When Salt Dresses Up
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There are 340 different kinds of salt in the world,” chef Wolfgang VonWieser of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas said recently. And like an increasing number of gourmands with a fascination with the mineral, he just might use them all eventually.
From its 20th-century B.C. origins as a salary for Roman soldiers, salt eventually became a mandatory member of the well-stocked modern pantry. And now it has become exotic again: It’s common to see dozens of salt choices in the grocery store and on menus, in colors from pink to black, harvested from Hawaii to the Himalayas. Expensive salts are used to “finish” dishes, meaning they are added as a final touch to add another flavor element to food, like a sprinkling of fresh herbs. These salts are not used during the cooking process. “it’s not something you put in a big pot to cook pasta,” Mr. VonWieser said. Juniper berry salt, for example, is made with gin. It’s used to garnish venison dishes and sometimes cocktail glasses. Bacon salt adds a smoky crunch to New England clam chowder and scrambled eggs. “In some cases, I think opposites attract,” he said, referring to the sprinkle of tomato salt he adds to strawberries and cream.
Mr. VonWieser started making his own flavored salts about a year and a half ago. “I just started to experiment with different things. Cloves didn’t work at all, but juniper berries worked very well.” Every other week he makes about three different flavors, such as tomato, bacon, and squid ink. He makes 20-pound batches to have enough on hand for the 15,000 to 17,000 diners that eat daily in the Bellagio.
Mr. VonWieser’s method for making flavor salts is fairly simple, even for the home cook. Start with a coarse salt with a neutral flavor (like sea salt) and moisten it with a small amount of liquid so the flavoring element can adhere to the grains. The danger is using too much liquid, which dissolves the salt. His basic ratio is two tablespoons of liquid to one pound of salt. The flavoring ingredients are usually dehydrated, then pulverized into powders, and then mixed with the salt. The salt is dried out again and then crumbled back into its original grainy consistency. Et voila! If the flavor is the liquid, then it’s as easy as adding two tablespoons of squid ink to a pound of salt and drying it out in the oven. It will keep for several months in an airtight container.
This recipe for tomato salts is the perfect way to capture the flavors of summer for a winter pantry.
4 whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 sprigs of basil
1 pound coarse sea salt
1. Coarsely chop 2 tomatoes and combine in a blender with tomato paste and basil. Blend for 20–25 seconds until mixed well.
2. Spread a 15-inch-by-15-inch piece of cheesecloth over a mixing bowl. Place the tomato mixture in the center of the cheesecloth and tie the corners together. Using butchers twine, hang the cheesecloth in the refrigerator over the bowl. Refrigerate for 4–5 hours. Clear tomato “water” will accumulate in the bowl.
3. Preheat the oven to 200ºF. Using a very sharp knife, slice the remaining tomatoes very thin. On a non-stick baking sheet, place them in a single layer. Bake for between 45 and 60 minutes, until tomato slices are dried out and crisp. Remove and cool for 30 minutes to room temperature.
4. Break the crispy tomato slices into small pieces. Using a coffee grinder, grind the pieces into a powder and set aside.
5. In a bowl, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the tomato water over the salt, stirring until well blended. Spread in a thin layer on the baking sheet and bake for about two hours, until all the moisture has evaporated. Remove and let cool to room temperature.
6. Using a spatula, scrape the salt off the baking sheet into a bowl. Crumble the salt and gently mix in the tomato powder. Store at room temperature in an airtight container. The salt will start to lose its color after two months, but it will still be flavorful and usable.