Salt. It’s been a culinary and dietary staple as well as a form of barter and payment since ancient times. Similar to the act of smoking foods, it also has served as a seasoning and, more important, as a means of preserving meats and fish. Without it, foods such as gravlax, bacalhau and jerky would not exist.
Because salt, like smoke, acts as both a cure and flavoring, I’ve been skeptical about the jars of smoked salts that I see lining the shelves of spice shops. Preserving a preservative and seasoning a seasoning seem a bit redundant to me.
Doubt hasn’t stopped me, though, from purchasing and trying out an assortment of wood-smoked sea salts. After repeated use I must admit that these salts offer a fast, simple way to add a hint of smokiness to my cooking. (Check out the recipe for Smoked Corn Flan below.)
The exact origin of smoked salt remains unknown. Most purveyors assume it began on a whim, when a smoking enthusiast tossed a dish of salt crystals into his smokehouse to see what would happen. What occurred was the creation of a tangy, fragrant salt.
Smoked salts for every taste
Today, salt smoking is no mere fancy. Artisanal and mass producers around the globe generate a seemingly endless variety of smoked salts. Enjoy the scent and flavor of cypress, alder, cherry, oak or maple trees? You can buy sea salts smoked with these woods or with such plants as mesquite and guava. Love wine? You can spice up your meals with salts infused with the scent of burning wine barrels.
In 1998, Steve Cook started smoking salts at the Maine Sea Salt Co. Spurred on by a customer’s request, he placed solar evaporated sea salts into a converted household smoker and cold-smoked his first batch of sea salt. Fourteen years later these smoked salts account for approximately 20% of the Marshfield company’s annual sales.
Using Maine apple and shagbark hickory trees, the company produces salts with which consumers can cook or finish dishes. “Apple is easy to work with and has a mild, slightly sweet taste. Hickory salt is stronger, with a smoky bite that goes well with red meats,” Cook says, noting his customers often employ the former for finishing and the latter for rubs and marinades.
On Long Island, N.Y., Smokehouse Spices designs its smoked sea salts primarily for finishing dishes. Featuring five hardwoods and mesquite, its salts enhance and meld with the flavors of savory foods. “With the apple smoked salt, you pick up on the subtle apple flavor,” Marie Provetto of Smokehouse Spices says. She adds that this salt goes especially well with summer tomatoes and on insalata caprese.
In addition to tomatoes and meat rubs, I’ve found that smoked salts add complexity to salsas and sauces. They also give some zing to seafood, meats, pasta, salads and vegetables. Sprinkled over chocolate puddings, iced cakes and truffles, they provide a pleasant tang to otherwise cloyingly sweet treats.
Although I can buy smoked salts online, in grocery stores such as Whole Foods and in spice shops, I can also make my own. All I need is a commercial smoker or grill, soaked wood chips, coarse sea salt and a grease splatter guard or perforated pie pan.
After setting up my grill or smoker, I spread the salt across the splatter guard or pan, put it in the grill, cover and allow it to smoke for 40 minutes to 45 minutes. At that time I stir the crystals so they get evenly coated by smoke and then cover the grill again. I repeat these steps until the salt has achieved the desired color and aroma. Once the salt cools completely, I spoon it into airtight containers.
As simple as this process sounds, smoking salt can be tricky. Temperature is the biggest nemesis. “If it’s too cold, the smoke doesn’t stick. Too hot — above 200 F — the smoke burns off and the salt becomes bitter,” Cook says.
With this in mind, I’ll leave smoking to the professionals. Instead I’ll continue to tinker with the wide array of smoked sea salts available for sale.
Smoked Corn Flan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups frozen corn
2 tablespoons minced shallot (about 1 small shallot)
2 large eggs
1½ cup reduced-fat milk
¾ teaspoon smoked sea salt, divided
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease four 5-ounce ramekins or ovenproof bowls.
2. Melt the unsalted butter in a medium sauté pan. Add the corn and shallots and sauté until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Spoon the mixture into the bowl of a blender or food processor and purée.
4. In a large bowl or pitcher, whisk together the eggs, milk, half the salt and black pepper. Add the corn purée and whisk again to combine.
5. Pour the flan mixture into the greased ramekins. Place the ramekins in a baking pan about one-third full of water; the water should come halfway up the ramekins.
6. Bake for 50 minutes to 60 minutes or until the flans have puffed up and browned slightly. Sprinkle the remaining sea salt over the tops. Serve hot.
Photo: Smoked salt. Credit: Kathy Hunt