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Salts of the Earth

Salt has been singled out as a culprit in Americans' poor health. But while the sodium saturating processed foods and the iodized stuff in salt shakers fall from favor, gourmet salts are only gaining prominence.

Joining Celtic sea salts, France's famed fleur de sel, Himalayan pink salt and Hawaiian black salt is a spectrum of salt flavors from smoke to herbs. In Kentucky, salt is bourbon-smoked. In Hawaii, it's tiki-smoked with guava wood. Other salts incorporate flavors of Thai ginger, coconut garam masala, bourbon vanilla bean and truffles (mushrooms, not chocolate).

Such wide variety explains the advent in some high-end restaurants of sommeliers for salt, or "selmiers." Salt sommelier at The Meadow, an artisanal food store in Portland, Mark Bitterman lists some 80 varieties of salt in his "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes" (Ten Speed Press, 320 pp, $35).

Most gourmet types are sea salts, used to "finish" dishes — enhancing flavor at the end of food preparation — and in many cases, add a colorful accent. Sea salt is a product of the minerals found in the seawater where it is harvested.

In earlier times, small seaside communities created their own salt the way some communities make their own wine. And like wine, salt can impart distinct "terroir" to food, which translates well to the culinary trend toward local, artisanal and all-natural products.

Yet salt isn't just a substance one adds to food, as Bitterman demonstrated in Portland last spring. Adding food to the salt, the author showed chef Sandy Dowling of Central Point and other members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals how to use pink Himalayan salt as a serving dish and medium for cooking.

"Those can be put on a fire," says Dowling of her Himalayan salt block, which measures about 8 inches square by 2 inches thick.

Place the pink slab over a gas burner or grill at 400 or 500 F for about an hour to heat up, and it can quickly sear delicate foods like scallops and Kobe beef while imparting subtle saltiness, says Dowling, who uses the technique at her Willows Cooking School. Just don't salt food before transferring to the mineral surface.

To clean the block, rinse it briefly under water, which dissolves a thin mineral layer and carries any food particles with it, says Dowling, adding that she's been using one block for the past few years. Each time it's heated, however, the crystal structure weakens.

"Each time you use it, more salt dissipates," she says. "They don't last forever."

When it's no longer viable as a cooking utensil, drop the block on a hard surface and then keep the shards to grate with a microplane over food, she says. The blocks can be purchased at specialty kitchen-supply stores, including Jacksonville Mercantile, which stocks a round, 5-pound one priced at $35. Larger ones sell for $65 to $80.

Gone are the days when salt was so precious that it was traded ounce for ounce for gold or used as actual currency. However, specialty salts remain costly. Widely considered the world's finest salt, 4 ounces of fleur de sel cost $12.95 at Jacksonville Mercantile. A 3.5-ounce jar of owner Constance Jesser's favorite black truffle sea salt costs $25.95.

"It doesn't take much — just a tiny, tiny pinch," says Jesser.

Specialty salts have only grown in popularity since the Mercantile started carrying them about six years ago, says Jesser. Himalayan salt, which is mined, and a flaky sea salt from Australia are the most popular kinds, she says.

"Even just lay people understand that Morton is not the only salt available."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Contra Costa Times contributed to this story.

Sea salts come in a variety of colors and sizes, from black and reddish-brown Hawaiian crystals to pink Peruvian crystals. - MCT photo