It’s all the food fashion at the moment it seems to have a pot of two of flavoured sea salt, with salt companies clambering over each other to bring them out. Take a look past the hype and you’ll see that salt mixes are exceptionally useful in the kitchen and can even be used to bring down your salt intake a little.
I’ve been concocting my own for a while now, mostly fuelled by the vast number of different herbs I grow in my garden. (I have to explain that I’ve not got a big garden: most herbs are in single, small pots as they don’t need much space and I’ve done this cheaply by saving seeds, taking cuttings, swapping herbs with friends and buying the occasional herb plant or seed packet. Herbs are for my money the easiest group of plants to grow and you need next to no space to grow four or five of your favourites).
Salt mixes can be costly when bought pre-made but it’s exceptionally easy and much cheaper to make your own. You can use the herbs in your garden, herbs bought from the greengrocer or the dried herbs and spices you already have in your kitchen.
I have a second post planned with some of my more ‘mad’ mixes, seasonal flavours and a couple of absolute classic combinations but you can easily go on to experiment with your own.
- Anything you add to a salt needs to be dry – very dry! Either start with pre-dried herbs or dry out your own ingredients in your oven or de-humidifier. I’ve given the timings and temps for ingredients I use where I can
- Use your own fresh herbs and dry them (timings in the ‘recipes’) or substitute for pre-dried herbs: it doesn’t matter
- Buy a high quality base salt for these, as cheaper salts do tend to have added extra ingredients (mostly to enable the salt to stay free flowing) and are more processed, thus taking out or negating any beneficial additional minerals
- I’ve given ingredients and ratios for a typical flavoured salt, but if you’re aiming to use a lot less salt in your cooking then don’t add quite so much as I’ve given
- Think what you’ll use the flavoured salt for – most typically these will be as a last garnish to a dish. For most of these it will be best to buy a rock or crystal salt, but if you’re using the flavouring within the early stages of a recipe there’s less need for an expensive crystal salt as it will dissolve
- You can store these in anything that will keep moisture out, such as a click lock plastic tub but they do look really gorgeous in tiny Kilner jars. However, if you’re leaving a salt out on the dining table as a pinch pot, then it really doesn’t matter what you store it in (an old cleaned out jam jar for instance), just present it in a nice little bowl on your table
- These are the ratios I’ve come to like in my salt mixes, but if you really love a particular ingredient I’ve included (or hate it) adjust to your preference
Salt – a sprinkling
There are 20-30 types of salt in the world, but it’s difficult (or impossible) to get hold of most of these, depending where you live some will be easier than others. Also, realistically, you can live with using just table salt, however if you have a couple of extra types of salt it will provide a few more options. If you want to make your own flavoured salts or use them for different purposes then four to five salts are a good arsenal to have in your kitchen.
All salt is sodium chloride (NaCl). Salt in anything other than small quantities is known to be bad for health. But use it sensibly and it can be included in a healthy person’s diet (anyone with high blood pressure or similar conditions will have been given advice on salt intake by their GP). Food can be entirely bland and disagreeable without it and it serves as a natural preserving agent. By making flavoured salts myself I believe I use a little less overall in my food as I am effectively making a dry stock – adding flavour that’s not all just salt. I don’t think it’s much of a saving, but even a little helps.
Cutting down on salt?
All salts are salty… you’ll be thinking I’m mad writing that here but there’s a preconception that some are much better for us than others as they’re more about the minerals than the salt. Don’t be fooled. Some do have added minerals but that doesn’t change the salt itself: the minerals are ‘extra’ not ‘instead of’. If you want to watch your salt intake further, then do look out for lo salt. It’s a medium-grain table salt but can easily be swapped into all the recipes below if you’re concerned (though of course you’ll lose the texture and some flavourings like the smoked salt). I believe it’s about 1/3 the sodium level of normal salts as it replaces some sodium chloride with potassium chloride and anti-caking agent. Personally I just try to use a little less salt and use other flavourings instead (hence the birth of all my salt mixes).
There are basically only two types of salt – sea and rock. All the myriad variants of salt from the stuff in the plastic salt cellar in the chip shop to Fleur-de-sel to Hawaiian red salt come from either of these two sources. I have added table salt as it’s such a difference kettle of fish because of its addition of other ingredients and its use.
Sea salt comes in various crystalline forms (from small flakes to fascinating pyramidal structures), but it’s all salt harvested from sea water. However all sea salt is not created equally (though in my opinion I don’t think there’s much taste or use differentiation, but I have not yet tried Fleur-de-sel). Most sea salts will be refined to get rid of impurities and ‘nasties’ from the sea water, with companies usually now harvesting direct from the sea and processing in a shore-line plant or an underground plant (see this from the US Salt Assoc.).
See this clip from the Cornish Sea Salt Company on YouTube:
However, the eye-wateringly expensive Fleur-de-sel is a little different. Sea water is driven off into a basin-shaped area and allowed to evaporate. The fluffy crust (the ‘flower of salt’) that forms is scraped off by hand and packaged without refinement. This only produces a small amount at each salt gather (so hand gathering + small amounts = the high price). Fleur-de-sel is not just collected in France, but in other countries too such as Portugal and Southern Russia. Due to its natural state it’s unlikely to be pure white.
After the Fleur-de-sel is taken away, the rest of the water is allowed to evaporate and larger sea salt crystals are formed, this is gros sel, which again is not refined but is more easily harvested and in larger quantities so is about 1/10th the price of Fleur-de-sel. Salt of this kind which has a lot of additional minerals to make it darker in colour is sel gris – grey salt.
Other sea salts have minerals or colours added, such as the red Hawaiian Alaea salt, which is sea salt plus red volcanic (edible) iron oxide-rich clay.
I have (or have used) sea salts from Maldon, the Cornish Sea Salt Company, Halen Môn from Anglesey (I like to keep it British, as you can tell, as far as possible), and interlopers: Falk (Swedish) and the cheaper Tidman’s (which actually is now owned by Maldon but is less expensive for pretty much the same thing – go figure?!) and the budget brand Saxa.
Rock salt is mined halite, a form of sodium chloride – it’s a very different salt to sea salt. Salt deposits that have naturally occurred (mostly but not always from ancient dried up seabeds and salt water lakes) are mined like other aggregates and broken up into usable granules or ground, then purified and recrystallised when necessary. Depending on where the salt is found geographically it will have taken on some minerals and ‘impurities’ from the surrounding area, although the term impurities could actually mean beneficial minerals. Rock salt is refined to remove harmful impurities to make it fit for human consumption, although there are some very pure sources. See this short article from erocksalt.com explaining the extraction and purification: http://www.erocksalt.com/where-rock-salt-come-from/
This is a You Tube video by Colin Morris on the Winsford Salt Mine (Cheshire, North West England):
Rock salt includes unusual salts with differing colours such as pink Himalayan salt, tinted pink from the microorganisms that once lived in the sea water in what is now known as the Punjab (note: not actually the Himalayas! That’s just a marketing ploy, apparently) it also includes chromium, iron, zinc, lead, and copper before refinement.
Kala Namek (often labelled as Indian Black Salt) is the ‘proper’ Himalayan salt as it actually does come from that region in India and Nepal. It is a dark purple to a black colour, and goes purplish-pink when ground. It’s supposed to be a bit smelly as the colour is due to sulfates. I have not tried this salt, but I’ve read that it is used not only in cooking but also Ayurvedic medicine and is considered more akin to a medicinal herb than a spice or condiment. (I’m including kala namek to show the range of colours and properties that can be seen in different rock salt due to the chemicals found in the salt, not because I have used it).
Coloured and single flavour salts
Black (carbon) salt is sea salt which is processed with additional carbon (all edible). It’s no different to other salts but is really for show. I have some myself and I love using it though you do get black fingers after sprinkling it (it does just rinse off). My salt is from Falk, a Swedish company, and I use it on deserts to give a bit of an impact and to top finished foods, like the top of breads, quiches, in salads etc. It’s wasted ‘in’ foods – it just dissolves and the colour dissipates. Relatively expensive, but I only use a minimal amount and of course salt doesn’t degrade (when kept dry) so you can have a pot that lasts for years. It’s basically following the trend for carbonised, black foods but it is a little fun – I like to sprinkle it on as the final flourish on a bright dish for some contrast: it’s basically all about the visual impact rather than any taste difference.
Smoked salts: it doesn’t sound like smoking salt should be a ‘thing’ but it’s dry smoked so it honestly does work. My smoked salt is from Maldon, the Essex-based company, and it’s got a distinctive, lovely smell and flavour which does carry over in to the food. Great for the smokier salt mixes and I always use this in chilli con carne etc and when barbecuing. It’s lasts a while, though I do go through it more quickly than the black salt (it has more applications) and is a little most costly than normal sea salt flakes, but I think it’s worth keeping on hand.
A free-running salt with very small granules. Usually exceptionally cheap and made from sea salt. Table salt comes with an anti-caking agent and sometimes even iodine added to ensure it stays free running, so check the pack and buy a reputable brand – even with a brand name it shouldn’t cost much more. Useful for adding to bread dough (as it’s so fine), adding to simmering water for pasta and veg etc (because of its cheapness) – and for putting round the garden to discourage slugs!! I keep a large packet of Italian table salt, from Amato, as I mostly use this in my bread making and baking, and I’m sure you know I do a lot of that…
For each ‘recipe’ you’ll need measuring spoons or a digital scale, a small bowl and a sterilised jam jar or Kilner jar. Most will need a pestle and mortar and some other ‘recipes’ need an extra item which will be explained in each method.
Sterilising glass jars
Put pre-washed clean glass jars in the oven at about 130˚C for 20 minutes or put them through a dishwasher cycle on your hottest setting
Be careful handling the hot jars out when done
NB: don’t put any rubber seal in the oven; it’ll just melt. Wash these in hand-hot water and leave to dry on a kitchen towel or clean tea towel
Drying fresh herbs method
My method is to bake the herbs on a layer of greaseproof paper in a 50°C oven (or your lowest setting) for 40 minutes, then crush.
“Recipes” – all are vegetarian
- Himalayan pink salt or Cornish sea salt – 1 tablespoon
- Seaweed mix‡ – 1 tablespoon
- Black or multi colour pepper – ½ teaspoon
- Dried borage flowers – 1 teaspoon (don’t pack tightly and pick the bluest ones)
- Dried rose petals – 1 teaspoon (don’t pack tightly)
‡ either a pre-packed seaweed mix or use a mix of dulse, nori, wakame, kelp and/or sea spaghetti (whatever you can find).
I have the Sea Salad mix from the Cornish Seaweed company
Method: the dried seaweed does need to be in small particles to match the salt. If you’ve bought each seaweed separately or the packet mix is large pieces, break up the seaweed in a pestle and mortar, or put it in a plastic food bag and roll a rolling pin over it to break it up. The dried borage and rose petals may need chopping up slightly.
Some uses: in Chinese and Japanese inspired recipes, fish dishes, shellfish dishes, fish pie, great on homemade crisps.
Fiery chilli (hot, hot, hot!!)
- Himalayan (keeps the pink/red colour of the mix) or normal white rock salt – 1 tablespoon
- dried birds eye chilli – 2 chillies
- paprika – ¼ teaspoon
- chilli flakes – ½ teaspoon
- chilli powder – ¼ teaspoon
- cayenne – ¼ teaspoon
- black pepper (freshly ground) – ¼ teaspoon
- onion granules – ¼ teaspoon
- garlic granules – ¼ teaspoon
Method: pound the dried birds eye chillies in a pestle and mortar before combining with the rest of the ingredients.
Some uses: curries, chilli con carne and other Mexican dishes, paella, mixed with some oil it makes a great rub for barbecue or roast meats and is excellent on wedges or chips.
- Rock salt – 1 tablespoon
- dried porcini mushrooms – 4g
- onion granules – 1 teaspoon
Method: the dried porcini mushrooms need to be either whizzed in a blender or crushed in a pestle and mortar. If using a pestle and mortar, put the rock salt in with the mushrooms as it gives extra grip and makes it easier. Do not rehydrate them (keep them dry). Once the porcini are crushed into a powder/small pieces you can mix them in with the salt and the garlic and onion granules.
Some uses: for risotto, for added oomph to vegetarian dishes or meat casseroles, good with chicken and pork.
- Black sea salt – 1 dessert spoon (10ml)
- black onion seeds – ½ teaspoon
- seaweed mix – 1 ½ teaspoons
- Szechuan peppercorns – ¼ teaspoon
- Chinese five spice – ¼ teaspoon
Method: crush the Szechuan peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, including the seaweed at the end if it needs crushing smaller. Mix altogether.
Some uses: Thai, Chinese and Japanese style recipes where you want a little kick (Szechuan peppercorns are quite something!!) or add to a dark soy sauce as an Asian-style marinade for tofu, fish, chicken or pork.
- Fine sea salt flakes – 1 tablespoon
- garlic granules – 1 teaspoon
- onion granules – 1 teaspoon
- fresh ground black pepper – ½ teaspoon
- vegetable bouillon powder – 1 teaspoon (or use a low sodium a vegetable stock cube)
- dried orange zest – ½ teaspoon
- dried parsley (see note above about drying fresh herbs – ½ teaspoon
Method: Zest an orange (or more) and follow the drying method for herbs above. Combine with the rest of the ingredients once the zest is cooled.
Some uses: basically this is a pumped-up vegetable stock cube! Use wherever you would normally use a stock cube but don’t want to add two. Also this is great when mixed with flour or breadcrumbs as a batter or breadcrumb coating for vegetables and meats.