Salt of the Earth

Exotic selections are shaking up today's kitchens.


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."

Strong influence

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.

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