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Salt is not a demon in the kitchen

An interview with Mark Bitterman, “selmelier”

Lucy Farmer | November 20th 2014

Homer called salt a “divine substance”, but nowadays it’s the culinary bogeyman. Countless studies and stats warn us about eating too much, or eating too little, but there’s no denying that in the right proportion it’s essential for our survival—and it makes food taste great. I recently ate a scallop cooked on a heated Himalayan pink salt block, and it was the best scallop I’d ever tasted. The salt block seasoned and seared it so delicately that the spectrum of flavour slowly revealed itself, from clear light juiciness to deep caramelly crispiness.

Salt-block cooking is a new trick in the kitchen. The marble-like slabs have a curious beauty, but they’re robust pieces of kit: by firing them up or freezing them down, food can be grilled, cured, cooled, frozen, or just served, all with that subtle, rounded hint of seasoning. Mark Bitterman is an expert on culinary salt—the natural kind, not the fortified white stuff. Founder of The Meadow, a store specialising in salt in Portland, Oregon and New York, he has also written two books on his favourite mineral: the award-winning “Salted” and the recently published “Salt Block Cooking”. I spoke to him about his obsession with salt, and the taste, nutrition and sustainability of salt-block cooking.

Can you remember when you first really noticed salt?
I travelled through Europe for several years on a motorcycle, and one day in 1989 I pulled into a truck stop and ordered a steak. It melted my mind. I asked the waiter how it was cooked, and he just said: “It’s a steak. We grill it and we salt it.” The salt was beautiful: coarse, opalescent crystals that gave an intense, briny, minerally flavour, and I realised the majesty of this ingredient that we think of as lowly and uninteresting.

Why did you become a salt specialist, or “selmelier” as you put it?
It wasn’t intentional. I love all food. But I found that salt was something that united all the different places I travelled to. Over the years I collected salts and slowly developed a methodology and techniques for using them. “Selmelier” is obviously derived from “sommelier”, meaning a wine expert, but also a wine steward, or helper. That’s the important thing—I call myself a selmelier, not just because I’m an expert, but also because I help to educate people to use salt in their everyday cooking.

What would you say to someone who argues that salt is bad for you?
Hypertension is the health issue we associate with salt. We believe that if you eat too much salt it will raise your blood pressure, and high blood pressure increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. But the science doesn’t back up the claim that a high intake of salt causes hypertension. People’s diets include vast amounts of processed carbohydrate, processed sugar, and processed fatty oils, yet salt is the demon. It is far better to cook fresh, wholesome food and season it to make it taste good than to eliminate salt completely. I never advocate using lots of salt; instead, use quality salt well.

You use Himalayan pink salt from Pakistan for your salt blocks. Why did you choose it?
We chose it because it’s a very dense salt. The health community have singled it out as a healthy salt, but that’s just marketing. All natural salts are high in minerals and low in contaminates. Nutritionally, you get more potassium from a piece of lettuce than a pinch of salt, but natural salts are still good to have in your diet. They also give more flavour—not only does the sodium chloride react with food, but all the other minerals react too.

How are the salt blocks mined, and is it sustainable?
Some salt blocks are mined using dynamite, but our blocks are mined by hand because we don’t like to use explosives around food. There are an estimated 6.8 billion tonnes of salt that are accessible in this deposit—that’s enough salt to last many thousands of years at the current rate of mining. Also, all salt is ultimately renewable. It goes back into the ocean and over millions of years it will form salt deposits again.

Is salt-block cooking a new technique, or have people been doing it for centuries?
Disappointingly, it’s new. I’ve researched it and spoken to everybody I can in Pakistan and India, but I can’t find any evidence of it being an age-old cooking technique. Who did it first is a mystery. I just came across a handful of oddball chefs tinkering around with salt blocks. It used to be considered wantonly esoteric and silly, but it is fun and incredibly tasty. But proper hand protection is very important. In my book, I have an entire page dedicated to high-temperature oven mitts.

Why doesn’t the food taste overly salty?
There’s a relationship between how moist the food is and how long it’s on the salt block. A tomato will get salty very fast, so you either want to just put an edge on it, or eat it faster. The other factor is how hot it is. At a high heat scallops sear faster than they can release moisture, so they get a delicate brown edge that prevents them becoming too salty. I recently took a salt block camping—I put it straight on hot coals and seared a steak on it, and it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten.

Salt blocks are available from The Meadow in America and The Style Academy in Britain. "Salt Block Cooking" is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing

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