Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Salt Smarts

Salt has been making headlines lately, and not for its positive culinary qualities. Linked to a variety of health problems, it’s taking the place of sugar and fat as the new dietary demon. But this is not a simple black and white issue. We need salt to survive, and chefs know that it is invaluable seasoning that enhances flavor. It is over consumption that’s the real the issue, along with the unconscionable amounts used by manufacturers of processed and packaged foods. Stop eating that stuff and there’s nothing to worry about.

Another important fact to understand is that not all salt is the same. That became clear to me last week at a short salt seminar given by Candace Berthold to our local Les Dames D’Escoffier International chapter. She’s the proprietor of The Olive and the Grape, a gourmet store specializing in oils, vinegars, seasonings and sea salts, with locations in Mentor, Tower City, and the Westside Market. I learned- and tasted- a few things during her fascinating presentation.

It’s the sodium in salt and not the salt itself that is what should give us cause for concern. Common table salt is uber-refined and lacks most of the natural trace elements that are essential for our well-being. Ounce for ounce, she explained, sea salt has less much less sodium and more nutrients. A little goes a long way, and each variety has a distinctive character.

Like wine, salt reflects both the place it comes from (terroir) and the way its harvested and handled.

We sampled salts from Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, and Hawaii; salts flavored with herbs, espresso, merlot, and smoke; and salts colored snowy white, black, pink, and green. Coarsely ground or flaked, they’re meant to be spooned, crumbled and sprinkled never shaken.

I was surprised by how many kinds are available- Berthold stocks 54 at last count- and the differences between them. Until now I’ve been satisfied with my box of Morton’s Kosher, but no longer. I’m ready to become a student of salt, stocking my cupboard with a selection so I can experiment. It promises to be a long, and delicious, study.

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