It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive book about salt than Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes (October 12, Ten Speed Press) by Mark Bitterman, the salt purveyor at the Meadow, an artisanal-product shop in Portland, Oregon. At 320 pages, it’s as much cookbook as textbook, divided into three large sections: a history of saltmaking (“The Life of Salt”), a reference guide covering over 150 varieties, and some tips on how to salt your foods as well as some starter recipes.
I only know two things about salt: recipes usually call for the “sea salt” kind, and always, always put it on steak. The latter Bitterman confirms in his introduction, the former he debunks, sort of: What’s often marketed as sea salt, Bitterman says, is really misclassified earth-mined crystals (take that, Morton). There are, according to the book’s classification, seven major types of artisanal salt: fleur de sel, sel gris, traditional salt, flake salt, shio, rock salt, unconventional salt, and modified salt (whatever that means). Though Bitterman claims to learn about several new salts a week, he includes detailed information on just about every one you could imagine, including flavor profiles and suggested food pairings.
To better understand Bitterman’s obsession with salt, I took the book to a local supermarket and checked out what kinds of artisanal salts were available. They had a few on hand, including several brands of fleur de sel and Himalayan pink. But I chose the Maldon, an $8 English flake salt that seemed versatile enough — Bitterman recommends it with raw vegetables but says it’s good “almost anywhere else.” He also says it’s “harsh” and “minerally,” which is true: When you take it out of the box, the flakes look almost impossibly big and rocky. They taste a little abrasive but not unpleasant. This is salt you notice — great for throwing on food, not so great for licking with tequila shots.
The book uses Maldon in a butter leaf salad, but that seemed boring, so instead I substituted it in the steak tartare recipe. Making the tartare is easy enough: The hardest part is slicing up the beef tenderloin into small pieces (uncooked steak can be a little difficult to cut). After mixing in a dollop of Dijon, some Worcestershire sauce, and pepper, you form the beef into small mounds on plates and serve it with a few accompaniments: a raw egg yolk on top, chopped onions and chives, anchovies and capers mashed in olive oil and sherry vinegar, more mustard, and of course, salt. The whole process takes about half an hour. Mix it all together with a fork and serve on toast.
The tartare was great: acidic, fresh, crunchy. But while it tasted like lots of things — mustard, vinegar, egg yolk — least of them was salt. The Maldon gets a little lost among all the other strong ingredients. It’d work better on a simply cooked New York strip, or some roasted vegetables. It makes sense that most of the other recipes stick to just a few ingredients — the book is great as an introduction (albeit a somewhat overwhelming one) to the many kinds of salt out there, but it’s not necessarily the best way to prepare dinner.
As an experiment, I also tried sprinkling the salt on some asparagus with olive oil and lemon juice and throwing it in the oven on 350 degrees for about ten minutes. Roasted asparagus makes the perfect salt dish, as it turns out: It’s simple, fresh, and it doesn’t need much. The harshness of the Maldon, with the lightness of the vegetables and lemon, was just about perfect.