Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.
The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.
The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many, but seven reasons keep coming up.
Artisanal salt adds unique flavor
Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.
Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”
Good stories make good salt
Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.
“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”
Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”
Balance: Minerality vs. salinity
The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.
Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.
Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”
Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine
Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.
Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”
Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”
The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast
Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.
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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”
Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”
Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”
Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish
Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”
“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”
Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”
The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs
Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”
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Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”
Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”
Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.
Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz