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Do It Yourself Flavored Salts

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
When I was a kid I was a fiend for salt. My parents were always after me to go easy on the salt shaker. Concerned about my youthful over-indulgence and convinced that it was more the action of shaking the salt than the salt itself that I enjoyed, they slyly equipped me with my very own salt shaker...filled primarily with dried rice. It sure sounded like salt, but nothing came out. Took me a while to put the pieces together, but ultimately I think I did, not just because they suddenly started letting me shake to my heart's content, but because I really did love salt and missed its presence. Years later I paid them back for this trick by insisting we all enjoy 13 discs worth of Mark Kurlansky's history of salt on a very long car trip from New York to Atlanta.

Salt is fundamentally something our bodies need and our tongues desire. It's something we don't often consider liking or not because it's simply an assumed feature of daily eating. In recent years though much more attention has been paid to the many and varied varieties of salt avaliable and their different flavors, textures and applications. From flaky and tender finishing salts to thick jagged gray crystals, there are salts of all sorts from lakes, oceans, mines and brines all over the world. And for those who can't be satisfied even with that wide world of natural variety, flavored salts have also been surging in popularity.

With no parental oversight of my salt intake, I've been a steady collector of salts over the years and have sometimes even purchased flavored salts--most notably my favorite espresso salt, with smoked salt coming in a close second. In the back of my mind though there has always been a little voice that wondered why I didn't just make my own flavored salts. After all, it couldn't really be that hard. And guess what? It isn't. Good news for salt lovers and, really, for anyone who likes to add a flavorful flourish to finish their food. Simple grains and greens, pasta, tofu, plain old toasted nuts, homemade chips or toasted pita, anything you might salt can be completely transformed with a dash of flavored salt.

While my right hand is still coming back up to full capacity following surgery, I've been trying to be good and scratch my kitchen experimentation itch by doing things easily done without taxing my right hand. Since my left hand can operate a food processor with ease, these flavored salts came together quickly for me and are a fun, easy project for anyone with a few spare minutes.

The basic idea is as simple as salt+flavor+stir+store. It can get a little more complex with the addition of slightly wet or oily ingredients like citrus zest, fresh herbs or nuts, but only in that they need to be dehydrated in an oven for the sake of storage. You can also complicate things a little by matching different salts to different flavor add-ins, but any course sea salt that you enjoy will work perfectly. The following six salts were my favorites and would all make great gifts for any salt aficionados in your life.

Lime zest, aji amarillo and cayenne Hawaiian pink salt. This salt was a Christmas gift and it has been one of my favorites. It's crunchy but light, not hard or rough edged and it's subtle with just the right level of saltiness for me. The salt is pink because it is harvested from alaea, red clay rich in iron oxide found in the Hawaiian sea. Imagining uses for this salt ranging from finishing chocolates to topping homemade torilla chips to rimming spicy margarita glasses, I thought the pink color would alert people to its heat and look nice when combined with the yellow and red chilies.

1/2 cup Hawaiian pink sea salt
zest of one lime
2 teaspoons aji amarillo powder (or mellow chili powder of your choice)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine ingredients and toast in an oven set to 300 degrees for 20 minutes or until zest is dry.

Every Meyer lemon I get lately I'm sure will be my last for the year, so it was with joy at the thought of extending my ability to enjoy them that I made this citrusy-sweet salt with sel gris, a gray sea salt from France that is harvested from magnesium rich marshes, which impart a distinct flavor to this rough and boldly flavorful salt. This salt is particularly good on asparagus and really set off a slow-dried tomato and roasted garlic whole wheat pizza.

1/2 cup fleur de sel
zest of one and a half Meyer lemons

Combine ingredients and toast in an oven set to 300 degrees for 20 minutes or until zest is dry.

It always seems like a little shame to grind up star anise, argueably one of the most beautiful spices in the world, but in the name of deliciousness, every once in a while it's ok to sacrifice beauty. This salt, made with ground star anise, vanilla bean, Himalayan salt, as well as cocoa nibs, was really designed with dessert applications in mind and I can't wait to see what will come out of it. So far I've only tried it by dipping some squares of chocolate in, but it has a lot of promise.

There's a lot of (sometimes bizarre) marketing bluster about the health benifits of Himalayan salt. I don't know about all that, but is pretty cool that this salt is harvested from a primordial sea which evaporated over the ages and left salt behind in the Himalayan Mountains.

1/2 cup Himalayan pink sea salt
2 teaspoons cocoa nibs
2 star anise
1 dried, used vanilla bean
(reserved and naturally dehydrated after having been scraped for seeds)

Cut vanilla bean into 1/2 inch peices for better processing. Combine all ingredients in a food processor or spice mill and grind until fine.

Murray River salt is probably one of the first experimental salts I ever purchased, in great part because it shared a name with the Archives where I worked. Luckily, being a wonderful finishing salt, perfect for light seasoning, I had better reasons to purchase it again and again. The salt is harvested from brines in the Murray River basin, which are fed by melt off from the Austrailian Alps and occupied by an algae that gives the salt its distinctive color. It has such a dramatically different texture than most other salts, reminicent of delicate ice chips, like flat little flakes in peachy apricot pink that melt quickly and evenly on the tongue. Owing to its mellowness and sweet childhood tea-party inspired coloring, I thought to combine it with thyme fresh from the garden and lavender, dried from last year to create a kind of Provence- style salt that would work well with spring time vegetable dishes and pastas. This morning though I actually used it in my annual bake-off of lilac cupcakes, flavored with an allergy-attack load of lilacs from the garden, and it worked beautifully. (You can see a pre-blog picture of the cupcakes here.)

The last bit of my smoked Spanish sea salt from Barcelona had me thinking about the Arabic legacy in Spain, inspired by a tangent in Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, which I just finished. So this salt became a smoked za'atar flavor, mixing the basic components of dried thyme, oregano marjoram and toasted sesame seeds with a little cardamom, cumin and fennel seed. This would be the perfect salt to serve with olive oil, bread and mezze like hummus, baba ganoush or other little dips and salads, or to finish a flat bread with.

1/2 cup smoked sea salt
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 teaspoons dried herbs of your choice
2 teaspoons whole spices of your choice

Toast sesame seeds and whole spices. Cool and process with dried herbs until a smooth powder has formed. Combine with salt, mixing well.

The most experimental of my salts was probably this marcona almond salt. Inspired by the salted almond Mexicano round from Taza, which I can't stop eating, I've been thinking about a salted marcona chocolate dessert. Marconas are terribly addictive almonds native to Spain that have the most buttery texture and sweet, delicate almond flavor imaginable. They're at their best served warm after being sauteed lightly in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, so I thought this salt would work well in my pursuit of a warm chocolate dessert that captures that salty, rich almond flavor. Because it seemed like something that could also be a pretty finishing touch on a truffle, I wanted the salt to be truly beautiful. For that I turned to my Balinese salt which has big, bold, crystal clear grains. These grains are actually hollow, an effect gained by the winds that blow over the brines on rainy days in Bali, which gives them a lovely, delicate crunch that goes well with the density of the marconas.

1/2 cup Balinese course "pyramid" salt
3 tablespoons marcona almonds

Grind the marcona almond to a fine powder. Mix with salt and toast 15-20 minutes in a 300 degree oven until dry.

And that's it for salts! Stay tuned for flavored sugars, extracts and drinks.
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