From earth or sea, coarse crystals add a dash of appealing texture along with familiar taste


March 05, 1997|By Teresa Gubbins | Teresa Gubbins,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

What's there to say? You sprinkle the tiny granules on your food. Follow with a little ground pepper, and dive in.

Oh, salt also makes things taste "better." End of story, right?

Let's start over -- this time not with regular table salt but the "coarse" salt, bigger than a sesame seed. It adds not only flavor but texture.

Coarse salt gives tomato slices an exciting "bite." Sprinkled just before serving, it adds an unexpected crunch to soft, scrambled eggs. It somehow makes a hearty steak heartier.

In a world where mushrooms are now shiitake and portobello, where pepper has become "whole peppercorn" in black and green and white, salt -- that most basic of seasonings -- is also going gourmet.

Besides the old familiar table salt, you can find coarse-grind salt two ways: kosher salt and sea salt. There are even different sea salts, "harvested" from oceans around the world.

Yet whether the salt crystal is tiny or large, mined from the earth or the sea, it's all sodium chloride -- at least 97.5 percent, for salt you consume (vs. the chunky rock salt you use in an ice cream maker).

But for restaurant chefs and food fanatics, coarse-grind salt brings an invaluable extra dimension to foods.

Houston chef Robert del Grande is such a fan of coarse-grind sea salt, he puts it on the table at Cafe Express, his upscale fast-food chain. It's a Mediterranean sea salt, imported from Italy, in a grind-it-yourself container.

Sea salt is sold in 1-pound boxes and larger at gourmet stores. Some stores, including selected supermarkets, carry Baleine sea salt from France, in fine and coarse crystals; it's about $3 for 26 ounces. Kosher salt can be found at some supermarkets, where a 3-pound box of Morton sells for less than $4.

Culinary interest in coarse salt may be new, but the salt itself is not, says Catherine Bolton, a spokeswoman for Akzo Nobel, the Pennsylvania maker of Diamond Crystal table and kosher salt, sold mostly in the Northeast.

"Kosher salt, sea salt [have] been around forever [but] consumers are becoming more savvy," she says. "Also, chefs have become celebrities, and as they become more popular, their secrets in the kitchen become more popular."

"I don't want to sound like I'm fanatical but I love salt," del Grande says. "I always liked the feel of coarse-grind salt. If you like to season with your hand, [coarse salt] has a good feel to it. You can get a better grip to put on food. It's a tactile thing."

In fact, it is that habit of chefs to sprinkle salt with their fingers rather than from a shaker that has made coarse salt such a favorite in restaurant kitchens. Typically, the salt sits at the chef stand in a small bowl or ramekin. Coarse salt is too large to fit through the holes of a traditional shaker.

Some coarse sea salts are too big to sprinkle on food at the table. Kosher salt is the ideal size.

Despite its larger size, coarse-grind salt makes you less likely to oversalt, says chef Clark McDaniel of Fort Worth, Texas.

"The way kosher salt lays together, it can't compact as much -- you can get better control," he says.

But he recommends trying it at the table first, before cooking with it, to get acquainted with how much to use.

"Try it on things that are simple, like scrambled eggs, or a steak or hamburger on a grill," he says. "Get used to it like that first."

Chefs also love coarse salt's crunch.

"It's a big crystal with a lot of air so it's crunchy," del Grande says. "If you put it on beef, you get the contrast of smooth beef and crunchy salt."

Beyond texture, there is what he calls a "dynamic" to coarse-grind salt.

"If you had regular salt mixed into a dish, every bite might be exactly the same," he says. "The first bite would be the same as the last. The dish wouldn't change. You'd get no dynamic from the salt.

"The pleasure of coarse salt is that, some bites you get salty flavor, some bites mild. The flavors roll up and down. 'Salty' is a great taste -- but you don't want it every bite. It's more exciting when you get one bite that's very salty and [one that isn't]."

And coarse salts don't clump.

"When you sprinkle regular salt over something, you get one wad of salt in one spot," says McDaniel. "[Coarse salt] particles are farther apart. The end result is that it's not quite as salty."

Kosher salt, developed to produce kosher foods, has an unusual pyramid shape that supposedly makes it stick to food more easily. Kosher salt fans such as Dallas chef Kent Rathbun praise its "clean" taste and texture.

"There is a 'feel' to kosher salt," he says. "It doesn't dissolve quickly. You can use it with cracked pepper and other herbs to make a dry rub on meats, roasts, pork and chicken. It gives that crust on a piece of prime rib. And one thing people always enjoy is that it's salty on the outside."

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