A recent British study has reignited the debate over salt. It reports that, since the British Food Standards Agency began stricter limits on the sodium content of processed foods in 2003, deaths from heart disease and stroke declined 40 percent during the next eight years.
Other studies, both in the U.S. and internationally, have reported such a conflicting mix of information on the effects of salt that most of us have started taking each new factoid with a grain of, you know — salt.
Shaking out the important information is much harder than getting those grains from the salt shaker.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a recommendation of a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of salt per day, there is such a long list of exceptions to that figure that it, too, is less meaningful than it first appears.
For the exceptions, the CDC recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium, and that lower number applies to everyone older than 51 years old, children, African-Americans and anyone with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease.
One of the simplest ways to lower salt intake is to rely less on processed foods and cook more at home where it’s easier to control how much salt is added to each dish.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While a Big Mac delivers nearly 1,000 milligrams of sodium, almost a whole day’s recommended amount for many of us, cooking that burger at home still carries a heavy salt load since even the bun has 200-300 mg of sodium.
Since salt is a hidden ingredient in almost all packaged food, one strategy for home cooks is simply to stop hiding it and use a smaller amount where it will make the most impact. There are even special kinds of salt for this tactic, known as finishing salts.
Finishing salts bring a range of flavor and even texture notes to food that reflect their origins. Some are harvested from the sea, and others mined from lava fields and mountain ranges.
Some have subtle natural flavors, while others get their flavor from wood smoke or infused ingredients. Finishing salt made with spicy Sriracha sauce is easy to make at home, and cooks are finding other permutations for adding a boost of saltiness without quite so much sodium.
Finishing salts have many fans, but none as dedicated as cookbook author Mark Bitterman, who chronicles more than 150 varieties of salt in his book, “Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes.”
While Bitterman is clearly enthusiastic about salt, his mission is to elevate the use of salt from a mindless, constant habit to something more rare as well as rarefied.
Exhaustive as Bitterman’s list of salts seems, he doesn’t mention Galveston County’s artisanal salt, which is marketed locally as “Jurassic Salt” at cooking stores in Houston, Austin and at Galveston’s Kitchen Chick.
The Jurassic name came from the prehistoric origins of the salt dome, one of many in the area, where salt was deposited when most of what is now Texas was under water.
Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels
MAKES: 64 caramels
2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup butter
3⁄4 cup light corn syrup
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup dark chocolate baking chips
1⁄4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon sea salt
Line a 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil, extending over the edges. Butter the bottom and sides of the foil.
Combine the brown sugar, butter, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk in heavy, 3-quart saucepan. Cook over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil.
Cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer reaches 240-242 degrees or a small amount of the mixture dropped into cold water forms soft pliable ball.
Remove the mixture from the heat; stir in the vanilla. Pour the mixture into a prepared pan. Cool for 2 hours at room temperature until set.
Combine the chocolate chips and whipping cream in bowl. Microwave 1-2 minutes, stirring every 15 seconds, until chocolate is melted. Spread the mixture evenly over caramels. Cool 5 minutes; sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate until completely cooled.
Remove the caramels from the pan using the foil; remove the foil. Cut the caramels into 1-inch squares with a sharp knife. Wrap the caramels in candy wrappers or wax paper.
Store the caramels in the refrigerator. Remove them from refrigerator 10 minutes before serving.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Land O Lakes Butter)
1 chicken, about 4 pounds
1 medium bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife blade
33⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
11⁄3 cups coarse salt
3 tablespoons fresh thyme
5 large egg whites
Lightly oil a baking dish big enough to hold the chicken. Set aside the dish.
Place the chicken on a work surface on its back with the neck side facing you. Slip your hand under the skin, starting at the base of the neck, and work gently to get your hand further in, lifting the skin from the flesh over each breast and down over each thigh without tearing the skin.
Once the skin is loosened, slip in the chopped parsley, pushing it underneath the skin to cover the breasts and thighs as evenly as you can. Place the garlic inside the cavity of the chicken. Using a piece of kitchen string, truss the chicken.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and thyme. Add the egg whites and 2⁄3 cup fresh water. Stir with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk until the liquids are absorbed.
Turn out onto a clean work surface, and knead briefly until the dough comes together; it should be supple and pleasant to work with, not sticky or crumbly. Add a little water or flour as needed to adjust the consistency.
Flour your work surface well and roll out the salt dough into a circle, about 20 inches, large enough to wrap the chicken in it.
Place the chicken in the middle of the circle and fold opposite flaps of the dough over the chicken to wrap it entirely.
Press gently to seal; if it looks like the dough might not stay put, brush the seams with a pastry brush dipped lightly in water.
Lift the whole thing carefully and transfer it to the prepared baking dish. Place the dish in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake the chicken. You can leave it in for a few hours or overnight.
If the salt crust cracks slightly, don’t worry about it; it doesn’t need to be 100 percent airtight.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Insert the dish in the hot oven and leave it in for 11⁄2 hours.
Remove the dish from the oven and break the salt crust open with a meat mallet or the handle of a chef knife. Once fractured, the crust can be simply pulled open with your oven-mitt-clad hands.
Lift the chicken from the open crust, transfer it to a cutting board and carve it. Discard the crust.
(SOURCE: Recipe adapted from “Un Dimanche en Famille,” by Yves Camdeborde)
MAKES: 8 small jars
3 cups coarse sea salt
1⁄3 bottle Sriracha sauce
Combine the salt and Sriracha sauce in a large mixing bowl until it forms a slush, which should be slightly on the drier side — more pasty rather than wet.
Once combined, spread the mixture evenly into a thin layer on two baking sheets and set in a cool, dry place, raking a fork through to let air circulate every 6 hours.
The Sriracha salt should be dry enough to package in jars after 24 hours, depending on the humidity of your house — but definitely after 48 hours.
If you’re worried about wetness or if the salt feels sticky to the touch, place the baking sheets in the oven on warm — no higher than 250 degrees — for one hour, then let cool completely before packaging.
(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy “The Sriracha Cookbook,” by Randy Clemens)