If you're looking to give a book to a friend or family member this holiday, NPR Books editor Petra Mayer shares her picks.
Fancy salts are popping up in gourmet stores across the country. Here & Now Resident Chef Kathy Gunst brings a sampling of gourmet salts for Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson to try.
Gunst says these are not salts to use in cooking, but rather as a last minute addition.
“What’s great is that it gives you control over your seasoning. The idea behind a lot of these is that you make salt a deliberate act, as opposed to just throwing tons of it in and then afterwards being like ‘oh, woops…too much.'”
To learn more or to buy any of these salts, Gunst recommends:
Salt Traders / Didi Davis Food
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And now we want to talk salt. Not the stuff that melts ice or prepares slopes though shortages of that kind of salt have been much in the news.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Yeah. We're spicing up the show - sorry - with a conversation about the salt we eat. Gourmet salts have been making their way into stores around the country. There are even places that sell nothing but fancy salts with flavors like chili and other spices.
YOUNG: Well, HERE AND NOW's own salt of the Earth - sorry. We're going to keep doing that.
YOUNG: Resident chef Kathy Gunst has been collecting all different kinds of salts. And so we're going to have a salt tasting. Kathy, welcome to the studio as always.
KATHY GUNST, BYLINE: Hello to both of you. Yeah. Let's call this salt 101...
HOBSON: Salt 101. All right.
GUNST: ...because I just got a kind of quickie education about all this, and it is fascinating. There's a guy named Mark Bitterman. Ready for this? He's a selmmelier(ph), not a sommelier like French wine. He owns a bunch of stores called The Meadow. They're in Portland, Oregon, and New York. And it's an artisanal boutique. And before you start gagging and saying, oh, those yuppie gourmet people, this is really interesting.
There is a huge difference between that stuff in the shaker, which is iodized and has very few minerals, and sea salts that come - it's a natural product that comes out of the sea. And you can spend all kinds of money or not very much. But you have to put it in perspective. At The Meadow, Mark Bitterman sells salts from around $5. Then there's this really super rare Korean salt that's 35 bucks an ounce.
GUNST: But the idea with these salts is they are called finishing salts. When you're cooking something, let's say, you're grilling a cauliflower, Robin, or for you, a steak...
GUNST: OK? And...
HOBSON: Chicken. OK?
GUNST: Ok. Chicken.
HOBSON: I'm not just sitting here eating steak all day. But all right.
GUNST: Good to know. So these are not the kind of salts that you would put on the raw meat or even the raw vegetable and grill or roast or saute. When the food is done, you then put this finishing salt on so you can control the amount of salt that you use and you get to play with the taste.
YOUNG: Well, speaking of taste...
HOBSON: We have a whole plate of different colored salts here on the table in front of us, Kathy.
GUNST: We do. So are you ready start?
GUNST: OK. Let's start with number one. You have before you bread and unsalted butter and you also have cucumber. So you choose what you want to put it on, but it's hard to taste these many salts just straight. So sprinkle it on the bread or the cucumber. This is called the fleur de sel. Why don't you taste while I explain a little bit.
YOUNG: OK. And we should say, again, there's all these granules of salt that we have. This is a - it's certainly thicker than a table salt. It's all white.
GUNST: Coarser. It's very white. Thank you, Robin. We do need to explain because there's a huge difference in colors and textures. This is a hand-harvested salt. It's quite delicate. And this is considered a moist salt. So when you put that in your mouth, can you understand about the notion of moisture with this salt? It's not super dry. It's got a rich mineral content. And fleur de sel is very much defined by how moist it is. This kind of salt would be amazing on eggs or tomatoes.
YOUNG: You know what, I get it. It does feel like something that explodes in a moist way. And there's a moisture there.
GUNST: Exactly. Yeah. And...
HOBSON: Pop Rocks.
HOBSON: That's what it is.
GUNST: OK. Meat and candy. We got you down. Let's go to number two. Now, what do you notice immediately about this second salt?
YOUNG: It's off-white, more of a gray.
HOBSON: Much thicker.
YOUNG: Much thicker.
GUNST: Exactly. And this is called - and I won't pronounce it correctly - sel gris or sel gris...
HOBSON: Or gray salt.
GUNST: Exactly. Noimoutier. Over 15 percent of the material in this salt is trace minerals. It's got one of the highest mineral contents of all finishing salts. And this is the kind of salt that - it's chunky. You taste that texture. It's getting a little bit...
HOBSON: It's got a little bit of a kick to it.
GUNST: It does have a bit of a kick. And again, your mouth just - it expands, I think. I love this salt.
YOUNG: (Unintelligible) after. It's going on for a while here.
YOUNG: Yeah. It's quite something. I could see maybe putting this in something that you're breading so you have that crunchy taste.
GUNST: Well, if it were for after, sure. But I can't imagine that just on a fried egg, how the flavor of the egg would pop.
HOBSON: Oh, yeah.
GUNST: This is the thing about salt is it brings out the natural flavors in other foods.
HOBSON: OK. What about this black one?
GUNST: Yeah. What about it?
HOBSON: This is number three.
GUNST: Number three, black diamond. There's an obvious difference here. This is black, and it's flaky and it's like a pyramid-shaped crystal.
HOBSON: And it's not made from coal ash, right?
GUNST: It is...
HOBSON: Because we heard recently that that really isn't very good for you.
GUNST: Well, this is combined with activated natural charcoal, and it imparts its deep, black favor. It's intense. It's bold. It's got a faint tannic flavor. Think of this black, big crystal on top of risotto or mashed potatoes or pasta where that black color and flavor is really going to pop. All right. Ready for number four?
GUNST: This is super cool.
YOUNG: That - this looks like sand, almost. It's a brown...
GUNST: Doesn't it?
YOUNG: Very, very, very fine.
GUNST: This is a Hawaiian sea salt. It's from the island of Kauai, and it's called the guava smoked salt.
HOBSON: Oh, wow.
GUNST: And it's hand harvested and really limited production. It's made by filtering in sea water twice, and then it's exposed to ultraviolet light to further purify it. Again, a moist salt, it's...
HOBSON: Very smoky.
GUNST: It's very smoky, which is so interesting because if you're just cooking something in a skillet and you add a little of this natural smoke flavor, you're going to get a food that's very complex and tastes like it's grilled over in open fire but, in fact, it's not. This, you know, it was made by being smoked over wild guava wood. Now, again, like, let's say that you spent $20 on this. This will last you for years. You're going to use a very little bit, and it's going to pop the flavors of whatever else you're cooking with.
YOUNG: This is amazing. It really is smoky.
HOBSON: Whenever you need to feel like you're in Kauai...
GUNST: That's right. You open the salt.
HOBSON: ...you just have some of this salt and you're there.
GUNST: I don't know if that's going to work for me. It's been a harsh winter.
YOUNG: Wow. That's really different.
GUNST: OK. Number five, we're almost done, folks. This is a beautiful salt. You see it's kind of pink and red. This is an Aleppo chili salt. These are seasoned salts, that last two. This is different. This is taking a natural sea salt and adding flavorings. So in this case, they are Aleppo chilies.
HOBSON: Ooh, spicy.
GUNST: Again, I knew you'd like that. Eggs, Middle Eastern dishes, putting it into olive oil and dipping bread into it. This is made in Ipswich, Mass., from Salt Traders. Really, really interesting, I think, like, just a depth of flavor that - imagine on a burrito or a taco, but it doesn't even have to be a Latin dish.
YOUNG: Well, you, in the past, gave me packets of - excuse me - flavored salts that were - some were savory. Some were very, very sweet.
YOUNG: And that's what we're talking about here as opposed to the other salts that have their own taste.
GUNST: Nice segue, Robin, because number six...
YOUNG: OK. All right.
GUNST: See if you can identify the flavor there. Yeah, take a cucumber, have some water.
HOBSON: By the way, we were not given any advance warnings, so that segue was completely off the cuff.
GUNST: This is an honest piece of radio here, people, OK? Number six, to complete the flavor spectrum...
YOUNG: Oh, it's - what is that? It's sweet.
GUNST: Yes. Yes. You want it?
GUNST: More basic. Jeremy? You're awfully quiet over there.
YOUNG: If this were "Jeopardy!," we would be so...
GUNST: You'd be out. Alex would be booting you. How about vanilla?
YOUNG: Oh, yeah.
GUNST: That is vanilla salt. Obviously, wonderful to use for desserts with making homemade chocolates, a caramel sauce.
YOUNG: It was delicious.
GUNST: Oh, a chocolate tart. But also, imagine this vanilla salt on wintered squash or shellfish or even corn. Again, these flavor combinations - you can do whatever you want with them. They're just out there to play with. There's no hard and fast rules. Again, these are finishing salts. They're added after cooking. What's great is that it gives you control over your seasoning. The idea behind a lot of this is that you make salt a deliberate act as opposed to just throwing tons of it in, and then afterwards being like, oops, too much.
YOUNG: Fantastic. We'll have pictures and more information about different kinds of salts at hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: Kathy, thanks so much.
GUNST: Hey, thanks for tasting.
YOUNG: And, of course, you guys, I do feel, I must say, a little sick. We had too much salt.
YOUNG: And that reminds us that anything that can be bad for you, it can be bad if it's taken in excess. So check with your doctor first. We're just talking about tiny amounts of very powerful salt.
HOBSON: Although they are really delicious, if I must say.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Experts share a range of perspectives on how to combat the Islamic State militant group, and the role the U.S. should play.