Sunday, June 24, 2007

Salt of the Earth

Faithful reader and general bon vivant, Red asked a question about the post "DSP" which really deserves a proper post of its own. Specifically, he queried as to the uses for red and black salt. (He also wondered why he tends to speak in Elizabethan tones when leaving comments here. That I can't help him with).

In recent years the forces of Foodism have elevated sodium chloride from useful, necessary culinary compound to an art form. Remember when using kosher salt instead of regular old table salt was considered cutting edge? Now it's all about the designer salts... fleur de sel and knowing the origin, appelation and terroir of the salt. "Oh, this? It's a lovely little fleur de sel, from the south side of a little-known beach in Brittany. Plucked only by unsullied virgins and carried from the sea in gilded bowls". I have even heard of salt tastings. Really? Seriously? We can't think of anything better to do with our time then sit around tasting a variety of salt and ranking them, as we would wine? Surely there's a rerun of "Whose the Boss" to catch up on.

All this hooha does beg the question: is there a difference? Better palates then mine have attempted to answer the question and it is the work of minutes to see what they learned. But you know what I think?

Salt is salt.

That's right. Regardless of the harvesting methods, the region, the color or the unsullied virgins involved in the process, salt need only be salty to win my admiration. Yes, there is a subtle whiff of the ocean that can be detected in sea salt that you won't find in run-o-the-mill salt. But once it hits the food you really can't tell. I'd suggest that anyone who says they can tell is a pretentious toff. But that would be judgemental and I'm kind.

There is something to be said for the size of the grains, for sure. You don't want to put big hunks of NaCl into a baked good, for example, as the salt needs to dissolve quickly so that it can react with the other chemicals and not crunch. But otherwise, I can't tell the difference. I've tried. I can discern the difference between a Bordeaux and a Rhone so it's not that I have no palate. But if there are flavor differences between the varieties of available salt in the world, they are completely lost on me.

So, you rightly ask, what's with the variety of salt in your kitchen? Simple. I think they are pretty. I buy my red and black Hawaiian sea salt at Trader Joe's because they look cool sitting in their little latte bowls beside the stove. And sometimes I also have a greeny-grey Celtic salt that I can get in bulk at my co-op. I sprinkle the colorful salt on veggies just before serving. The large grains dissolve slower than kosher or table salt so they give a little discreet visual kick to dishes. I don't use them in cream or yogurt based sauces, because the color runs. Especially with the black one. It can look quite nasty.

But once the salt reduces to it's briny essence, it is merely saline. Nothing spectacular. Nothing to make you stop and say, "Golly, that was some salt you used on those steamed beans, missy!"

So by all means, if you find some groovy looking salt buy it and put it in a sweet little bowl on your kitchen counter. But please, when your friends ooh and ahh, be honest. Tell them you like the look of it and be done with it. Loving good food and being a twit about it are two completely different things.


Jon said...

VERY interesting. I use Kosher salt. For some reason, it just tastes "sweeter" to me and not as acrid as regular table salt.
Frankly, I would prefer my salt gathered by sullied virgins than unsullied ones. I'm a realist.

Red7Eric said...

Thank you. Of course, when talking to the 'mos, you could just say "because it's pretty" and we would totally get that.

And yet, all the information was delightful, as are you.

I do have another question, but it's for Jon: is there even such a thing as a sullied virgin?