Salt: A Battery

Great chefs know it: Quality salt adds taste and texture

"Maldon is the best salt I've used so far," says Tim McKee, the chef who invented Solera and La Belle Vie. "It's got a real clean flavor. The crystals are so flaky you never have to worry about it being a hard crunch when you bite down. I would never use it for anything other than finishing, though," he adds, because once the flaky crystals dissolve and dissipate, the magic of the salt dissolves, too. Please note that all the saltshakers on Solera's tables, and Auriga's, and, back in the day, on good old Rock Star's, were all gray French sea salt--sel gris.

Which brings us to the other side of the English Channel, where the French have been turning seawater into salt for a couple of thousand years. They do this by diverting seawater into rectangular, room-sized drying ponds made of clay. The sun and wind beat down on these little ponds, forcing the moisture from them. If you ever played with rock candy as a kid, you'll know that two kinds of solids start to leave the over-saturated liquid; crystals form on the bottom, and a super-thin sheet of a crust begins to form on the top. The salt-makers quickly pull this sheet of crystals off the top of the pond, and this is the super-premium best salt there is, the fleur de sel (it is called flower of salt because of its pretty shapes and loose, light formations). The salt that forms on the bottom is sel gris.

I've read that the ratio of fleur de sel to sel gris is about one pound of fleur de sel harvested for every 80 pounds of sel gris, but the prices thankfully don't reflect that eighty-to-one ratio. While sel gris can be found in bulk at France 44 for $2.59 a pound, the most expensive fleur de sel I found in town was at Cooks of Crocus Hill, $12 for 160 grams, or about $40 a pound. Also, I find it kind of nice that you can get the best and most expensive of something in the world and it's cheaper than a trade paperback. Take that, P-Diddy, I got the bling bling with my ching ching! Or at least, my salad has.

But I digress. More importantly, fleur de sel is one of the key tricks of the trade for the great chefs of the world; it's one of the reasons why their grilled fish has more vibrancy, their green salads have more pop, and their focaccia is more irresistible. I found a few great ones in town; either Cooks of Crocus Hill or France 44 has the best selection. Nature et Progres's cute lavender container Fleur de Sel de Guérande, at Cook's, costs $9.50 for a container about the size of a softball. It smells great--sweet, wet, and vegetal, like a dewy dawn in a garden, and has a gentle and elegant finish, extending its flavor through the first few moments that you taste something seasoned with it.

M. Gilles Hervy's Fleur de Sel from Brittany, $10.49 at France 44, has a brighter, sharper initial presence, but fades more quickly. It has such a sea-evoking minerality that tasting it is almost like the first impact of a fresh oyster, without, of course, the oyster. It did occur to me a few times while I was tasting these salts that if I were a vegetarian I'd load as many interesting salts into my pantry as possible. And I'd especially try the Matiz sal del mar they sell at Whole Foods and France 44. Vikings once smoked salt like this, cooking seawater down over a roaring wood fire, and it makes everything it touches, including fresh slices of apple, taste like they've been wandering through campfires or kissing bacon.

Then again, if I were a vegetarian, I wouldn't be nearly as thrilled about this trick for summer grilling that Steven Brown, formerly chef at Rock Star, shared with me. "We used [the sel gris] to season everything we had in the kitchen," he says. "One of the awesome things you can do at home to really boost the flavor of, say, a steak, is to salt it a day in advance. Rub some olive oil on it, grind some black Telicherry peppercorns on there, and put on a bunch of sel gris. [The salt] doesn't just dissipate when you grill it, you still get these little flavor surprises of salt when you eat the steak, but it's not so sharp or strong that it's too much. That's a trick I picked up from Judy Rogers at Zuni, she does all her meat that way--tenderloins, whatever. Season it, roll it up in parchment paper, cook it the next day. That's one of the secrets of cooking--season before, during, and after cooking."

One of the secrets of those fantastical burgers that Rock Star used to serve was that Brown would smash the big crystals of sel gris with the bottom of a coffee cup and apply the result 24 hours in advance to olive-oil coated patties of meat.

Finally, news you can use!

One of the reasons I was so excited about doing this story was because the more I talked to chefs and tasted the differences in the salts out here, the more I became convinced that this is the kind of little, low-cost change you all could make to your cooking to really add a boost to your refrigerator pickles (sel gris in your pickled beets?), focaccia (Maldon sprinkled on top before baking?), or pan seared scallops (fleur de sel and a few little herbs will make them taste restaurant-made). Really, after tasting all these salts, I became convinced that using salts intentionally, instead of just unthinkingly relying on the regular stuff, makes as much of a difference as switching from pepper powder in the can to fresh-ground.

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