Salt: A Battery

Great chefs know it: Quality salt adds taste and texture

Cooks Of Crocus Hill
877 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651.228.1333

France 44 Deli &Amp; Market
4351 France Ave., Minneapolis, 612.285.7643

Buon Giorno Italia
981 Sibley Memorial Highway, Lilydale, 651.905.1080

Bill Kelley

Location Info


Cooks Of Crocus Hill

877 Grand Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55105

Category: Community Venues

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Osteria I Nonni

981 Sibley Memorial Highway
West St. Paul, MN 55118

Category: Restaurant >

Region: West St. Paul


Mall Of America
Bloomington, MN 55425

Category: Retail

Region: Bloomington

Ids Center Crystal Court, Minneapolis, 612.376.7666, Other Locations


First Of An Occasional Series

What's the difference between the way the great chefs of the Twin Cities are cooking and the way you are? Well, aside from the fact that some of them do their thing while topped with cute hats, they use a lot more interesting salts than you do.

Yes, I said salt. The plain old stuff you've been using to keep the old nervous system functioning and the scrambled eggs tasty, that stuff. Except if you peered into the kitchens of the best chefs in town you'd find that the salt they're using isn't plain at all. And then, then if you spent a day driving up and down and all across the Twin Cities looking for the salts they use, you'd find that they're available for purchase by commoners like us. And then, then if you spent a couple of days messing around with them, you could make oven potatoes that taste like the oven potatoes of the stars!

Really. Swing by Solera, the downtown Minneapolis tapas bar, to test this theory. I did recently, for a plate of the patatas bravas ($6.50), after I learned that the kitchen there adds punch and pop to this dish of potato wedges served in a roasted tomato and hot-pepper sauce by topping it with a sprinkle of gray French sea salt right before it's served. This topping of crunchy sea salt crystals gives what could be a fairly mushy concoction a bit of crackle and pop and performs a kind of sleight-of-tongue, giving you the initial impression that the potatoes are crisp-fried, when in fact they're more simply and more healthily made than that--just blanched and sautéed.

"The sel gris adds texture, but it's not too salty," explains Jason Ross, the restaurant's chef de cuisine. "You could never do that with iodized salt because you'd never notice the texture. But you'd sure notice it would be too salty."

That's because iodized salt--the regular kind in your local saltshaker--has been developed to dissolve easily and deliver uniform saltiness fast. Not so for the multitude of other salts out there, which have been developed over centuries to basically get salt out of the ocean, and tend to have gotten lots of interesting auxiliary characteristics along the way. Like what? Well, like the scent of the sea, of violets, or of plants; like the taste of metals, minerals, or earth; like the texture of snowflakes, of gravel, or of teensy flowers. These other salts cost more--from about $2.50 to $40 a pound--but on the upside they're usually sold in small quantities, so an expenditure of $4.25 might last you the whole year.

Incidentally, $4.25 is exactly what you'll pay for half a pound of one of the best locally available artisanal salts. The stuff is called Maldon and has been coming out of Essex in eastern England for the last hundred-odd years. Actually, it's made by the family Osborne at the mouth of the river Blackstone, and if that's not British enough for you, you can stuff a scone in it, governor. At high tide, seawater from the Atlantic floods in, spreads out over the marshes, and slowly, while the marshlands are warmed by sun and whipped by wind, the seawater becomes saltier and saltier. This happens every day until just before the highest tide, brought by either the new moon or the full moon, which would tend to take all that super-salty water back to the sea. Instead, though, someone whisks the seawater up into a great big pan and boils out the remaining water, forcing frothy piles of salt crystals to form, salt crystals that are tucked into bags and folded into boxes and sold at Williams-Sonoma for $4.25.

Well, unless it's very cold and cloudy, in which case the water can't become salty enough to make salt from. Or if it rains right before the full moon, which makes the water too watery. I like to think that's why when I went looking for Maldon salt the other day it was sold out of both the downtown Williams-Sonoma and France 44, and I had to drive all the way to the Galleria in Edina to get some.

Or maybe pastry chefs have bought it all. Yes, I said pastry chefs. If you've had the pleasure of checking out the dessert tapas offered lately by Solera's pastry chef, Adrienne Odom, you'll have had the opportunity of seeing what magic artisanal salt can work in a dessert. Odom served a chocolate trufflelike concoction of deeply concentrated, slightly buttery dark chocolate atop an olive oil crouton and sprinkled the whole thing with Maldon salt. The result was brilliant: The salt muted the natural pepper and bite of chocolate by flaunting its own bright minerality, and in so doing practically inverted the taste of chocolate, bringing chocolate's natural fruity background notes of plum, roast cherry, and blackberry boldly to the fore. If you want to wow some dinner guests with minimal effort sometime soon, you might warm a good bar of chocolate in the oven and serve it sprinkled with Maldon salt. It's a fascinating experience.

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