Timothy Charles, at the exquisite Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, showed me the precious harvest in his palm.
I had been impressed with the flavor of a tiny sprinkle of sparkling sea salt over hotel-churned butter that was served in a small cup with bread during my stay. It reminded me of Suzushio sea salt from Japan, which I have been using for the past 14 years in my kitchen. Displaying the salt in his hand, Charles told me that they do small-scale sea salt production in their own hotel kitchen.
Why salt is necessary
Proper intake of salt and the choice of quality salt are vital to healthy living. Salt — in my case, sea salt — is the most important and frequently used ingredient in my kitchen. Without proper salt, no food presents its best taste. A tiny sprinkle of good salt over a slice of sun-ripened heirloom tomato opens up its deep, heavenly flavor. Very basic dressing made of excellent cold-pressed olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice desperately needs excellent salt; it is as crucial as the other ingredients. A lightly salted fillet of uncooked fish exudes all its off-flavor elements from its surface, and the salt firms up the muscle meat — both key to producing a delicious simply grilled fish.
When I prepare stir-fried vegetables, I add a pinch of salt along with aromatics and the vegetables to the wok in order to highlight the best flavor of each individual ingredient. No further flavoring is needed. Salt makes the dish complete.
My Suzushio sea salt comes from the Noto Peninsula on the Japan Sea in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture. It is a basic, daily-use, high-quality, artisanal salt. It has higher mineral content than most other salts, resulting in a salt that is balanced in acidity, sweetness, saltiness and astringency. Magnesium chloride, potassium chloride, sodium chloride, calcium chloride and trace minerals are responsible for these flavors.
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Good salt does not taste strikingly salty; it is complex and flavorful. And most important, this mineral-rich sea salt contributes to our health.
Making Suzushio sea salt
Suzushio sea salt is made at the Nihon Shinkaien Sangyo Co., founded in 2002 by Shoji Koyachi. Koyachi devised the best and most efficient way to concentrate the salt in sea water under the challenge of Japan’s humid climate. He built a factory room with what look like Venetian blinds made of reeds to do the evaporation and concentration process. Two sets each of 22 “blinds,” connected at the top by a long bar near the ceiling, are hung, reaching down to the floor.
Forty thousand liters of sea water, collected from deep waters offshore, are sprayed over these “blinds.” The water drips down the reeds, allowing for evaporation and concentration; it is then collected at the floor and sprayed over and over again on the reeds for nine days. By the end of the process, the concentration of salt in the water has increased more than threefold to 10 percent. In an adjoining room, there are huge 7-foot-diameter iron pots with stainless steel liners.
Each pot is filled with the concentrated sea water, which is cooked down to perfect salt crystals over a wood fire.
Junko Tsunetoshi has been the salt maker since the beginning of the operation. She stirs the steaming cooking pot with a long wooden spatula for eight hours every day.
Her eyes and hands never stop tending the pot for the entire one-week crystallization operation.
Fogo Island sea salt
The production of sea salt at the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland has a different story. Charles and his crew put buckets out into shallow water at the shore, close to the Fogo Island Inn, during the winter. The water is so clean they do not need to venture out offshore to collect it.
The 60 liters of sea water in the buckets freezes in the cold climate. As less salty ice forms at the top, very salty water is concentrated in the bottom of the bucket. They retrieve the partially frozen bucket from the shore and bring it to the kitchen.
After removing concentrated salt water from the bucket, they cook it down in a pot to 5 to 6 liters. Then they spread it on a nonreactive plastic container and dry it to crystals using a gentle breeze from an electric fan. It takes 24 hours to produce the fine granules. Since the process requires extensive energy consumption, the wintertime production remains small. But according to Charles, summer can bring an entirely different method of salt production — foraging a sheet of sparkling naturally crystalized sea salt that has formed directly on the dark-colored rock lining the shore near the inn.
As I write this article, I know that Charles is watching for this natural salt creation every day. “A very special good weather pattern needs to create such a miracle,” he just wrote me.
Sea salt connects people and nature, and I have seen this connection in two places very distant and very different from each other.
How I use sea salt in my kitchen
Preparation of Fish for Salt Grilling or Skillet Cooking
1. Apply evenly 2 percent salt to the weight of the fish fillet over the fish; let it stand 15 minutes.
2. Gently and quickly rinse the fish under cold tap water to remove excess salt and exuded water. Wipe the fish thoroughly.
3. You may apply a little bit of new salt and cook. (When I fillet a whole, very fresh fish, after salting and resting the filets I simply wipe the fish with a paper towel without rinsing in order to preserve the best flavor. But this is only applicable for the very freshest fish that you have purchased from a trusted fisherman and filleted yourself.)
Quick Pickled Red Radishes
7 ounces red and purple radishes, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar
In a bowl, toss the radishes with the salt; let the radishes stand for 15 minutes. Gently squeeze the radishes to remove excess water. Add the sugar and rice vinegar and toss.
Gomashio (Sea Salt and Sesame Seeds) for Sprinkling on Cooked Rice
1. In a small skillet, toast 3 tablespoons black sesame seeds over low heat until each seed is heated through and plump.
2. Add and mix 2 teaspoons of sea salt and let the mixture cool. Store it in a bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
3. Add sea salt to your stir-frying, simmering and braising pot or skillet as you as add other ingredients. (Adding salt at the end of cooking to flavor the dish does not develop the best flavor in the resulting preparation.)
Main photo: Crystal-clear water used for salt production splashes back and forth in front of Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo