Reconsidering salt

Specialty salts are making chefs and foodies re-think the way they cook

Imagine this: a chef puts a beautifully braised short rib, tender and falling off the bone, on a plate. Under the short rib are creamy, perfectly smooth mashed potatoes. And over that she adds the perfect amount of gravy — just enough to coat the ribs and dip the mashed potatoes, but not so much that it overpowers the entire meal. The meat, potatoes, butter and cream have all been locally sourced and the menu prominently displays the list of farms from which the meal originated.

Then, the server brings the dish out to the table and places it next to a shaker of white table salt, full of anti-caking chemicals and iodine.

For years, even the most fervent foodies would not have thought twice about the salt they added to their food. But now, as the movement to carefully understand the ingredients we are putting in our food accelerates, it has reached what may be the final stop: salt.

“It would be ludicrous to go through all this trouble and then have this crazy salt shaker on your table full of chemicals and iodine,” said Don Tydeman, owner of the Salt Cellar in Portsmouth.

Tydeman and his wife Judit opened the Salt Cellar in 2011 after seeing similar shops in Europe and realizing there was a lack of stores dedicated to specialty salt in the United States. At the time, the foodie movement was taking off, but there was no guarantee people would understand, let alone buy, high-end salt and the nuanced flavors it provides.

Those flavors include everything from black truffle salts (which Tydeman says is the most popular in his store) to salts infused with Sriracha, onion, rosemary, garlic, lemon, and merlot, along with salt varieties like fleur de sel, Hawaiian black laga salt, and sel gris.

FOOD_salt4_ckInfused sea salts are catching on in both commercial and home kitchens.

“We didn’t have any research saying gourmet salt was going to become the next new thing,” Tydeman said. “But we were seeing a trend going on. … The same thing happened in the beer industry. It’s an overall mega-trend; we are just a piece of that.”

In December 2014, Stock and Spice joined the Seacoast’s specialty seasoning scene. The Portsmouth store, owned by Evan and Denise Mallett of the Black Trumpet Bistro, offers a variety of custom spice blends, exotic herbs, and a number of salts.

At the Black Trumpet, Evan Mallett uses an applewood smoked salt in a local ceviche dish that includes scallops and grapefruit. He has even made some of his own salt from the Atlantic Ocean, which he occasionally uses in his restaurant.

While he has long had experience with specialty salts in professional kitchens, Mallett said that trend is now reaching consumers.

“I think a lot of stuff that was only available to chefs has crossed the threshold into the consumer market,” Mallett said.

That includes some of the locally produced Maine sea salts he and his wife sell at Stock and Spice, which he hopes will complement the selection already available at the Salt Cellar.

“Having Stock and Spice, it’s really been enlightening. Working through spice purveyors, we have encountered a lot of salts we haven’t worked with before,” Mallett said. “The Salt Cellar has brought us really interesting salts that were off the map, and between our store and theirs, I feel like anyone interested in salt can definitely find a good variety now.”

FOOD_salt1_ckSalt blocks, like these at the Salt Cellar, add flavor to food made or served on them.

Meanwhile, Tydeman has been educating people about re-thinking the way they use salt in cooking and challenging preconceived notions about the seasoning.

“Ninety percent of what we do is really about information,” Tydeman said.

And it’s been catching on. In addition to a flow of repeat customers, the trend is gaining traction in local restaurants like the Oar House, which replaced its table salt shakers with grinders full of pink Himalayan salt from the Salt Cellar.

“It’s always interesting to bring a local product into the restaurant,” Oar House executive chef Jason Dagostino said.

In addition to the Himalayan salt, Dagostino has used other infused salts from the Salt Cellar in the kitchen, including a black truffle salt for short ribs and espresso salt for desserts.

“We had a chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and we would sprinkle some special salt on top of it,” Dagostino said.

Salt Cellar salts also have made appearances on menus at Moxy, Lexie’s Joint, and Surf Sushi, where they use Himalayan pink salt blocks for sushi.

“As people get away from processed food, which we all know is bad, you start to say, ‘Now I am controlling completely what I am putting in my food.’” — Don Tydeman 

But this trend has not been limited to professional kitchens. Tydeman said home cooks have caught on and started using the specialty salts in their everyday cooking as they seek more control over the food they eat.

“As people get away from processed food, which we all know is bad, you start to say, ‘Now I am controlling completely what I am putting in my food,’” Tydeman said.

This idea of salt as a healthy choice is still very new. Salt has long been painted as a villain of healthy eating — the source of high blood pressure and a myriad of other health problems. However, the majority of sodium consumption is not the result of overuse of salt in cooking. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, 75 percent of sodium in the average American diet comes from processed food.

By shunning processed food and adding salt as a finishing ingredient right before eating, Tydeman said, most people actually decrease their sodium consumption.

“You’ll consume about 70 percent less salt and have greater salt flavor. It just works like that,” he said.

Tydeman is the first to admit that right now, high-end specialty salt is still a very small sliver of the market. But that also means there is room to grow.

“It’s very much a niche thing, but in a place like Portsmouth or Portland, there is a sense of people taking control. This is just another element of it,” Tydeman said.