The Magic of Sea Salt
A trio of salt makers reveal the hidden powers of this humble ingredient — and remind us how to properly season our food
Samin Nosrat says that salt is one of the four foundations of cooking. Anna Jones says ingredients often need nothing but a scattering of good sea salt to shine; and Yotam Ottolenghi says salt is ‘vital’ in any dish, both sweet and savoury.
What other single ingredient not only enhances our food to make the other components taste more of themselves, but brings all the elements of a dish together so it sings with deliciousness? Any chef worth their salt knows that it’s the most important ingredient in their kitchen. And it’s not just about flavour, these crystals contain trace elements needed for our very survival. Essential for numerous bodily functions, the sodium and potassium in salt is so crucial that even messages to the brain depend upon its presence. So isn’t it about time we re-educated ourselves about this humble kitchen staple?
Research has shown that people living within one kilometre of the coast are thought to be happier. Victorian Britain loved seaweed and saltwater bathhouses for intense relaxation. The start of our own obsession with sea salt began in 1997. Back then we had set up and were running an aquarium as a tourist attraction. For nearly 15 years, it showcased the wide variety of sealife to be found around our small but beloved Welsh island of Anglesey. We quickly realised that the raw material which sustained all our sealife — the seawater itself — was exceptionally clean. Much to our surprise, we were able to breed notoriously fussy seahorses, because they were so content in their sparkling environment. So when tourism numbers began to drop and times were tough, we began to think about what else we could do with that seawater.
After a lot of brainstorming (and some pretty awful ideas), we made our first batch of sea salt armed with simple curiosity, a saucepan and an Aga. What happened that day was no major breakthrough, but there was enough promise in that pan and process to get us excited. Something about starting with a liquid — an overlooked raw material that we were surrounded by — and ending up with a solid element so pure and so vital, was magical. There was no doubt about it, we were hooked.
While it’s true that anyone can make salt (and in our book we encourage you to have a go), what we have discovered by making it every day for more than 20 years is that the mastery of the process is both an art and a science. Today we supply a number of the world’s top 50 restaurants and chefs — from Heston Blumenthal in the UK to Dan Barber in New York.
So if world-class chefs know about the hidden powers of this humble ingredient, why is it that even today, salt seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons? Many consumers fear it in any quantity being, understandably, concerned about their health. Perhaps you’re one of them. But, to put it bluntly, we think we can change your mind.
On average, 75 per cent of our salt consumption is in ready-prepared foods, and, as we peel back the plastic lid of our microwave meal, many of us have no idea what ingredients we’re putting into our bodies. With our busy lives, relentless schedules and the huge variety of delicious options for takeaway food, we simply don’t cook from scratch nearly as much as we did even a generation ago — and this is having consequences for our health. Most of our grandmothers seemed to know the ingredients that made up our dinners, but we don’t. And it’s not only that, somewhere along the way we lost everyday culinary skills — from basic meat preparation to bread making to the crucial understanding of using salt to season our food properly. Our reliance on pre-prepared foods has made us less able to season our food confidently and competently, and when we do cook, we’re wary of using any salt at all.
We’re not suggesting that everyone go back to plucking their own chickens and curing their own meats (though we’d be delighted if more of us did!) but how to season food is a lost skill that we need to be reminded of.
Why we use salt for cooking
Salt makes foods sing by enlivening and enhancing individual flavours. Used in chocolate cookies, for example, it makes the cocoa taste more intense and chocolatey and the butter more buttery. It balances out the high-pitched sweetness of caster sugar. It suppresses bitterness (which we are hard-wired to avoid too much of); simply, it brings out savoury and sweet flavours in foods.
Whether a Sunday roast or an elaborate display of a chef’s ‘vision and talents’, we have all experienced the disappointment that comes from dining on a plate of bland food that hasn’t been properly seasoned. What should be a celebratory dance on our palate often ends as nothing more than a poorly performed two-step; the food missing the peaks and valleys of flavour present in a carefully seasoned plate (an over-salted meal is equally, if not more, depressing). Seasoning with salt should not be a random act, rather one of calculated purpose, supported by the cook’s own instinct and tastes. Layered and considerate, proper seasoning showcases not only the quality of the ingredients in the dish, but in many ways, the skill of the cook.
Always seasoning, always tasting
Good cooks taste. A lot. How much salt is needed in a dish is often determined by when it is added. It’s important to try your dish at every stage. Just putting a little dab of the food on the end of a teaspoon and rolling it across your palate can help determine how much salt to add. Seasoning in different stages helps to produce food that is more refined and, ultimately, more enjoyable.
A common mistake of the home cook is only to season at one step during the cooking process. But for a plate of food to sing, salt must be added in small doses throughout each stage of a recipe (remember, natural sea salt is stronger so you don’t need so much. Less is more). As salt producers, we believe that while salt should be used consistently throughout most cooking processes, we should avoid the temptation to over-season. The characteristics of a good salt — its slight sweetness, minerality, clean brininess — shine through best when used in thoughtful amounts. Bland food without salt is a sad loss, but it is nonetheless still edible. But a dish that took hours to prepare will be for nothing if it’s too salty.
The recipe that follows showcases sea salt’s versatility and range. Sprinkled on the raw cut tomatoes it helps to dehydrate the fruit and concentrate the sugars in the oven; it draws moisture from the onions, softening them as they cook; and a final pinch of flaky sea salt adds a layer of crunch to the sweet tomatoes. So before you get stuck in, we hope you have enjoyed this sprinkling of recollections and knowledge, and that it encourages you to look again at this humblest of ingredients. May it also encourage you to change how you use this seasoning. Most of all, we hope that you rediscover its magical qualities for yourself.
Tomato and red onion tart
Serves 4, generously
1kg/2lb 2oz tomatoes, of all shapes and sizes
¾ tsp fine sea salt
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 red onions, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
100g/½ cup spinach, washed
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 sheet of puff pastry, 32cm x 24cm / 12 x 9in
a pinch of flaky sea salt
Preheat the oven to 120ºC/250ºF/Gas ½.
Halve the tomatoes around their middles and arrange on a roasting tray. Sprinkle over half a teaspoon of sea salt and a grinding of black pepper. Place in the middle of the oven for 1½–2 hours but keep an eye on the smaller cherry tomatoes as they’ll cook much more quickly. The tomatoes are done when their skins are blistered but not burnt.
While the tomatoes are cooking, heat a 23cm/9in oven-proof frying pan over a medium heat and add a splash of olive oil.
Add the red onions and ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and cook, stirring regularly for 8–10 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so before adding the spinach and lemon zest. Cook for a couple more minutes until the spinach wilts and becomes bright green and glossy. Take off the heat and drain any excess moisture through a sieve, pushing the spinach down with the back of a wooden spoon. Wipe the pan down with kitchen paper to dry, then rub a little olive oil around the sides. Set aside for later.
When the tomatoes have had their time, remove from the oven then turn it up to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas 4. Pour a little more olive oil (about 1 tablespoon) into the bottom of the frying pan. Place the tomatoes cut-side down over the base of the pan (don’t worry if there is some overlap). Arrange the onion and spinach mixture on top, then cut a sheet of pastry just larger than the rim. Lay the pastry over the spinach and tomato mix and pinch the sides in, tucking it around the spinach and tomatoes.
Place in the oven for 25–30 minutes, until the pastry is deep golden and has puffed up. Allow the tart to cool for 5 minutes before running a spatula around the edge to loosen the sides, then place a slightly larger plate over the top. Holding the pan and plate together with an oven-gloved hand on each side, bravely flip the pan over and give it a sharp knock to loosen any sticky tomatoes.
Sprinkle over a pinch of flaky salt and serve with a green salad.
Alison and David Lea-Wilson started Halen Môn, the Anglesey Sea Salt company, in 1997. They have always made a living from the sea — first as fishmongers, then aquarium owners — and have been fascinated by the process of making sea salt. In 2017, Halen Môn won the Queen’s Award for Sustainability, and in 2019, Alison and David were awarded MBEs for their services to business. Their daughter, Jess, is a writer and designer who has worked in the food industry her whole working life.