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Salty solutions

Call it an edible irony: A substance essential to human health commonly is a culprit in compromising wellness.

Salt’s status has shifted over centuries from culinary miracle to dietary evil. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans clarify that food processing is behind the vast majority of the population’s sodium intake. Cut back on processed foods, and the sodium in one’s diet drops dramatically.

Since my previous column advocated choosing first spices over salt for seasoning home-cooked foods, it’s worth elaborating on better methods of salting. Purposeful salting with fine-quality versions of the mineral can reestablish a healthy relationship with sodium and heighten our appreciation for it.

Not all salts are created equal. Just as there are low-quality fats, sugars and other food additives, there are lesser salts, although at their most basic, they’re simply the chemical compound sodium chloride. The differences between types of salts usually are matters of color, texture, the presence or lack of minerals and — on a subtle level — taste.

Many cooking salts, including table salt and kosher salt, come from solution mining. After water dissolves salt deposits, the brine solution is evaporated and purified. The salt left behind is dried and refined into almost pure sodium chloride.

Table salt is easily recognized for its very fine grains. It usually contains an anti-caking agent, such as calcium silicate, and sometimes iodine to prevent thyroid diseases in regions where diets are low in this nutrient.

Kosher salt and table salt hail from the same source. Essential to the process of koshering — removing blood to purify meat according to Jewish dietary laws — kosher salt’s larger grains adhere better to the meat and dissolve more slowly over the process’ specified time period. Chefs like the ease of grabbing handfuls of kosher salt while cooking.

Himalayan salt is a rock salt mined in Pakistan. The salt often has a pinkish tint as a result of trace minerals. Heralded as all natural, Himalayan salt is popular with health-conscious cooks and specialized eating plans.

True “sea salt” is harvested from shallow marshes, ponds or other low-lying areas. As sunshine and wind evaporate seawater, they leave behind salt and also trace minerals touted by gourmets and health-conscious eaters. The finest salts are produced by raking salt off the surface of still water.

Whether it’s English Maldon salt or French fleur de sel, top-quality salts’ high prices justify their role in “finishing” dishes. The technique enhances flavors at the end of food preparation and sometimes, such as selecting Hawaiian black salt, can make a colorful accent.

When committing to better quality salts, start by preparing foods that are as fresh as possible and therefore flavorful in their own as right. Frozen and preserved foods, although nutritionally sound, often fall short on taste. Canned foods have so much salt to improve their flavors and ensure preservation.

Taste a dish during cooking to gauge if it needs salt, instead of automatically sprinkling it after each step in a recipe. If a dish doesn’t scream for salt but fails to perk up the palate, try a splash of vinegar or sherry, fresh herbs or squeeze of citrus juice first. Remember that incorporating cheeses, cured meats, pickled foods and other condiments in a dish imparts sodium, therefore reducing the reliance on more added salt.

If you’ve faithfully tasted and attempted to adjust flavors with other ingredients but still crave salt, dish up the meal, then grind a bit of pink Himalayan salt over the top or sprinkle on some sea salt. Chances are, the flavor of salt will be much more apparent, and you’ll enjoy it more.

Like spices, there are so many salts to explore. I received as a holiday gift a packet of chardonnay oak-smoked sea salt from The Spice & Tea Exchange in Ashland. This French sea salt is smoked with wood from oak wine barrels and recommended for sautéing scallops, shrimp or spinach. It’s gift-worthy because it comes with a luxury price tag, as do most flavored salts.

But it’s easy to make your own for much less. If you want an herbed salt, simply add some Himalayan or sea salt crystals to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder with any dried or fresh herbs of your liking and pulverize to a uniform consistency. One of my favorite rubs for grilling is simply sea salt crushed with white (or pink or green) peppercorns, mustard seeds and dried lavender flowers.

Add savor, as well as salt, to a dish by crushing up sea salt with dried wild mushrooms, such as porcini. Try pulverizing salt with dried sea vegetables and sesame seeds, then sprinkle over steamed rice, Asian noodle soups and stir-fry dishes.

And because salt is a striking counterpoint to sweets, infuse salts for enhancing desserts and fresh fruits. For vanilla-flavored salt, leave a split vanilla bean in a sealed glass jar for a couple of weeks with some sea salt. Using the same method, make citrus-infused salt with fresh lemon or orange rinds.

Salted Chunky Peanut Butter Cookies

1 tablespoon salted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 cup natural chunky peanut butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 large egg, room temperature

Coarse sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel, for sprinkling

1/2 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a bowl, combine the butter and brown sugar, smashing and mixing together using a wooden spoon, until butter is no longer visible and sugar resembles wet sand. Add the peanut butter, vanilla and egg; mix until well combined. Lift spoon out of dough. If dough drips off in globs, refrigerate or freeze it until stiff. Cold dough will bake into taller cookies too. Dough may be refrigerated for up to two days.

When ready to bake, drop rounded teaspoons of dough onto prepared sheets, spacing 1-1/2 inches apart. Sprinkle tops with some of the salt and then with some of the peanuts.

Bake one sheet at a time in preheated oven until darker brown around edges and dry on top, for 9 to 11 minutes. Cool completely on sheets on a rack.

Baked cookies may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week and in the freezer for up to one month.

Make PB&J sandwich cookies by spreading a thin layer of thick jam on half the cookies and sandwiching with the others. For peanut butter and salted caramel ice cream sandwiches, flatten small scoops of salted caramel ice cream between cookies and freeze until firm.

Makes about 4-1/2 dozen cookies.

Radishes with Sesame Salt

1 bunch radishes (10 to 12 ounces)

3 tablespoons virgin coconut oil

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, white or black or a combination

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt, such as Maldon, fleur de sel or Hawaiian black salt

Wash the radishes well and rub dry with paper towels. Discard any yellow or wilting leaves, but keep stems intact. If radishes are larger than 1 inch in diameter, halve or quarter lengthwise.

Melt the coconut oil either by heating in a small saucepan over low heat or microwaving in a small bowl in 5-second increments.

Line a large plate or rimmed baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Dip bottom half of a radish into oil, shake off excess, then sprinkle oil-coated half with some sesame seeds and a tiny pinch of salt. Put on prepared plate. Repeat with remaining radishes, oil, sesame seeds and salt.

Refrigerate uncovered until oil hardens, for at least 5 minutes. Serve cold, picking up radishes by their stems and enjoying them in one or two bites for an appetizer or wholesome snack.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Radishes with sesame-salt. Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times/TNS
Salted Chunky Peanut Butter Cookies Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times/TNS