Salt-crust technique brings out food’s flavor
It’s one thing to know salt makes food taste better. It’s another to understand that every single bite of food, from oatmeal to steak Oscar, is a culinary opportunity to be optimized with the right amount of salt. There isn’t really any other food or flavor enhancer about which you could say that.
That isn’t to say that salt must always be added, because some food contains its own. But in the absence of salt, food would be relatively bland.
Salt doesn’t as much change or add flavor as make food taste more like itself. A tomato tastes more vivid. Corn is not only sweeter but more complex. Meat tastes not only richer but juicier.
Too much salt can obscure the flavor of the food. When all you can taste is salt, something is wrong.
Restaurant and processed foods are usually salted to the hilt, but all too often, home-cooked meals end up undersalted. This is not just a rookie move. Experienced cooks are guilty of this. I’ve been scolded for it myself, in fact, more times than I should admit.
I’m fortunate enough not to have high blood pressure, so my thoughts on salt are all about flavor, taste and culinary success. For those with healthy blood pressure, evidence exists that there is no correlation between sodium intake and cardiovascular disease or stroke. This case has been pretty solid since about 2011. Nonetheless, organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association are still pushing for lower salt intake across the entire population.
Baked, salt-crusted stuff
Here is a recipe for baking things with a salt crust based on a technique I learned by studying the work of Alain Ducasse, the French chef who famously abandoned animal-based cuisine in favor of cuisine vegetal. Ducasse once enclosed a beet within a pyramid of sea salt and baked it. When the beet was done, it was extracted from the rock-hard salt with a hammer.
It isn’t necessary to build a replica of one of the seven Wonders of the World. I like to salt-coat and bake medium-to-large vegetables like potatoes and carrots as well.
But I am a bit spooked by sea salt these days, however, thanks to a recent report that found 15 of 16 samples of sea salt collected around the world were contaminated with microplastic residue from trash floating in the ocean. The only type of sea salt that’s guaranteed to be free of such residue would be salt that is mined from ancient sea beds, like the Real Salt brand mined in Utah. Kosher salt works just as well in this dish, too.
Mix a half-cup of salt with a splash of water, just enough so that you can mix it into the consistency of a snowball. Place a potato or carrot or beet onto a baking dish and pack the salt atop and around it. Bake at an appropriate time and temp for the veggie in question. For a large potato, an hour at 300 should do. Forty-five minutes for a beet or a carrot. Let the dish cool before extracting the veggie from the rock-hard coating of salt.
The potato can be served with typical fixings like butter, bacon or chives, if you wish. But first, take a taste of just plain potato. The salt will have permeated the flesh, accentuating its potato-ey essence. Salted, not salty, the baked potato is quietly elevated to something wonderful.
For the carrot, remove it from the salt crust, slice, and serve with balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil. The skin, salty and cooked bitter, provides a nice contrast to the sweet juicy soft flesh inside, while the balsamic adds its own sharp, fruity sweetness.
Serve the beet with balsamic as well, after busting it from its shell and slicing.
Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.