Can salt be fluffy?
It can be granular, of course, or flakey (Maldon is a classic), or crunchy (like sel gris from Brittany), even flavored or smoked with red chile, aged wood from a bourbon barrel or any of 100 other ingredients.
But fluffy, like ice scraped off your windshield in winter? Or cotton candy?
Salt lovers, meet givre de sel, aka Egyptian frost salt. The delicate crystals of this dazzling white salt are shaped like tiny spears, each as thin as a single hair, and when you heap them up (or take a pinch between thumb and forefinger) all the crystals clump together, making little mountains of fuzzy fluff.
Ironically, frost salt comes from the most unlikely place you can imagine: the Egyptian desert.
Terre Exotique, a French purveyor of fine foods and spices, asserts that this rare salt can be found only in Egypt’s remote White Desert, “in a 20 km (12.5 mile) expanse between the oasis of Bahariya and the city of Farafra…” The White Desert, or Sahara al Beydeya, is actually a national park which lies about 45 miles north of Farafra, a small oasis town. The park is famed for its striking rock formations, some of which resemble giant mushrooms. Fittingly, Egypt’s National Tourism website describes it as “a desert dreamscape.”
Heightening the mystery, Terre Exotique asserts that only a single Bedouin and his son “possess the secret” of frost salt’s location: “Digging in a spot they had targeted in the desert they tapped into a hidden salt quarry left behind by a 70 million year old sea. They then dug into the quarry and collected the crystalline salt that takes its name from its ethereal texture similar to frost.”
As you watch the father (or is it the son?) dig, notice that the unrefined salt appears to emerge from its hiding place under the sand as white, and as soft and fluffy as it is in the jar that I’m now using in the kitchen. I can assure you that it is pure and clean, and that it tastes very, very salty.
As it turns out, Egypt isn’t the only country with a salty desert. Volume 12 of Kinfolk magazine features remarkable photographs of the world’s largest salt flat, once a giant prehistoric lake, in the Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia. Here the white salt crust lies on top of the sand, its surface mostly smooth and flat, but sometimes rippled by the wind or broken in jagged patterns resembling cracks in polar ice floes.
Dutch photographer Scarlett Hooft Graafland, whose pictures are displayed in the magazine, explains that for Bolivians who live near the Salar, it is “something of a holy place. When you enter, you have to pay tribute to the god of the desert, put some coca leaves and alcohol on the tires of your car and say some prayers in order to have a safe trip. It’s so huge that it can actually be a dangerous place…. There are many casualties in the Salar.”
There’s lots of serious talk about salt these days.
After a decades-long campaign to persuade Americans to eat less than 2,300 mg of salt daily, it now appears that the American Heart Association may have based its assumptions–that a low or no-salt diet (no more and preferably less than 2,300 mg per day) will lower blood pressure and prevent premature death from stroke or heart attack–on flawed studies and inconclusive evidence.
New findings just published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggest that in fact, too little salt may kill us. In particular, these studies suggest that if you consume less than 3,000 mg of salt daily, you have a 27% higher risk of death, heart attack or stroke than if you were eating 3,000 to 6,000 mg everyday. (For more on this, see “Salt of the Earth (or Maybe Sea),” an excellent letter from The Global Province, which includes extracts from articles by medical researcher Gary Taubes and Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Winslow.)
Salt-lovers want to know: Is more really better? And if so, how much can we safely ingest? The Heart Association is sticking to its guns, doggedly insisting that most people should eat less than 1,500 mg daily. But can we really eat as much 6,000mg and stay healthy? Will more salt help us or hurt us?
Naturally more research is indicated, but in the meantime, there are sensible ways to navigate the debate. In Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral,with Recipes, Mark Bitterman, a “selmelier” and co-owner of the salt boutique, The Meadow, proposes 5 simple rules for strategic salting:
“1. Eat all the salt you want, as long as you are the one doing the salting.
2. Skew the use of salt toward the end of food preparation.
3. Use only natural, unrefined salts.
4. Make salting a deliberate act.
5. Use the right salt at the right time.”
You can debate the merits of Bitterman’s rules—I will always add a handful of kosher salt to boiling water for linguine because it dissolves quickly and makes the pasta more toothsome—but in general, strategic salting is a smart move.
As Bitterman notes, “Finishing with salt” is a key principle, “a versatile cooking technique and one of the most effective ways we have of playing sensually with what we eat.” In particular, the crystal, mineral and moisture properties of individual finishing salts can transform the food on our forks with heightened flavor, “surprising textures” and “unexpected aromas.”
This brings us full circle to Egyptian givre de sel. Each delicate, hair-like crystal melts quickly in the mouth, leaving behind a single crunchy crystal. But on the surface of food, it behaves like a dry salt—maybe because it has baked under hot sand for millions of years—one that doesn’t immediately dissolve on contact with, say, chunks of juicy watermelon or a sizzling New York strip.
It would be silly to toss this salt into a pot where it would vanish into a bubbling soup or stew, because you’d miss the visual point of those fluffy, frost-like crystals.
But givre de sel is a perfect finishing salt. Not only is it pretty, but it also has a clean and powerful salinity that won’t muddle the intrinsic flavors of cooked food. And though it’s intense, there’s an echo of sea-sweetness that rounds out the taste of almost any food on which it is used.
For example, frost salt enhances the sweetness of roasted vegetables, such as these carrots and scallions (which have also been seasoned with black pepper and a little saba). Importantly, it is equally appealing to the eye: The look of the salt—like errant snowflakes drifting across the plate—is arresting.
In a similar vein, the salt also works well with grilled vegetables, such as nutty-tasting fresh corn, charred on the grill and rubbed Mexican-style with lime and chile. In a salad mixing the same grilled corn, now cut off the cob, with roasted poblano peppers and fresh cherry tomatoes, the salt is the spark that brings this medley of flavors to life.
Two more possibilities I plan to explore: Whole roasted snapper, stuffed with lemon and herbs, and rimming a cocktail glass with frost salt for a citrusy margarita.
For now, here’s an easy recipe that puts the salinity of this desert salt and its snowy appearance to good use.
Double Salted and Toasted Walnuts
This recipe makes one cup of toasted, salted walnuts, but it can be scaled up if you want to make more. You can also use to make salted pecans or cashews, although the roasting time may need to be reduced by a few minutes.
One of the big questions that people ask is how to get salt to stick to roasted nuts. I was intrigued to discover a few recipes that involved soaking the nuts in salted water. I’m not sure that a saline soak adds much salty flavor to walnut, but it does help to make them wonderfully crisp and crunchy after they are roasted in the oven with a little oil. Tossed with Egyptian frost salt, they look as if they’ve been kissed with powdery snow.
These walnuts are delicious eaten with a mellow cheese and a glass of sherry—or with bourbon on the rocks.
Makes 1 cup of salted walnuts
1 cup walnut halves
1-1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 cup warm water
3/4 teaspoon canola oil
Egyptian frost salt to taste (or substitute the finishing salt of your choice) (see note for sources)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a bowl, dissolve the sea salt in the warm water. Add the walnut halves and soak for 30 to 60 minutes. Drain and spread the nuts on a clean dishtowel. Pat with paper towels to dry.
Put the walnuts in another bowl and sprinkle the canola oil over them. Toss so that the oil lightly coats the nuts. (Don’t add more oil, or the nuts will be greasy.)
Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15 minutes, turning once or twice to ensure that they do not burn. When done, remove from the oven and pour them into a large bowl. Let cool slightly. Toss with frost salt, or any finishing salt, to taste. (The oily surface of the nuts will make the salt adhere). Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.