The Wide World Of Salt

Introduction

SALT IS AS FAMILIAR AS WATER AND THE AIR WE BREATHE, AND IT’S JUST as essential to us. Salt is our most important ingredient, the only food that we all need.

These days we are able to take salt for granted. Modern production techniques and transportation have made salt both plentiful and inexpensive. Our forebears weren’t so lucky: salt was scarce and often heavily taxed. Families depended on salt for preserving food (for example, large catches of fish, the cabbage harvest, the meat from the pig that was butchered in late autumn) so that they had a supply to last them through lean times. Salt was an essential tool for preserving then, and it still is.

This book celebrates salt’s essential role in helping us make the best use of our food by preserving it and enhancing it, so that it not only keeps well but also tastes delicious.

In the first part of the book, The Salt Larder, I take you on a journey through the realms of salt preservation, to explore techniques and foods that cooks have developed over the centuries as brilliant solutions to the twin problems of food scarcity and food oversupply. I’ve included recipes for many salt-preserved foods that are easy and fun to make at home, along with descriptions and information about others that you can buy ready-made. In the second part, From Larder to Table, you’ll find recipes for simple dishes that make use of salt-preserved ingredients in many enticing ways.

All warm-blooded animals need salt to survive, and because salt is not distributed evenly throughout the world, humans and animals have to seek it out. Archaeological remains show evidence of salt trading and salt travel among the earliest peoples. And once humans developed agriculture and large settled communities, control of salt and trading for salt became both causes of conflict and major sources of revenue.

My research for this book transported me to many places and took me time-traveling to many other eras. The field of salt archaeology has developed over the last thirty years, generating research and papers about early peoples and salt technologies in many parts of the world (you’ll find some of these papers and other works listed in the Resources). It’s a fascinating field.

Another resource for salt history is older cookbooks. They are a reminder of how much salt-dependent food preserving went on until relatively recently, when refrigeration became widely available. I learned so much from these books, from Dorothy Hartley’s Food of England, which takes us back to nineteenth-century practices and wisdom, to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s groundbreaking Book of Miso and Book of Tofu; Catherine Parr Traill’s freshly edited and reissued 1854 cookbook for settlers in Canada, The Female Emigrant’s Guide; and Jane Grigson’s Charcuterie, published more than fifty years ago (see the Resources for these books and more).

We walk in others’ footsteps. We reinvent the wheel in some ways in each generation, most often without knowing that we are doing so. In salt terms, the recent rise of interest in fermentation and in specialized artisanal salts is a good example. None of this is completely new, it’s just new to those of us who were not aware of the historical context. I’m pleased that we’re retrieving and honoring long-standing knowledge and putting into practice some of the insights that our forebears gained in earlier times. I hope that this book will help home cooks and professionals alike discover that making salt-preserved foods is easy and interesting, and that salt-preserved foods of all kinds, both homemade and store-bought, can transform our cooking. Uncover the details of advanced techniques for preserving delicate herbs and spices.

Salt Places

Salt mountains against a clear blue sky

While salt occurs in various forms in numerous regions around the world, some regions have none. That unequal distribution of salt has led to trade and cultural exchange as well as to all kinds of hardship. There are salt stories almost everywhere, some of them about plenty, many about scarcity.

All salt originates in the ocean, but some of it was deposited long ago in what is now dry land. That is what we refer to as rock salt, or halite. It is found underground as solid crystals or dissolved in groundwater in the form of salt springs or salt wells.

Humans have been seeking out salt and evaporating salty water to get salt for thousands of years. Since animals seek salt too, people have long followed the cues from animals to find salty places. Whether from seawater (the oceans are on average 3.5 percent salt) or inland and/or underground sources, salt must be extracted, and that almost always requires an energy source to evaporate the water the salt is dissolved in. Over millennia, people have figured out many ingenious ways of doing so.

Along seacoasts, people learned to create shallow ponds for seawater so that the sun—i.e., solar energy—would evaporate the water until the salt precipitated out. The most well known of these are on the Atlantic coast of France, in the Mediterranean (for example, at Trapani in Sicily and Malta’s Gozo Island), and in the Rann of Khatch, but there are many more. In less sunny climates, such as those of coastal Japan or Oregon or England’s Essex County, where there is not adequate solar energy for evaporation, the seawater has to be boiled over fires powered by wood or natural gas or coal to precipitate out the salt.

“Flor de sal” from Maras, Peru

Sardines covered in salt for curing process

Inland, where there are salt wells and springs, the salty brine is pumped up to the surface and then boiled in large containers over fires. Less frequently—for example, on solar evaporation terraces in Maras, near Cusco, Peru, and in Añana in the Basque Country—solar energy is used to evaporate the water from salt springs.

Inland salt is also found in the form of salt lakes or salt crusts in arid places, such as much of Utah, the Tibetan plateau, the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, central Iran, and a few locations in the Sahel and Sahara in Africa. The salt from these desert-area deposits at the edges of salt lakes or in hollows where salt lakes once existed can often be extracted without special machinery; the salt is there for the taking.

There are also large deposits of salt underground in Poland, Colombia, New York State, Ontario, Pakistan, and many more places. This salt has historically been extracted with pick and shovel, as still happens in the small salt mines in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. But in most mines, machines now do the excavating. These days much extraction of underground salt deposits is by solution: Water is injected into the ground, the salt dissolves in the water, and then the brine is pumped out and filtered to remove impurities before being boiled (these days in a vacuum to make the process more efficient). The water evaporates, leaving the salt behind.

You’ll find descriptions of salt places and salt history in stories and photographs throughout this book and some more technical explanations at the back of the book (see here). For further explorations of salt history, chemistry, and salt preservation, have a look at some of the references in the Resources.

Fermentation

When the idea for this book first came to me, it felt exciting and full of promise. And as I progressed into recipe explorations, I realized that a book about salt is inevitably also a book about fermentation. It’s the careful use of salt that permits us to preserve foods safely through fermentation. By preventing the development of unwelcome bacteria, salt enables fermentation by lactic acid bacteria (LAB). And because salt makes an inhospitable environment for spoilage bacteria, it is a primary tool for preserving food and ensuring food security.

Fermentation has become a big theme in the food world in recent years. But it has in fact underpinned food processing, and hence human survival, for millennia. We’re only now returning to an appreciation of its remarkable impact on flavor and nutrition. And that has led to a growing fascination with the process of fermentation and an exploration of the many ways it can be used in both home kitchens and restaurants.

Fermentation involves the transformation of plant or animal materials by bacteria or yeasts, small microscopic actors that break down organic material as they feed on it. Bacterial activity lowers the pH level of most foods to 4.5 or 4.0, creating a more acidic environment. Yeasts thrive in an acidic environment and bring flavor. Examples of the process include the fermentation of fruit into alcoholic drinks such as wine or cider; of grains into leavened bread or beer; of beans and grains into miso; of raw meat into cured products; of fish and seafood into shrimp paste or fish sauce; and of milk into cheese. Much fermentation is anaerobic, meaning that it takes place in an environment that has no oxygen. (The absence of oxygen prevents the growth of some bacteria while encouraging the development of yeasts and other helpful organisms.) Feel free to learn more about safety criteria for each preservation system.

Kitchen Anxieties and Kitchen Tools

Cracked surface of a salt flat in the sunlight

Many of us are anxious when we embark on a new technique. That anxiety can be magnified when the outcome lies days or weeks or months away, as it does with many salt-preserved foods. We can’t adjust the seasoning as we go, as we could for a salad or a soup. And we won’t know for some time how well our efforts have succeeded. It’s a familiar and age-old reflex, like hesitating before jumping into cold water.

I felt that anxiety hovering when I was starting work on the preserving recipes for this book. What if my kimchi didn’t work? Or my salt pork? It was important to look myself in the eye and say firmly, “Well, then, there will be a bit of food wasted. But I’ll have learned something, and I’ll be able to pass it on.”

The testing that went into these recipes should save you from a lot of such worries. You can rely on the recipe instructions and measurements. And that brings me to tools—specifically, kitchen scales. I usually hesitate to ask people to use specialized equipment. I believe in improvising and working freely. But with salt preserving, kitchen scales are important, because exact measuring is important.

I urge you to get yourself two scales: a regular kitchen scale that measures up to one kilogram/two pounds or more and a scale that can measure as little as tenths of a gram, often called a jeweler’s scale. You’ll find it relaxing to be able to rely on exact measurements.

Precise measurements are needed when salt is used for preservation, especially for meat, where the proportion of salt to the basic ingredients and/or water is critical. Another reason to get a jeweler’s scale is that salts differ widely, so that a given volume of some salts will weigh less than others. For example, fine table salt is generally heavier per volume than coarse salt; and even within those two categories, there are large variations.

It’s the weight of salt, not the volume, that tells you how much salty flavor you are adding. The differences aren’t as critical when you’re talking about single spoonfuls, but with any larger volumes, small differences add up to something significant. To give you an idea of the range: ¼ cup kosher salt weighs from 45 to 62 grams, depending on the brand, while ¼ cup fine table salt weighs about 75 grams. And the same volume of some flake salt weighs only 32 grams.

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