This July Fourth, I won’t be grilling the usual suspects. Instead, I’ll be showing off my latest food fascination and slowly heating bricks of rose-colored, translucent salt on the grill, then using them to sear shrimp and vegetables. Or, I might use them to grill moist, delicately flavored chicken with crispy skin. I might even freeze a salt block to make ice cream.
Himalayan salt blocks have been around for several years. Intrigued by their beauty, I bought a 9-inch round stone for $25 a decade ago. It held promise as a novel serving platter and culinary tool, but I feared it would oversalt food and was timid about cooking with it.
It stayed hidden in my cupboard until a few weeks ago, when I was inspired by “Salt Block Cooking,” the new book from Mark Bitterman, a Portland selmelier (salt purveyor) and co-owner of The Meadow, which specializes in artisanal salt and chocolates. Armed with Bitterman’s book, I pulled out my salt block, picked up others in varying sizes, and started grilling and curing with them, making everything from preserved lemons to a watermelon-and-feta salad.
“People are titillated by it,” Bitterman said. “It’s visually incredibly dramatic. You’re cooking on this slab of 500-million-year-old salt.”
But even he admits to initially being intimidated by salt stones. “I had them for years before I really used them,” he said.
Bitterman first wrote about salt stone cooking in his James Beard-award winning book, “Salted.” His new book demystifies the stones and highlights their versatility with 70 recipes, tips, techniques and eye-catching photos.
He uses salt stones at room temperature to serve, season and cure; heated for baking, cooking and searing meats, fish and fruit; and chilled for ice cream and desserts. There are recipes for drinks in cup-shaped stones and for sauces, chocolate fondue and dips in bowl-shaped stones.
Salt of the earth
The stone is cut from boulders carved from the Salt Range of Pakistan. Although the stone has been marketed as originating in the Himalayas, the Salt Range is about 200 miles away, said Bitterman. Despite this mislabeling, Himalayan salt is considered among the purest in the world, free from pollutants, rich in calcium, iron and some 80 trace minerals.
These minerals are what give the slabs their distinctive color and appearance. They can be streaked, translucent, opaque or a combination of all three. They can be whitish, pink, deep red, amber yellow and even silvery blue. The fissures and color variations make each one distinct.
When heated, they change color and develop a patina in the same way that a cast-iron skillet or a wok is seasoned with use.
An Internet search uncovers the medicinal appeal of this unrefined, natural salt, praised for uses from nasal decongestants to bath salts. But above all, salt from this region is touted for its culinary use and flavor.
The perfect seasoning
“Food will taste better,” said Bitterman. The salt concentrates the flavor by drawing out moisture and, when used properly, the block leaves food “perfectly seasoned,” he said.
The exploding interest in gourmet salts and healthful cooking have led to the increased popularity of salt stones, according to Naomi Novotny, co-owner of SaltWorks, a specialty sea salt company in Woodinville, Wash.
“They’re pretty,” she said. “Definitely when you’re entertaining they have great appeal. Plus the food tastes really good.”
But there is a learning curve, especially when it comes to regulating the amount of salt transferred to food.
Because salt is water soluble, food that is moister or marinated will absorb more salt; fatty food or food with skin absorbs less. If the stone isn’t hot enough, the food is likely to be more salty.
“Use a little bit of oil as a barrier. It shields the food from the salt,” said Novotny.
The oil also reduces sticky food bits. “It’s like cooking on a rock, so there’s nothing to keep things from sticking to it,” she advised. Bitterman said a metal spatula for scraping off food and thick oven mitts are key for handling food and hot stones.
Adventures in salt stone cooking
For my first attempt at hot salt stone cooking, I followed Bitterman’s advice and heated two salt bricks slowly on my gas grill (see accompanying box) and seared tiger shrimp in the shell, turning them midway.
Six minutes later, I was eating succulent shrimp, poached in its own juice in the shell. The straight-from-the-sea flavor was unlike anything I’d ever tasted.
“The salt penetrates the shell and gives you this salty, unctuous, buttery shrimp,” explained Bitterman.
When I grilled chicken (see accompanying recipe), the meat was moist and delicately nuanced with the minerals in the salt. Vegetables also picked up the distinctive seasoning.
“It can be tricky to know how much salt is being infused into the food,” noted chef Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place.
Paley cooks prawns in their shells buried in coarse granules of Himalayan salt. “It’s dry heat. It immediately sears the shrimp,” he said. “This dry intensive heat just does something magical.”
He also uses 18-by-10-inch salt blocks, weighing some 30 pounds, to cure large pieces of fresh salmon.
“The block presses it and seasons it all at once,” said Paley, adding that this method cuts the typical curing time in half, to about 12 hours. He uses this fish to make a moist, complexly seasoned salmon pastrami, which occasionally appears on the Paley’s Place menu.
At Thirst on the Riverplace Esplanade, chef/owner Leslie Palmer makes gravlax by curing King salmon between salt blocks for 24 hours. Firmer than Paley’s pastrami, the gravlax is also rich with the blocks’ minerals. “It’s just so good on its own,” said Palmer, who shapes the gravlax into rosettes and serves it during summer with capers, red onion, crème fra‹che and dill.
Playing with salt stones
Note that salt stones can be heavy, and they change and wear down with use.
“They’re more delicate than you might think,” said Novotny. They need to be handled carefully to prevent breakage and tempered when heated to avoid cracking and possible bursting.
“Salt blocks won’t last forever. Eventually, they will break,” explained Bitterman. The block can then be ground for table use, broken into rock salt for heating and cooking (as in Paley’s shrimp in rock salt dish) or even tossed into a warm bath.
For some, heating and cleaning salt blocks is tedious and time-consuming. “I probably wouldn’t cook on one every night,” admitted Novotny. “It’s a lot of work.”
Like any culinary tool, though, I’ve found it gets easier with repeated use. And devotees relish discovering its many uses and how it transforms food.
Home cook Mary Sue Macy of McMinnville thinks it’s worth the effort. She’s been roasting trout and salmon on an 8-by-12-by-1-1/2-inch block she got recently as a gift.
“I’ve just been playing with it and I love it,” she said. “We just really like the flavor. It’s like fish out of the sea. I have no idea how it works, but the food is just delicious.”
— Joan Cirillo is a Portland food and feature writer
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