Salt of the Earth: Cooking with a Rainbow of Sea Salt

Shoppers in sleek pea coats and puffy winter bombers take turns spooning the crunchy salt crystals out of the bowls and into their palms. A little girl in a Santa red scarf opens her mouth to taste the salt sprinkles as if she’s catching translucent snowflakes on her tongue on this chilly late November afternoon at The Filling Station in Union Square. Jesse Perkins and Kyle Piper are working the seasonal stand in the holiday market, which is only there for the five weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. The Filling Station also has a year round location in Chelsea Market, where they’ve been selling hand harvested artisanal flavored salts along with specialty oils and vinegar since 2010.

Perkins and Piper help navigate customers through the winter wonderland of flavored salts, including the burgundy red merlot sea salt, the deep brown smoked Alderwood sea salt and the two varieties of truffle sea salt, their biggest seller. The salts range from $6-12 for a two ounce container.

“We get a lot of foodies,” says Perkins, in a leather jacket and baseball hat. “One woman knew every pairing for every salt. We said you should come work here!”

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Jesse Perkins and Kyle Piper working at The Filling Station in Union Square

“We just had a guy buy 12 Alderwood salts,” adds Piper. “We didn’t ask questions. I’ve seen people absolutely fall in love with the truffle salt. The expression on their face is like love at first sight.”

Artisanal salt has been popping up everywhere lately. Take a walk through the spice aisle of any supermarket and where there was once just a few types of table salt, there are now rows upon rows of flavored salts and sea salts of every shape and color, from pink to grey and everything in between. Salt has also been a topic of controversy, with the government teetering back and forth on whether table salt should be banned in NYC restaurants. While that law was never pushed through, there is a new requirement for city restaurants with 15 or more locations nationwide to post a warning next to menu items with more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, the recommended daily limit. This is meant to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes that too much salt can contribute to. Restaurants are subject to $200 fines if they don’t comply.

What’s the difference between all these different types of salt? Kristina Jezycki, a former chef and now the owner of an online salt shop called Artistic Taste, decided to work only with sea salts for health purposes. “They say Himalayan is the best one for you because it has no pollutants around it. Himalayan salt is actually taken out of salt mines inside of the Himalayan Mountains. It has nothing in the air that’s interfering with it so it is absolutely the most pure salt you can get,” she explains. “And it has a very refined taste to it. And a very clean taste to it.”

Jezycki got started with her salt business after moving to Paris in 1995 to attend culinary school. “Everything was so flavorful and decadent and I came back thirty pounds heavier after one year,” she laughs. “So when I came back, I started finding an interest in flavoring food without all the extra fat. So that is when I started going into the natural forms of salt in sea salts.”

Jezycki officially started her business in 2009, buying salt in bulk from a Seattle company called Saltworks. She creates flavored fusion salts and salt blends, like porcini mushroom salt and smoked Serrano chili salt, which she sells in seven ounce jars priced from $19-27.  While the different types of salt have flavor on their own, Jezycki adds her own touch to them, like her Alderwood smoked salt that’s been heated to give it a natural brown color and smoky flavor.

When she first started, flavored salts weren’t as big as they are now and the options were slim. “I grew up on processed salt like Morton’s table salt. That’s iodized processed salt,” says Jezycki. Although the scientific evidence is unclear, she believes table salt is harmful and wanted to find a healthier alternative. She was familiar with Himalayan salt and grey salt, which was very big in France. “I would make my own salt blends and try to flavor the food that way and sure enough, in four months I had lost the thirty pounds,” says Jezycki. “That was when I realized, artisanal salts were not just something to sell in a store or to sit on your counter but it was definitely a way of making you healthier.”

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Flavored salts available to taste at The Filling Station in Union Square

While sea salt has the least amount of processing, table salt has additives like iodine and anti-clumping agents like calcium silicate but it’s questionable whether one type of salt is better for you than others. Steven Judelson, owner of Amagansett Sea Salt Co., has a different take on the matter. “There’s a huge business in selling blood pressure medication so that there is a huge incentive for us to believe that salt is bad for us from a medical point of view,” he says. “I believe that the evidence is very inconsistent and I think that doctors in general have been taught for years to believe that salt is bad. I choose to believe, without much scientific evidence to point at, that anything in excess is bad.”

Judelson and his wife Natalie make their own salt crystals entirely by hand straight out of the Atlantic Ocean. “Maybe as a kid you remember making rock candy?” asks Judelson. “It’s the same thing – you take water, you put sugar in it, you stir it up and dissolve the sugar. And then somehow you evaporate it either by heating it gently or keeping it out on the counter. Eventually the sugar crystallizes and you get rock candy. The same thing happens with salt.”

Judelson first became interested in salt when he was traveling as a young lawyer in the late 80s and stumbled upon salt farming in Brazil. “It was just fascinating to me, I was in the middle of nowhere, I came across acres upon acres of this shallow water that was just sitting there, slowly evaporating with these piles of salt sitting in there,” says Judelson. “And I thought it was just very cool. And then I saw the same thing in the Caribbean. And I saw the same thing in Europe. It revealed to me, you know salt water is such a part of the world out in Amagansett, could you do it here?”

He started experimenting in 2009 by solar evaporating salt outdoors and he officially started his sea salt company in 2011, farming the salt in eastern Long Island, New York. A 2 ½ ounce jar is $16.95 for the pure Amagansett sea salt and up to $24.95 for the truffle finishing salt. He started out selling 1,000 pounds of salt in his first year with a huge jump to five tons of salt by the end of this year.

According to Judelson, there are about 83 different salts dissolved in the ocean water. If you evaporate the water, you are left with the salt crystals. The taste of salt is affected by where it comes from. That explains the difference in taste between pink Himalayan salt, grey salt and other sea salts. “What changes are two different things: the organic materials that’s in the water, mostly the big fish swimming around and the little algae plankton and bacteria, those change dramatically by location and those cause taste,” he says. Himalayan salt is pink because of the iron deposits lying next to the salt deposits in the mountains, he explains. Grey salt from France is grey in color because of the mud that the salt is sitting on. It’s the minerals that the salt comes into contact with that affects the look and the taste. “It’s other flavors and additives, intentional and even unintentional, where we get all these different flavors of salt from around the world.”

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An array of flavored salts from The Filling Station

Able Blakley, a self-described “big fan of salt” and “big geek of spices” has been the owner of Savory Spice Shop in Oklahoma City for the past four years, a chain with locations in 16 states. They sell spices, herbs and over 20 types of specialty salts including Hawaiian black lava sea salt and ghost pepper salt priced from $4-24 for a 1.6-2.75 ounce small jar.

“In our shop we have French salt, Mayan from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Mexico, Portuguese, and they all have a different flavor based on where it was harvested.  We get it from all over the world,” says Blakley. He says that the shop’s line of salts has been expanding due to customer demand, especially the wildly popular pink Himalayan.

“A lot of customers will come in the shop and ask about high blood pressure, what can I do to reduce salt in my diet and I show them the Himalayan,” says Blakley. Not because the nutritional value is drastically different, he adds, but “because it has an extremely salty taste, you can use less of it.”

Judelson of Amagansett Sea Salt Co. uses sea salt because he believes it really makes his food taste that much better, not because it might be healthier. “For me, that’s not how I got into this at all,” he says. “And in fact, I know many people who will come and say I only use sea salt, it’s so good for you, I feel so much better, I’m gonna live to 120 years old – I smile, I nod my head. I believe, like in most things, moderation is best. Don’t overdo it, don’t have too much Coca Cola, don’t have too much coffee, don’t have too much wine, don’t have too much salt.”

Although Amagansett Sea Salt Co. sells plenty of flavored salts, Judelson prefers his salt white and unflavored. “If I was going to be stranded on a desert island and I could only take one salt I would probably just take the pure salt,” he says. “My wife Natalie said well that’s wonderful Steven but if this is going to be a business, you gotta do more than just the whole white grains.” The Judelsons saw a business opportunity to create an assortment of flavors so that customers would have a reason to come back to the store more often rather than just buying the plain white salt.

If Judelson could bring a second salt with him on that deserted island, he would go for his merlot wine sea salt. “We introduce the wine into the seawater as it’s evaporating so this is something that’s very hard to replicate. It’s supposed to, in my mind, tell a story,” he says. “And it tells a story to me by its flavors and its tastes, and it tastes of sea salt and it tastes of scallops and it tastes like the ocean and it brings you back some place. When I do that with the merlot wine, I think of the wine maker in Sagaponack that helped us along the way and it just brings back tremendous memories and it elevates my perception of what this dish is tasting like.”

Amagansett Sea Salt Co. now provides salt to Michelin starred restaurants across the country, including Tom Colicchio’s restaurants. They also sell to Blue Point Brewery, which makes three or four different beers out of the salt. His wife Natalie, who works at the company part time in addition to her job as assistant head of a private school in Brooklyn, is in charge of coming up with the flavors. “She just has a wonderful palette as well as a wonderful imagination,” says Judelson. “And she has an ability to say wow I love herb de provence, and I know that herb de provence adds this tremendous warmth to my foods, is this something that will work?”

Blakley of Savory Spice Shop in Oklahoma City is a chef himself and says that many people prefer kosher salt for cooking because of the size of the flakes. “They’re smaller and finer than the coarse sea salt, so you can measure it better with a pinch or two pinches that people typically use while cooking.”

Blakley believes that the purpose of salt is to enhance the flavors that are already there in the food. “People like the flavor salty, but that’s not what salt is for,” he says. “You should never ask for salt in the first place in a restaurant. It’s a big insult to the chef.”

Judelson agrees. “Salt certainly has its own flavor but my goal has never been for someone to put my salt on their food and say wow I taste Amagansett sea salt but it’s for them to put my salt on a glazed carrot and say wow, that’s the best carrot I’ve ever had,” he says. “To me, if your food tastes salty, you’ve used too much of it. If the food taste bursting, you’ve used it properly.”

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