Pot Luck

Honor Thy Salt: Why I Own More Than 30 Varieties But Not Kosher Salt, And Why I No Longer Shop at Penzey's

"Three things are good in little measure and evil in large: yeast, salt and hesitation." - The Talmud

Salt is the single most important ingredient in cooking and the single most powerful tool for improving the flavor of food.

For most of human existence, salt has been tricky to transport, scantily available and completely unpredictable in quality. Salt was a symbol of wealth, a prized commodity and in non-wealthy homes either non-existent or carefully rationed. Regional cuisines developed in concert with the availability and character of a particular area's salt source.

Salt is either from the sea or from the land. Those salts found on land used to be in a sea millions of years ago. Salts bear a mineral and crystalline imprint of the elemental and human forces that wrought it. Mark Bitterman in Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral says, "Salt is a natural, whole food, intimately tied to a place and way of life."

Bitterman goes on to say, " An appreciation for salt - traditionally made - changes our world for the better, leading to better tasting food, more empowered consumers, healthier populations, more sustainable food production, preserved natural environments and a restored sense of belonging." Appreciating the perceptible, tangible, discernible, tasteful distinctions of salt can only enhance our cooking.

No two salts are alike any more than any two peppers are alike. There are grocery store aisles and produce sections devoted to just peppers. There are chefs who are pepper experts and wax on about harnessing the subtle taste differences in peppers, depending on their preparation, growth time, regionality, etc.

If you are lucky, you may find two or three types of salt in your local grocery store (and I am not talking about flavored salts) which range between iodized, kosher and sea. These are BORING and wholly lacking of the attention salt deserves. Consider Bolivian Rose, Cyprus Black Diamond, Bengal Blue, Bali Rama Pyramid, Himalayan Pink, Korean Amethyst Bamboo, Hawaiian Black Lava, Chinese Jade Sands, Italian Ittica d'Or, Australian Murray River Flake -- the list goes on and on. Each one of these has a separate and distinct flavor, shape, texture and color difference. There is as much taste difference, shape difference, texture difference and color difference in salt as there ever was in pepper.

There are hundreds if not thousands of types of salts. New ones are being discovered weekly. For you diehard locavores: Did you know we have our very own local salt? It is called Jurassic Galveston County Salt, and it comes from our very own salt dome that Galveston and the surrounding area sit upon. It is clear white, has squarish grains and a light, clean taste. Galveston County Salt is available at Revival Market in the Heights. It is not harsh, metallic or chalky like iodized, kosher and generic sea salt.

Our culture is moving toward more organic, less processed ways of eating. Why shouldn't our seasonings be held to the same standard? The biggest injustice done to the culinary world, sadly, mostly from itself, is the endorsement of kosher salt. It replaced iodized salt in most homes, and we believed we were using something more natural and better for us. Mark Bitterman has the best description of kosher salt, I believe, ever written:

Kosher salt is used in many professional kitchens because it is easy to grasp with the fingers, easy to scatter into food, quick to dissolve, convenient to purchase and very, very cheap. The modicum of texture it offers compared to free-flowing iodized salt leads some to believe that it is somehow more natural. The combination of professional endorsement and perceived naturalness has led to the widespread acceptance of kosher salt as "gourmet." But everyone saying it does not make it so. Kosher salt is a processed food with all the mineral and moisture qualities intrinsic to real salt stripped away and with crystal structure fabricated by automated processes. The flavor is antiseptic, like the bright fluorescence of a laboratory on a spaceship drifting aimlessly away from earth. The texture crackles and bounces on your tongue like an undead pet, a battery-operated puppy with no hair, trying to comfort you with its soulless antics. When we cook with kosher salt we sanctify the artificial, we embrace emptiness, we become unfit for our posts - a nakedness far worse than embarrassment.

How could anyone use kosher salt after that description? Kosher salt does have its place, however. It is very useful for brining. Because it's cheap, it's easy to use large amounts with herbs and other flavorings for your brines. Just never eat it raw or season your cooked food with it. As you might suspect, not everyone agrees with Mark Bitterman. Bill Penzey, owner of Penzeys Spices, has a slightly different take on salt. The following explanation to his customers was published in their Winter 2011 catalogue and signed by Bill, himself.

We're cutting back on salt. A really good and healthy thing going on with food right now is that people are using less salt. We want to be a part of this. Going forward we will continue to sell reasonably priced generic salts of the earth and sea, but we will no longer be selling the higher-priced specialty salts. I feel things have gotten to a point where the specialty salts are glamorizing the use of salt and with that, encouraging people to use more of it. I have also found that along with the marketing of specialty salt has come a great deal of misinformation including claims that some salts don't affect your health like others do. This is just not true and not something we want to be a part of. Salt is salt, it really is, and it tastes no different no matter where it comes from.

I would be willing to listen to Bill argue the points of salt and health because everyone is entitled to their own opinions about their own health choices. Where he loses me as a willing listener and, more importantly, as a customer, is at the end. Speaking as the owner of a spice house and an expert in the field of seasonings, herbs and spices, Bill Penzey tells his customers that salt is salt and it all tastes the same. I no longer trust his expertise or the basis of his business. It takes only a tasting of a few different salts to readily see, feel and taste the differences.

There is so much fascinating information about salt that I can't begin to include it all here. I highly suggest reading Mark Bitterman's Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral. He won a James Beard Award for his manifesto, lectures about salt at the Le Cordon Bleu and owns a salt shop in Portland and New York called The Meadow. The man knows his salt.

As for Houston and our salt-purchasing options: Right now Central Market is the best one-stop place. They have many, many varieties at very reasonable prices. Beyond that, any grocery store, specialty foods boutique, etc. usually carries a small variety of salts. You can also order them online from The Meadow or give them a call and let Mark tell you about his newest salt. Keep your eyes open around town and in your travels. I, personally, have amassed more than 30 varieties and use them regularly. For those of you still using kosher salt who now want to use an unprocessed salt, I recommend gray salt, aka sel gris. It is very reasonably priced, and you can buy it in large quantities. I keep mine is the same jar I had my kosher salt in beside my stove. It is the perfect go-to salt.

And remember, salt may appear trivial, but because our conscious associates it with longevity and permanence, it is of boundless significance. Do your own research, eat unprocessed salt as often as possible and always season and eat in moderation. Happy salting!

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Patrise Shuttlesworth