Viewed from outer space, earth stands out from its sister planets in our Sun’s solar system as “the blue planet”, an appellation explained by the oceans which cover three fourths of the surface of our circling globe. Most of that watery expanse is saline by nature, and in earlier eons of time was probably even more so. Beneath the land itself can be found vast deposits of that same salt, left behind by receding oceans and evaporating lakes and seas as mountains were born and died, and time reshaped ancient landscapes. When placed within the context of a global environment which is friendly to life at every level, that salty element must be viewed as one of the greatest gifts of all.
In the previous article which introduced the subject, we looked at the pages of human history upon which salt has written its own particular passages. In this article, we will look at it more from the viewpoint of here and now. Where does our salt come from ? How do we make use of it ? Why do we care ? And . . . are there some things which might cause us to appreciate it just a little bit more ?
Most of the salt which flows into our commercial and personal lives today is mined from those underground deposits before being processed and refined to one extent or another. A very large percentage of mined salt finds its way into something like 14,000 different end uses – some of it, for example going unto our roadways to combat winter ice and snow, and into the water-softeners in many homes and businesses. In fact, some of the technology which laid the foundation for oil drilling and the mining of coal and mineral resources in modern times was born in long-ago salt mines.
In many parts of the world, salt is still produced the old fashioned way, by evaporating the water containing it, either by heating it mechanically, or allowing it to dry by solar action. Around Israel’s Dead Sea and Utah’s Great Salt Lake, solar evaporating ponds are major enterprises.
In the typical American kitchen, there resides somewhere near at hand a familiar round cylindrical box containing the basic family supply of what we call table salt. Chances are it is the same box our parents and grandparents had in their pantries bearing a “girl with an umbrella” label that was introduced back in 1914. Salt that did not stick together in clumps was a new idea then, made possible by an ingredient such as calcium silicate. And, because hypothyroidism was commonplace across much of the country bringing with it goiter growths in many sufferers, sodium iodide was added. The “iodized” table salt we take so much for granted today compensated for diets which were often deficient in naturally occurring iodine.
Because I have a love of food history, and spend a lot of time in our own family kitchen, I take a special interest in the whole wide world of culinary diversity available to the home chef today. The round blue box described above is ever-present, but I seldom make use of it because there are so many alternatives to choose among. Just as we grind our table pepper from selected whole peppercorns, we salt our food from large sized crystals of natural sea salt in a similar table-top grinder. My personal favorite is an additive-free, solar-dried sea salt from New Zealand.
It is said that the human tongue has 10,000 taste pores which are capable of distinguishing between five different areas of taste. The rear of the tongue, along with the soft portion of the upper palate are where we register saltiness. Sea salt has a more vibrant taste than most mined salt, and it takes less of it to achieve the desired effect on food combinations. On the other hand, the pink-tinted crystals mined from 200 feet beneath Redmond, Utah contain traces of associated minerals which give it not only its distinctive color, but a tantalizing flavor not found in any other salt.
Last week we enjoyed a dinner revolving around a flat brisket cut of beef which had been marinated overnight, then slow-baked in a low-temperature oven for five hours. Before marinating, I treated the meat with a coating of kosher salt to draw out some of the moisture, making it more receptive to the barbecue flavoring in the marinade. This process is known as “koshering”, which gives its name to the very sharp-edged salt crystals which work in a way other types of salt cannot duplicate. Thus, kosher salt has a special place on our pantry shelf, right alongside the non-iodized pickling salt we use for everything from dill or sweet pickles, to the corned beef roasts we cure in stone crocks every fall.
We take comfort from the knowledge that in the event of a prolonged power outage, our supply of preserving salt, vinegar and pickling spices assures us of a method of giving the contents of our inoperative freezers a second life. In such an instance, we might ourselves look upon these salty crystals as being “worth their weight in gold.”
Home made kosher dills ready to take their place beside peppery sauerkraut, corned beef and smoked salmon.
Photo by Al Cooper