Salt is the new cupcake.
At least in my world it is. As I mentioned last month, salt is my new obsession. Salt, to me, is like the best friend you’ve always had but just discovered was totally cute and kind of irresistible.
There is so much to love about salt. It is historically significant, which is like crack to me. If something is culturally important, changed the world or can be found in sepia-tone photographs with mustachioed men, you can bet I’m going to be into it.
Salt allowed for the preservation of foods and the production of textiles and leather. It is important to our health, and it makes everything taste better. But perhaps my favorite thing about salt is its malleability. Simple changes in local climate, plate tectonics or flora and fauna can alter salt’s shape, flavor, color and density. I can change salt too, and I do. Sure, it can be used in chunks, or ground into powder or dissolved. But it is the addition of flavor to salt that I find most intriguing.
Infused salts are popping up everywhere. Great sea salts infused with chiles, citrus, herbs or mushrooms (to name just a few) add a burst of flavor to a dish, and a burst of complexity to the top of each bite. I use them as a finishing touch on salads, simple vegetables, seafood and even chocolate truffles. They are great — indeed, indispensable — on grilled or roasted meats and will be the topic of conversation when presented as a table salt. They can be found in all the fancy food stores; my local butcher even added a stack of them to his meat counter. But they are expensive — almost ridiculously so. If you are so inclined, you can make them better and cheaper at home. Think of salt as a blank canvas onto which you can paint any flavor you choose.
The main ingredient in these recipes is, of course, salt. Sea salt is preferred (as opposed to mined salt, which I feel is too salty for this application), but the type and brand is up to you. As you become more familiar with international salts, you will find one or two you really like. Use those for your infused salts. If you plan to make a lot of infused salt (which I highly recommend), look for bulk bags of good sea salt at restaurant supply stores or Asian markets.
Once you start making these infused salts, you are going to be hooked. But don’t worry — they make great gifts and last forever. Your hostess or secretary or teacher or secret Santa will be way more impressed with this than a boring bottle of wine.
Dried Herb and Spice Salts
Dried herb salt is perfect to make when you have an abundance of herbs, either home-grown or store-bought. And spice salts are really quick to make. So you can get inspired on short notice, or throw together an amazingly quick hostess gift. It’s also a great vehicle for herb blends. My favorite is herbes de Provence, but it works just as well with an Italian blend, curry powders or za’atar — any dried herb or spice you love. Try these versatile salts on cooked or fresh vegetables (they’re great on crudités), salads, grilled meat and fish or roasted roots. The homemade version always comes out more flavorful than store-bought.
½ cup dried herbs or spices
1 cup unrefined sea salt
1. Grind dried herbs or spices with 2 tablespoons of salt in a coffee mill and pulse to a uniform texture. Mix together with remaining salt. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Let it mature for at least an hour or two for the best flavor.
Cardamom Salt Cardamom is my favorite spice, and it makes a salt that works equally well on spicy curries and fruit cobblers. Grind 5 or 6 cardamom pods with coarse salt, then strain out the husks.
Mustard Salt Grind brown or yellow mustard seeds with coarse salt for this tangy, hot salt.
This is the most popular of the infused salts, probably because it is accessible (i.e. not weird) and can be used pretty much anywhere one would use straight salt. Meat, fish, vegetables, grains, fruits and desserts are all brightened by the citrus punch. You can make it with any — and every — citrus fruit you can get your hands on. Then make it with a mixture of citrus fruits. And if you want to be super fancy, try it with some of the more exotic citrus fruits, like the Buddha’s hand or blood oranges. You really can’t go wrong.
A note about technique here: Some recipes call for the zest to be grated off the fruit using a microplane. I have found that such fine grating releases too much of the citrus oil into the air, rather than keeping it in the zest, which is where I want it. So invest in a good, sharp potato peeler that doesn’t take off too much pith, and remove the zest in larger strips. (This investment will probably set you back about $1.78.)
2 large lemons, oranges, tangerines
or limes or 1 large ruby grapefruit
1 cup unrefined sea salt
1. Use a sharp potato peeler to remove all the zest from your chosen citrus fruit in long strips. Spread out the zest in an even thin layer and set it aside to dry for 1 to 2 days. If you can set it in a sunny place, it will dry faster. If you have a dehydrator it will happen in just a couple of hours. When it feels brittle, grind it with 2 tablespoons of salt in a coffee mill and pulse to a uniform texture. Mix together with the remaining salt, and transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid
Tiny Fruits Kumquats and key or Mexican limes make nice salt too, but their zest is a little harder to access. I suggest using a very sharp paring knife to remove the zest in the biggest chunks possible. For the recipe above, you will need about a dozen of these smaller fruits
Citrus Herb and Spice Salt
The following lists are merely suggestions, based on common usage. Feel free to use your imagination to mix and match. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs. You can dry them before adding the dried zest, or mix them in wet and spread the entire batch of lemon-herb salt out in the sun to dry (or in your dehydrator). For dry spices, start with 1 tablespoon, then taste and add more as needed.
Lemon Combinations Pair your lemon with thyme, sage, parsley, mint, chervil, toasted cumin seed, lavender, rosemary, chive, ginger, fennel fronds or toasted seeds, toasted anise seed, toasted sesame seeds, saffron, matcha tea, vanilla or a mixture of peppercorns.
Orange Combinations Try rosemary, thyme, bay, sage, cayenne, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, toasted coriander seeds, cacao nibs, fennel fronds or toasted seeds, toasted anise seed, vanilla or espresso.
Lime Combinations Combine lime zest with cilantro, chipotle or other chiles, parsley, toasted coconut, toasted coriander seed, toasted cumin seed, toasted sesame seed, matcha or wakame seaweed. I particularly like coriander, chipotle and lime.
Grapefruit Try rosemary, toasted coriander seed, toasted sesame seed, thyme, cilantro, lavender or pink peppercorns.
You have probably already figured out that you can make infused salt out of just about everything. You’ll find an entire chapter of infused salt recipes and ideas in my upcoming book SALT: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in your Kitchen (St. Martin’s Griffin), available for preorder now on Amazon, and in stores Sept. 6.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.