Salt. It's the new pepper.
Instead of Tellicherry, we have Celtic gray salt. Instead of pink peppercorns, we have salt that takes on the apricot color of the red clay of Hawaii.
And instead of blackening our meat or fish, we can bury it in mounds of kosher salt and bake it, sealing the moisture inside. "Salt is the one ingredient that goes into every single thing you cook or bake," said television chef Michael Chiarello, whose NapaStyle catalog and Web site sell a line of exotic salts.
His motto is, "If you change just one thing in your kitchen, start with the salt."
"Changing salt can be a quantum leap for the home-cooked meal, the way changing from Wesson oil to extra-virgin olive oil was," he said.
"It is a small thing, but you see a big difference."
Professional chefs discovered exotic salts years ago on their travels around the world. Like wine, these salts take on the characteristics of the region in which they are harvested, from the Himalayas to Peru, from lagoons to lava formations.
Through mail order, Web sites, specialty stores and even some grocery chains, these salts - the most expensive costs nearly $30 a pound - are increasingly available to the home cook.
"I've become fascinated with salts," said Baltimore chef and restaurateur Donna Crivello. "When I was in Sicily, I went to the salt flats in Trapani. It was a hot, sunny day and all the salt was drying in the pans.
"It was beautiful."
Now, when she teaches, she encourages her home cooks to use sea salt. "To me, it is like using extra-virgin olive oil - something in its purest form."
Mark Kurlansky, food writer and author of the book Salt: A World History, might disagree with "purest form."
"All these salts are different because of the impurities they contain," he said. "And those impurities are usually dirt.
"It is the genius of the French that they can convince people that dirt makes salt a luxury product."
Into the midst of this debate step the food police, who have long argued that the link between salt and high blood pressure is also a link to stroke and heart attack, a secondary relationship science has not established.
"There is no question that someone who has hypertension can lower their blood pressure by lowering their salt intake," said Paul Lachance, a food scientist at Rutgers University.
"But experiments trying to induce hypertension with salt don't hold water."
In its new nutritional guidelines released earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of salt a day, down from 2,400 milligrams recommended in 2000. Both are about a teaspoon. But according to some reports, the average American consumes about 3,500 milligrams and many consume three to five times the recommended limit.
"I watch people in restaurants salt things before they taste them," said Lachance. "It is like we are all Roman soldiers and we have to consume our allotment of salt."
But Lachance admits that the salt shaker is not the culprit. "It is the hot dogs, the pepperoni, the cured meats. There is even salt in cheese."
Salt is the reason our canned vegetables don't discolor. It keeps bread from going stale and extends the shelf life of our packaged and frozen foods.
There was some talk of reducing the recommended salt intake to 1,500 milligrams a day, but salt substitutes and low-sodium foods have never pleased the American palate.
"I would just like to see it come down from numbers that are more than double the 2,300 recommended now," said Lachance. "That would be a start."
Cooks like Crivello say it is easy to make room for exotic salts in your cooking by cutting back on the processed salts.
"You can use something else with an acid to bring up the flavor, like balsamic vinegar," she said.
"But what I tell people is that it is much better to use salt on your own instead of in bouillon cubes or in store-bought stock. Make your own stock and leave the salt out."
As Kurlansky can attest, salt has a rich history. It was once so valuable that it was used as currency, and it influenced trade routes, sparked the development of cities, provoked and financed wars. If it were not for the salt-preserved codfish, sailors would have starved before they discovered new worlds.
Sandra Cook, co-author of Salt & Pepper: The Cookbook, writes: "The earliest people followed animal tracks to salt outcroppings or springs or gathered it from lagoons by the sea, for they knew that those glistening crystals added something to food that nothing else could provide: savor, that sparkling expansion of taste on the tongue."
But it was more than taste early man was after. The discovery of fire and the cooking of meat all but eliminated animal blood as a source of salt, and his body craved its replacement.
Later, man discovered that food buried in salt or suspended in a salt brine not only did not decay, but tasted different and had a new texture.
Without salt, Cook says, there would be no bacon, no ham, no olives and no caviar.
The current fascination with sea salt is ironic because all salt comes from the sea - even seas that have not existed for millions of years, having been turned into rock and desert by the churning of the earth's subsurface.
Susan Feldman, technical director of the Salt Institute, a salt producers' association, views exotic salts with suspicion.
"How pure were the seas a million years ago and how pure are they today?" she asked. "Which would you rather have?"
At first, salt was mined by hand, making it so precious that the Romans used it to pay their soldiers to conquer the world.
"The irony is," said Kurlansky, "up until the 20th century, the goal of all salt makers was to make uniform salt.
"Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, said to his salt producers, 'Couldn't you clean this stuff up and make it white like the Portuguese and the Spanish? We could compete better if it wasn't so funny-looking.' "
Later blasted out of its pockets in the earth, salt is now most often flushed out of its cavities with water under high pressure and then boiled down to dry purity.
Morton was the company that successfully created a salt that, no matter what its region of origin, tasted the same. It was pure white and flowed freely even in the humid South, thanks to a free-flowing agent that, when added, created an aftertaste.
When goiters afflicted residents of the Midwest, Morton was prevailed upon to add iodine to salt, creating another aftertaste.
Chefs and home cooks increasingly turn to kosher salt instead. It is cheap and tasty, has no additives and delivers a nice crunch.
But for finishing meats, fish, vegetables - even fruit and sweets - cooks are turning to specialty salts.
Cindy Wolf, owner of Charleston and Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore, said she first started cooking with salts after a visit to Provence, France. She brought back a couple of salts, including the popular gray salt.
"It is incredibly flavorful, but it is also incredibly crunchy," said Wolf, who likes to sear foie gras in gray salt.
"The crunchy exterior, the caramelized foie gras and its cool center. You can enjoy three textures."
She also likes to finish her roast chickens with fleur de sel. "You have the crispy skin and the wonderful crunch of the salt."
Cook loves French Atlantic medium-gray sea salt on something as simple as hard-boiled eggs. But it also has become part of the way she entertains.
"I always have four or five small bowls of salt on the table to choose from," she said. "Like trying different wines.
"My friends love to touch it and get a sense of how much they like. It's like adding their own ingredient to food."
Even her young daughter, she said, is unfamiliar with a salt shaker.
"Specialty salts are definitely trickling down to the home kitchen," said Lily Barberio, senior food editor of Food & Wine magazine.
"It is such a special ingredient that you don't have to use a lot to get a flavor impact.
"And it is more than just flavor. Cooks, particularly chefs, are using salt in a textural sense."
Chiarello, who holds salt tastings, said salt is "a trampoline for the flavor of food."
"I season steaks with it before pan-searing, sprinkle it over vegetables or make what to me is the perfect salad: local organic greens, extra-virgin olive oil and gray salt.
"And the great thing about olive oil, salt and wine is that they are affordable luxuries for everybody."
Indeed. McCormick's has created a line of sea-salt grinders so inexpensive ($1.99) that you can pack one or two in a picnic lunch and not worry if they are lost.
Manufacturers, such as Vanns Spices in Baltimore, are saving the cook a step by combining sea salts with other herbs and flavors, such as citrus, curry or garlic, or smoking them with black tea over maple and cherry wood.
"Salt certainly enhances some foods that would not be what they are without it," said Cook, co-author of Salt & Pepper, who likes to put a few grains of kosher salt atop her caramels.
Once a staple of preservation and as common as the penny, salt has moved up out of the cellar into the glamorous world of serious cuisine, where it is not only an ingredient, but a medium for cooking food and a precious finishing touch.
"Salt is the bridge between the palate and the product," said California's Chiarello. "And the stronger that bridge, the better the experience."
Salt's so plentiful and so universally enjoyed that it became a synonym for humble as in "salt of the earth." It seems that salt has tossed humility over its shoulder without a look back.
A choice of grains
Table salt: Highly refined rock or sea salt, which may or may not have iodine added. Because it has been refined, it contains no additional minerals. It also has a sharper and somewhat bitter taste compared with sea salt.
Iodized salt: In the 1920s, it was discovered that people living in the Midwest suffered from goiters because they were not getting enough iodine in their diets. Those people who lived near the ocean ingested iodine from locally grown produce, from seafood and from local water. The result was the iodized table salt still on grocery shelves today. Some sea salts also are treated with iodine, which is thought to leave a slight aftertaste.
Kosher salt: The large crystals in this salt stay on the surface of meat and help to draw out more of the blood, consistent with Jewish law. But chefs and home cooks like kosher salt because it is easy to pick up with the fingers, is inexpensive, has no additives and is of high quality. Because it is so inexpensive, it is the choice for salt crusts on meats and fish, for brining and for salting boiling water for pasta.
Pickling salt: A finely ground salt with no additives, used to pickle foods because it does not cloud the brine.
Rock salt: This salt is harvested by using high-pressure hoses to flush it out of salt mines, where upon the water is evaporated, leaving behind the coarse crystals used to freeze ice cream and to melt ice on the roads.
Sea salt: Salt harvested from the sea by evaporation, usually in salt farms along the shore. It can be unrefined -- the result of solar evaporation in the same kind of shallow ponds used by the Romans -- or refined, the product of evaporation by boiling sea water in huge vats. Sea salt is prized for its mineral content, which can color it and give it flavor. Salts from different areas may have subtly different tastes, like wines.
Varieties of sea salts
Among the most popular sea salts:
Celtic gray sea salt or sel gris: Moist and coarse, it comes from the Atlantic coast of France where it has been hand-harvested for more than 1,200 years. No metal ever touches this salt to disturb its flavor. This is among the most popular and readily available sea salts.
Fleur de sel: The "flower of the salt" is the crackling-thin layer of crystallized salt that "blooms" on the top of salt ponds on sunny, windy afternoons. It is gathered by hand in northwestern France, Portugal and the Camargue in the south of France. This is the most expensive form of salt and is used not in cooking but as a condiment to sprinkle on food just before eating. It is wonderful on tomatoes. It has a hint of sweetness.
Hawaiian alae (or alaea) salt: Sea salt from Hawaii, either naturally colored by iron oxide in the red clay of the salt ponds or by clay's being added to the salt. Used in Hawaiian rituals for centuries, it is prized for its pale-rusty color. It has a more mellow flavor and is very coarse. It is often used with pork and prime rib. It can have an almost fruity taste.
Hawaiian black lava salt: A coarse condiment salt from Hawaii, colored by the addition of finely ground black lava and activated charcoal. Its faintly earthy taste is good with assertive fish, like salmon, and it makes a dramatic garnish.
Hawaiian smoked kai salt: A light-brown coarse salt smoked over kai wood, it has a slightly smoky taste and is used as a condiment. Try on deviled eggs, grilled fish, meat or chicken.
Maldon salt: A soft salt with a delicate taste from Maldon, Essex, on the English coast. Used to garnish mild-flavored dishes.
Trapani salt: Considered by some chefs to be the best-tasting of all sea salts, it is produced near a city of the same name in Sicily. Sometimes known as Sicilian salt.
- Susan Reimer
Serves 4 to 6
4 quarts water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons kosher salt (divided use)
1 pound spaghetti
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
In a large pot, bring the water to a rolling boil. While the water is heating, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and saute until it turns golden and becomes fragrant, 1 minute to 2 minutes.
Slowly pour in the wine and cook until slightly reduced, 5 minutes to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and keep hot. In a small bowl, beat together the eggs and cheese.
When the water reaches a boil, add 1 tablespoon of the kosher salt, stir and add the pasta. Cook the pasta, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking together, until al dente, about 10 minutes.
Using tongs, transfer the pasta to the skillet holding the wine and garlic.
(Don't worry about the pasta water that comes along with the pasta, as it will add a bit of flavor and keep the pasta from being too dry.)
Toss the pasta gently to coat it with the wine and garlic. Add the egg-cheese mixture, the remaining 1 tablespoon kosher salt and the black pepper and toss gently until pasta is evenly coated. The heat of the pasta will cook the eggs.
Transfer to a warmed pasta bowl and serve immediately.
- From "Salt & Pepper: The Cookbook"
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 441 calories; 17 grams protein; 17 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 54 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 117 milligrams cholesterol; 1,182 milligrams sodium
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons finely grated lime zest
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl, mix well and allow to dry out a bit before using, 20 minutes to 30 minutes.
Store in an airtight container in a cupboard or pantry and use within 3 days.-- From "Salt & Pepper: The Cookbook"
Per teaspoon serving: 0 calories; 0 grams protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 0 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1,505 milligrams sodium
Salt-Baked Whole Fish
1 whole striped bass, rainbow trout or other firm-fleshed white fish, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, cleaned
4 pounds rock salt
1 lemon, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 lime, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 clove garlic, slivered
1 small bunch fresh cilantro
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the fish and pat it dry; set aside. Pour half of the salt into a baking dish just big enough to hold the fish. Lay half of the lemon and lime slices on the rock salt at the center of the baking dish.
Lay the fish on top of the citrus slices. Fill the fish cavity with the garlic, cilantro, 2 lime slices and 2 lemon slices. Place the remaining lemon and lime slices on top of the fish (the fish does not need to be completely covered with them).
Pour the rest of the rock salt over the fish; it should be enough to cover the fish fully. (It is not necessary for the head and tail to be completely covered.)
Bake the fish for 25 minutes to 30 minutes. To test if it is done, clean away a small portion of the salt and pierce the fish with a knife; the fish should be firm and easily pull away from the backbone.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and scoop off and discard the salt, lemons and limes from the top of the fish. Gently peel back the skin on the fish and discard.
With a fork, loosen the meat and lift it away from the bone, placing it on a warmed dinner plate. It may pull away in several pieces. Lift out the backbone and discard. Gently lift out the remaining side of fish, removing any skin still attached, and place on a second warmed plate. Serve at once.
Note: Coating a fish with salt and roasting it produces a very moist, naturally sweet result. Try serving this over shredded napa cabbage tossed with a little rice vinegar and pepper. Lime salt is the perfect finishing salt.
- From "Salt & Pepper: The Cookbook" by Sandra Cook, Sara Slavin and Deborah Jones (Chronicle Books, 2003, $18.95)
Per serving: 292 calories; 55 grams protein; 6 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 1 gram carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 123 milligrams cholesterol; 206 milligrams sodium