Saturday, March 30, 2013

Shaking Salt: Salted by Mark Bitterman

Michael Ruhlman reports, in his essential book, The Elements of Cooking, that Thomas Keller believes that knowing how to salt food is “the most important thing for a cook to know.” Mark Kurlansky wrote an entire book on the world history of salt. Yet for most people, salt is simply a bit of table dressing; one half of the obligatory cruet set. If it’s thought about or used at all, it’s reflexively sprinkled on any savory dish, as if a decoration, an imperative of some kind which has become a habit divorced from meaning: does the dish really need salting? And what stuff, exactly, is this salt you’re putting on it?

Chances are it’s generic, industrially produced table salt — Mortons, in all likelihood — whose claim to fame is that its umbrella girl logo illustrates its motto: “When It Rains It Pours®.” (Yes, the registered trademark needs to be there.) What this has done is convince many generations of Americans that salt’s primary virtue is its pourability in any humidity level. Whoopee. As for flavor, texture, color — well, if it was anything but pourable and white, it wouldn’t work in the salt shaker, would it?

Mark Bitterman doesn’t want any truck with that. He’s a self-proclaimed “selmelier,” a connoisseur of salt, and boy, does he know his stuff. His book Salted serves as an encyclopedia of salt that’s not only aesthetically beautiful as a book, but is written with as much verve and color as the salts he lovingly details. In fact, he calls the book a “manifesto on the world’s most essential mineral,” which rightfully suggests that his approach is more mission than memo.

If a sommelier is someone whose judgment you trust about wine; someone, perhaps, who can allow you to see that wine can be an utterly different substance than that grog you’ve always been served in a plastic cup at parties, then a selmelier is someone who can do exactly that for your ignorance about salt. The tools he uses in place of the ability to have us actually taste salts are his words.

For example: there’s an entire section in this book about “the poetry of describing salt.” This is what he says of Halen Môn, a Welsh salt of which I am particularly fond: “Halen Môn offers a textural dimension beyond that of most other flake salts, its crunch-upon-crunch layers vanishing before calling undue attention to themselves, leaving behind a clearly defined structure and pleasant minerality, ponderings for the mouth that are as ungraspable as string theory.” I use a smoked Halen Môn crumbled into the soft tops of chocolate chip cookies before baking. If you’ve never had chocolate chip cookies accented with the right salt, you haven’t lived. Bitterman suggests pairing it with “butternut squash coup; grilled fish; [or a] garden vegetable sandwich,” and the smoked variety with “vanilla bean ice cream.”

I suspect I have let the cat out of the bag somewhat in terms of my investment in this topic by confessing to not only knowing about this artisanal salt, let alone having my own supply of it to use with cookies. I keep the salts I use regularly in tiny pinch-pots within easy reach, and re-fill them regularly. I am someone who relies on a salt-water gargle to stave off any cold and soak any wound (and it works!).

One of those has always been Maldon sea salt from the Essex coast. I thought it was just my humble opinion that nothing else could be as perfect for enlivening a 7-minute boiled farm egg, but it appears Bitterman agrees. His paean to this salt begins with a reverie about life’s good days and bad days before claiming assertively that “Maldon doesn’t have off days.” In describing its flavor, he writes “sea breeze with glitter in it.” But the note that slays me is this observation: “Crushing Maldon between the finger and thumb, and letting the flakes fall to the surface of your favorite food is almost as satiating as eating it.” Amen, brother. I have been known, in private moments standing in my kitchen, to grizzle a bit of Maldon between my fingers just for the pleasure of it.

If the tongue is an important tool in appreciating and balancing salt, then the fingers are too. Feeling the quality and texture of the grain, and determining its occasionally odd greasiness (despite not actually being greasy) is essential. It is here that one appreciates most fully that a life spent only experiencing pourable salt is a tragedy.

If you eat — if you cook — then continuing to do so without reading this book and/or ditching the table salt for something — anything — else. Bitterman’s information panel for it reads thusly: "Type: industrial; Crystal: homogeneous cubes; Color: abandoned factory windowpane; Flavor: phenolitic paint followed by rusted barbed wire; Moisture: none; Origin: various; Substitute(s): anything; Best With: shuffleboard lubricant.”

Try touching a bit to your tongue. Tell me he isn’t exactly, excruciatingly right. 

Bitterman and his wife Jennifer are the proprietors of The Meadow

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