Finishing salts are a simple tool for introducing welcome touches of seasoning, texture and aroma.
This article first appeared in the 1 February 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Like most chefs, Janine Falvo of Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar in Sonoma, Calif., is liberal in both her praise and her use of salt. "I would say right after the chef, it's the most important thing in the kitchen," says Falvo, chef de cuisine of the local-ingredient-driven restaurant at The Lodge at Sonoma Resort & Spa. "Everything needs seasoning."
But Falvo isn't talking just about kosher salt, often favored in cooking for its large, mild-tasting and easy-dissolving grains. No fewer than nine different salts currently reside in her pantry: Some are specialty varieties sourced from around the world; others are flavored blends mixed in-house using ingredients such as fruits, herbs and spices. They're finishing salts, and they come into play when dishes are just about done.
Falvo likes to have on hand Sicilian, English and Philippine sea salts. She also creates infusions such as strawberry salt, which is paired with foie gras, and Meyer-lemon-coriander-nori salt, which complements pan-roasted halibut. "It's just another piece of mise en place," she says.
WHAT SALTS BRING TO THE TABLE
Most finishing salts are sea salts, harvested from evaporated seawater and typically unrefined. Popular varieties include fleur de sel, Hawaiian black lava salt and Australian Murray River salt, but plenty of others are available, too (for more varieties and descriptions, see "Chefs' Favorite Finishing Salts" on page 26). Chefs source them from specialty vendors, regular dry-goods suppliers and online retailers.
Flavor is the obvious primary benefit that finishing salts give to recipes, but the texture and visual appeal they deliver often is just as important. "It's as much a garnish as it is a seasoning," says Executive Chef Thomas Groff, who keeps 20 to 25 salts on hand at Dettera Restaurant & Wine Bar in Ambler, Pa. For example, the pink Himalayan and Hawaiian black lava salts he sprinkles over puff-pastry-encased curried-vegetable casserole not only introduce touches of saltiness and smokiness, but the large, colorful crystals also make an eye-catching topping.
"It rounds it out," he says. "You've got the fat, the sweetness from the squash, and you add the green-tea salt and get a little of that bitter sensation, so it gives you the whole shebang."
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
Though skeptics question whether salts such as Maldon, Murray River and Hawaiian red really differ all that much in flavor, aficionados say each variety has nuances in taste based on its provenance. "You get quite a lot of terroir in the salt," says Dan Tucker, chef de cuisine at SushiSamba Rio in Chicago.
That's why particular salts make better matches for certain foods. For example, Murray River salt, which Tucker describes as "super minerally and tangy," marries well with vegetables such as heirloom tomatoes. "The flavors complement the [salt's] earthiness, whereas if you're using a delicate-flavored meat like pork tenderloin, you wouldn't want to use it," he says.
Relatively neutral Maldon is Tucker's-and many other chefs'-top choice for seasoning roasted or grilled sliced meats. "It's light and delicate in texture, so you have a nice little crunch, as opposed to fleur de sel, which tends to be coarse and hard."
Kyle Bailey, executive chef at modern-American restaurant Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C., says the Hawaiian red salt he sprinkles on raw fish has an earthy flavor that evokes volcanic ash. The crystals are more like small rocks than flakes, he says, making them a good fit with the moist seafood because they break down more slowly.
At Hook in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef Jonathan Seningen describes the taste of the coarse Peruvian pink salt he uses as very minerally but not overly salty, making it a good accent for delicate dishes such as sashimi-style dorade. Seningen dresses the fish with ginger-cilantro oil and sliced green onions before adding a few pinches of the salt. Tableside, a ladle of blended olive oil and sesame oil is heated gently with a blowtorch and poured over the fish, barely cooking the top. "It's a beautiful presentation," Seningen says. "The dorade is silky in texture, and the salt gives it a little crunch and helps bring out the flavors."
Because salt gradually extracts moisture-and therefore, flavor-from foods with which it comes in contact, chefs may infuse salts with herbs, spices and other ingredients to finish dishes with more-complex flavor profiles. The techniques they use to do this can be simple or surprisingly high-tech.
At Hook, Seningen employs house-made soy salt to add the flavor of soy sauce to dishes such as edamame or Hawaiian sea bass in a crunchy format. He makes a paste of soy sauce and kosher salt, spreads it in a sheet pan and puts it in a warm place (usually on top of the oven). As the mixture dries, he scrapes it with a fork to break it into smaller crystals.
For other varieties, such as the sumac salt that is dusted atop grilled moonfish toro, Seningen simply mixes the tangy, citrusy spice powder with Maldon salt. The intriguing-sounding salts add cachet on the menu, he says. "People like to see new things."
At Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar, Falvo regularly creates special salts to feature on the menu. To make varieties such as strawberry or black-cherry salt, which have a sweet-salty profile that nicely complements rich dishes such as foie gras, Falvo uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the fruit, which then is crushed into powder and mixed with Sicilian sea salt. That particular salt works best, Falvo says, because it has a clean flavor that doesn't compete with the fruit.
Typically, the fruit salts keep their flavor for two weeks (stored in a cool, dry place in tightly closed containers), so she makes them in small batches of about a pound at a time.
When creating salts to pair with seafood dishes, Falvo calls on a briny Philippine sea salt as a base. She mixes it with Meyer-lemon zest, toasted coriander and nori that are ground together in a spice mill. Then she dries the blend overnight in a convection oven with the fan on (but no heat).
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
Introducing tiny hits of taste from flavored salts rather than adding more components to the plate helps preserve a recipe's simplicity, says Jonathan Wright, executive chef at The Grill at The Setai in Miami. "Flavored salt is a way of adding a different element but keeping the food very true to itself," he says.
Snowy flakes of Maldon salt highlight the delicate flavor of Wright's scrambled-egg appetizer with asparagus, sea urchin and quail egg, while bolder smoked salt stands up to the restaurant's dry-aged grilled steaks.
Wright also mixes his own blends. For a salt that complements roasted leg of lamb, he combines lemon thyme with Maldon salt in a glass jar and lets it rest for three or four days. In a similar manner, he dries fennel pollen and fronds and grinds them into a powder to make the fennel salt that is sprinkled over salt-baked snapper.
For more-robust infusions, such as the white-truffle salt sprinkled over duck-fat fries, Wright recruits fleur de sel, mixing the coarse salt with trimmings from the fragrant fungus.
Despite the broad applications for finishing salts, Hook's Seningen cautions against using them indiscriminately. "It's important to realize the texture and flavor of the salt and understand how it works with [the ingredients] you're using it with," he says. "Don't use it unless it has a purpose."
CHEFS' FAVORITE FINISHING SALTS
Chefs looking to dress up dishes with extra seasoning, texture and style can call on a multihued host of finishing salts from around the world. Here are some of the most-popular options:
Hawaiian black lava: Made from sea salt combined with activated charcoal, these glossy black crystals are known for their lightly smoky flavor.
Hawaiian red: Small amounts of Hawaiian baked red clay are added to this mild-flavored salt, also known as Alaea, resulting in a reddish-pink color.
Fleur de sel: This pricey, top-of-the-line variety is hand-harvested from the top layer of salt beds off France's Brittany coast.
Maldon: Sourced from Essex, England, these versatile, pyramid-shaped crystals are perhaps the most commonly found in restaurant kitchens.
Murray River: These quick-dissolving, peach-colored flakes from Australia carry a distinctive minerally taste.
Peruvian pink: Harvested from a natural spring in the mountains of Peru, these light-pink crystals are known for their strong flavor and high moisture content.
Pink Himalayan: Because it comes in larger crystals or rocks, this salt can be ground or crushed with a mortar and pestle; it also comes in large blocks that can be heated and used as cooking surfaces.
Smoked salt: These sea salts are smoked over woods such as hickory, alderwood and applewood and can impart subtly smoky notes to dishes.
TIPS & TRICKS
Before sending a shower of salt flakes over any dish, check out some advice from chefs who have plenty of experience.
Kyle Bailey, executive chef at Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C., says he has spotted cooks on his line smashing grains of salt between their fingers before sprinkling them onto dishes. Don't do this, he warns. "The idea is that it is [larger] flakes," he says. "You never want to break them down."
With recipes that call for finishing salts, it often makes sense to go lighter on the salt in the base flavors, says Executive Chef Thomas Groff of Dettera Restaurant & Wine Bar in Ambler, Pa. Then, sprinkle on the salt just before the plate leaves the kitchen, so it doesn't dissolve before reaching the customer.
Because infused and smoked salts contribute flavors as well as saltiness, they often call for a lighter hand, says Dan Tucker, chef de cuisine at SushiSamba Rio in Chicago.
Janine Falvo, chef de cuisine at Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar in Sonoma, Calif., offers these guidelines:
- Store finishing salts in a cool, dry spot (definitely not behind the line), but don't keep them in the cooler, where moisture can cause them to clump.
- Be mindful of pairings. For example, don't use a salt that's meant to be subtle, such as a Meyer-lemon-coriander-nori blend, with a full-flavored meat such as lamb.
- To ensure freshness and flavor intensity, make flavored salts in small batches, and experiment with the amount of time the different components are allowed to meld together before the salts are used (optimal times vary depending on the ingredients).
THE SODIUM DEBATE
Sodium has come under fire in recent years from public-health agencies and consumer watchdog groups, and although salt reduction isn't as prominent of an issue in fine-dining restaurants-most of which use few packaged and processed foods-other foodservice segments, bearing the brunt of the criticism, are taking proactive steps to cut the salt content of their dishes. To read more of R&I's coverage of how operators are addressing this issue, search for "sodium" at rimag.com.