Chemistry in the Kitchen: Worth Its Weight in Salt

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Image by D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

My introduction to the nuances of culinary geekery were definitely attained apart from my parents. No, they weren’t the best of cooks. But they had also been raised in a culture of ease vs. taste, of convenience vs. toil.  But that’s not to say they didn’t help me along. In fact, they gave me the greatest gift you can give a budding geek chef: free rein in the kitchen.

Since my tweens, I’ve been the primary cook in the house. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a really geeky subset into the culinary world, hiding behind an ingredient that I’ve always taken for granted: salt.

After a stint working in a New York style deli during college, I became a convert to Kosher salt. But after that? I didn’t think there were any other horizons to be explored.

Was I ever wrong.

Salt, I have come to learn, is gustatory magic. Yes, I’m aware of salt’s long and complicated past, its value, its cultural significance around the world. But what I didn’t realize was how science and location can combine to create salts of different colors, tastes, and textures. The best part? This combination of science and cooking is easily shared with kids, since salt appeals to so many senses! The large granules make it particularly great for learning about crystal structure, since all you need is your eyes, your tongue, and a magnifying glass.

Here’s a few salts I enjoy sharing with my kid that are quite good for combining science and taste!

Cyprus Sea Salt Flakes – I’m particularly fond of these for their pyramid-like structure, setting it apart from many of salts. The flakes are large, thin, and are well suited as a “finishing salt”–that is, as a last flourish on warm bread, cooked meats, or salads. It’s got a mild flavor–much less potent than table or Kosher salt–and crunches when you eat it. Great for looking at under a magnifying glass, too.

Himalayan Salt – There is some dispute about the purity and composition of Himalayan salt, but it certainly is a multitasker (and, in my opinion, delicious–I use it instead of table salt). This lovely pink salt has been used in cooking, bathing, lighting (by creating salt lamps, seriously), and is filled with minerals. I can attain a much finer grain than many other salts (as it is mined rather than sea salt), it’s also comprised of a variety of other minerals, adding to its depth of flavor and purported health and beauty benefits. My favorite incarnation of Himalayan salt are the salt slabs, which can be chilled and then used as platters for food–like sushi or vegetables. The salt in the rock influences the food just by resting on it. Kids like the color, and the taste is one of the best.

Smoked Salt or Salish – I discovered this gem while visiting my sister in California a few years ago. This sea salt–in its natural production state–is slow smoked over wood like alder, apple, mesquite, or hickory. This method of smoking salt has been used by the Salish tribe in the Pacific Northwest, and is often used as an ingredient in their famed smoked salmon. The smoking process can take over a week from start to finish, and the final product isn’t exactly cheap. However, the flavor is mind-bogglingly good. If you like barbecue and smoke flavor but don’t have the time or equipment for smoking, salish adds that deep, smoky flavor to foods in just a pinch. I often open up the jar just to smell it. Its dark color is great for observation, and it’s a great way to naturally get smoke flavor into foods. My favorite application is adding it to a good rub and grilling some pork loin.

Fleur de Sel – I remember reading about fleur de sel when I was younger, and thinking it must indeed be magic. I mean, hand picked salt from pools? Incredibly cool. The name means “flower of salt” and according to SaltWorks, the name is due to the slight violet scent the salt has as it dries. It is native to Normandy. While one of the more expensive salts out there, due to its heritage, it is known the world around. It contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, and iodine, and can be gray to pink in color, depending on the location and time of harvest. Like Cyprus salt, it’s a great finisher for foods. Its texture is also damp, so if the tactile qualities of this salt are very fun (if you’re willing to let your kids paw through it, that is). Personally, if I had any fleur de sel in the house right now, I’d keep most of it to myself.

While price is often an issue with salts, I’ve learned to steer clear of specialty shops. I’ve found some great deals online at vendors like SaltWorks, as well as at my local Costco Warehouse (and online they have a lovely collection of Himalayan Salt Lamps) and Home Goods store. Vive le sel!

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Natania Barron is a Gryffindor, a Took, and a Greyjoy (mostly because of the squid).