Have you ever stopped to think about what salt tastes like, aside from tasting salty? It’s an ingredient that doesn’t often take the center stage. Where ingredients like saffron, cumin, and cinnamon are the main sources of a dish’s flavor, salt is oftentimes added as an afterthought, occupying the last line of recipes that suggest it only be “added to taste.”
As a result, most home cooks don’t put much thought into salt. It’s perceived as simple – an ingredient that doesn’t seem to have much variation to it. On a molecular level, it’s a mineral compound, primarily made up of sodium chloride. But it’s a compound that helps compound the flavors of what we’re cooking. A small pinch can enhance the sweetness of chocolate, reduce the tartness of citrus, bring depth to meats and pungency to stews, all while adding a satisfying texture and crunch to everything it’s sprinkled on. And despite its pretty straight forward chemical composition, salt comes in a wide range of flavors that can add incredible complexity to your home cooking.
Unlike other spices in the pantry, salt isn’t an agricultural product. Instead, it is an ingredient that’s extracted from the Earth whether it be mined from an underground salt deposit or harvested from the sea. Where it comes from and how it’s collected can make a world of a difference in quality and taste. “There is a difference in salt everywhere you go in the world,” says David Iannicello, owner and salt producer of Syracuse Salt Company.
Photos by Kae Lani Palmisano
Syracuse, New York is situated on top of an ancient ocean that, over millennia, created a salty aquifer underneath the city. During the 18th century, Syracuse was one of the nation’s leading suppliers of salt, earning it the nickname “Salt City.” Salt became so ingrained in the city’s cultural identity, Syracuse Salt Potatoes, a dish made of potatoes boiled in a salty brine, became an iconic dish of the region.
However, over time, the process of pumping the salty groundwater up from the wells and evaporating the water with large iron kettles became too expensive. By the late 19th century, harvesting sea salt and shipping it across the country became cheaper. And just as the water evaporates from the salt, so did the salt industry from Syracuse.
Through Syracuse Salt Company, Iannicello and his co-founding daughter, Libby Croom, hope to bring the culture of salt back to the city while educating people on how quality salt can be a real game changer in the kitchen. They specialize in harvesting and producing Salina Crystal Salt, a large, pyramid shaped salt that brings a briny sweetness to everything it’s added to.
Photos by Syracuse Salt Company (left) & Kae Lani Palmisano (right)
Despite coming from an ancient ocean, the salt Iannicello and his daughter produce is different from sea salt. “Sea water is somewhere around 3% to 3.5% salinity,” says Iannicello. “The water we’re pumping out of the ground is 13%, which is around four times saltier than the ocean.”
Once pumped out of the ground, the salty brine is slowly evaporated at around 125°F to 130°F, which is key in how Iannicello’s salt achieves that unique multi-dimensional shape. “The quicker you evaporate the water, the smaller the flake,” says Iannicello, adding that the speed of evaporation depends on whether the salt brine is boiled or if the brine is solar evaporated. When the water is evaporated from the brine, what is left are salt crystals, which, in the case of Salina Crystal Salt, are large, crunchy flakes.
“It’s just so pure and clean because it’s from an ancient underground salt deposit and the aquifers are running over these salt crystals embedded in the shale,” says Ethan Frisch. “Often you find with sea salt or mined rock salt that there are other minerals that can add off flavors. But the purity of the flavor of these crystals is really striking.” Frisch is the Co-Founder of Burlap & Barrel, a single origin spice company that focuses on sourcing ingredients from small farms, cooperatives and independent producers like Syracuse Salt Company.
Photos by Burlap & Barrel
According to Frisch, there are two broad categories of salt meant for the kitchen: cooking salt and finishing salt. Cooking salts are meant to be dissolved into whatever you’re cooking like a stew, a pot of beans, or when you’re preparing a pot of water to cook noodles. Among Burlap & Barrel’s repertoire of intentionally selected spices is the Black Mineral Salt, a Himalayan mined rock salt from Uttar Pradesh, India. Traditionally called kala namak, black salt in Hindi, this salt goes through an intense kiln firing process. Fired for 24 hours at temperatures upwards of 1,400°F, the end result is a powdery salt with a sulfuric, egg-like taste that adds an incredible savory flavor to stews and beans, as well as noodles and even rice.
The other category, finishing salt, is a bit different. “What you’re looking for in finishing salt is flavor that supports all the other flavors in the dish as well as texture,” says Frisch. “A flaky and crunchy salt makes a big difference in dishes as simple as avocado toast or scrambled eggs.”
In addition to offering home cooks and chefs the Salina Crystal Salt, Burlap & Barrel hand-blends the iconic salt flakes with other spices to create uniquely flavorful finishing salts. The Balsam Fir Salt marries the sweet pine aromas of Balsam fir tree needles, freshly sprouted in the spring, from the sugar maple forest of New York’s Adirondack mountains, with the salty crunch of Syracuse Salt Company’s signature crystals. There’s also the Black Lime & Chili Salt, a citrusy spicy salt that adds incredible depth to dishes like elote, hummus, and baba ghanoush.
That salty essence that we often crave doesn’t always have to come directly from salt. “Tomatoes are naturally high in sodium,” says Frisch, explaining the inspiration behind developing Burlap & Barrel’s Sun-Dried Tomato Powder. Sun dried tomatoes can impart a subtly salty, umami, acidity to any dish, making the powder a perfect addition to any meat rub or to garnish roasted vegetables.
Photos by Burlap & Barrel (left) & Kae Lani Palmisano (right)
Seaweed, which derives a fair amount of salinity from growing in the ocean, is another complexly flavored alternative. Nori, a seaweed that is often used to wrap sushi, imparts a subtle brininess to the raw fish, as well as an umami taste to ramen.
In order to leverage the abundant flavor of seaweed, Burlap & Barrel started sourcing Wild Icelandic Kelp from the cold waters of the Westfjords in Iceland. “It does a great job as a sort of finishing salt alternative on seafood,” says Frisch. He also recommends using it in soups and stews. “Not only does it add an umami salinity, it also has a little bit of a thickening effect in broths and stocks.”