnay.

We pressed the salt into both sides of the fish and beef before they went on the grill. The brutish steak swallowed the smokiness, leaving a pleasant salt kick, but the salmon showed off the wine and smoke notes. We were surprised how much imprint those French barrels left on the fish.

Buying culinary salts in bulk lets you experiment with just a tablespoon or two though you might not find many places that do that. Because of that, Java John's is a good find for the culinary curious. Packaged by the manufacturer, the Fumee de Sel smoked salt goes for nearly $22 for 5 ounces. An ounce for $2 doesn't sound so bad.

Murray River pink salt from Australia ($1.50 an ounce) is a gorgeous tumble of delicate flakes the color of sparkling rose wine. Flakes crumble when rubbed between two fingers, which makes Murray River a good finishing salt. The muddy earthiness of sauteed spinach was boosted by it.

Sel gris ($2 an ounce) is an all-purpose salt that is not suitable for a grinder. It is quite moist and would get caught in the mechanism. A low-tech mortar and pestle gives it a finer grind. It's brilliant on almost anything.

Hawaiian alaea sea salt ($2 an ounce) gave an already vigorous salad of sliced pears, goat cheese and chopped honey roasted peanuts another characteristic. A fruity vinaigrette - raspberry or cranberry - is the perfect dressing. Sweet-and-salty combinations might just be the most satisfying, don't you think?

Pam Potesta of Beans About Cooking in Belleair Bluffs (100-G Indian Rocks Road N; (727) 588-3303) says Jurassic and Anglesey salts are her biggest sellers. Anglesey is sea salt from Wales and, like Murray River, has fat flakes that crumble easily.

"We started selling salts last year because people were seeing them on TV but having trouble finding them," Potesta said. Tastings at the check-out counter helped customers decide which salts they wanted to try.

"They all taste really different," Potesta says. "They have a really clean, sea taste."

Salt of the earth, for sure.

- Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was included in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com