Great Shakes?

Do expensive salts really make a difference?

"Why not have a salt party?" asks David McMillan, holding a plate piled with a gray-white substance.

The executive chef of Nana apparently doesn't get out much. Either that, or he thinks of tame suburban gatherings--Tupperware parties, for instance--as wild, wicked affairs. In the 1960s, shindigs lauding plastic containers were all the rage. Instead of flopping around bra-less and engaging in free love, suburban women marveled at Tupperware's patented "burp" and its ability to preserve hot dog buns for an extra day or so. "This," McMillan says, still holding a plate of ground salt, "is the new Tupperware."

His fascination with the condiment is understandable. There are 14,000 uses for salt, or so we're told. It can be sprinkled on fries, employed as a preservative, dumped on icy roads or rubbed into open wounds; vengeful gods sometimes turn malefactors into pillars of the stuff.

Five is as far as we got.

Oh, and taken with tequila shots, added to a Bloody Mary...That's six and seven.

A few restaurants carry a selection of upscale salts. Yes, expensive versions, as much as $20 for a few ounces, of the product we shake so liberally: sea salts raked from marshes in France or England, chalky sel gris, colorful salt culled from Hawaiian pools tainted with iron oxide, the much-admired fleur de sel, crisp kosher salt, smoked Scandinavian and so on. Unlike the plain old table variety, these salts range in color from the orange-tinged alaea to gray to white. Some are harvested by hand using methods unchanged by the passage of time. Variations in texture, packaging and even the laws governing mineral composition add further interest. Lola the Restaurant stocks four different salts. Nana offers eight. Any more, and they'd have to hire a salt sommelier to expound on the vintages, region and harvesting methods.

Just the thought of someone with a mirror dangling around his neck offering sample spoonfuls of a white powder makes that scenario interesting. "We have a fine new Hawaiian in, sir, just $20 an ounce." Hell, perhaps McMillan is on to something.

Most chefs spurn iodized table salt, at least in the kitchen. They cook instead with kosher salt, a coarse-grained product familiar to all margarita aficionados. "Kosher is easy to work with since you are grabbing it with your hands," says Chris Svalesen, executive chef at 36 Degrees, "and it's not as salty." The lighter flavor makes kosher salt a little more forgiving. Table salt, McMillan explains, "is slow to dissolve, and there's a fair amount of collateral chemicals." It generally contains iodine as well as an anti-caking agent to prevent clumping. Gilbert Garza of Suze refers to iodized salt as "disgusting stuff." The Green Room even removed salt shakers from its dining room.

"A dish should go out seasoned just right," explains Marc Cassel, executive chef of the Deep Ellum institution. "If they are used to eating at Applebee's, they automatically reach for the salt shaker, then complain that it's oversalted."

Beyond these two basic salts, however, little agreement exists. "Americans just get on a fad and buy things because they're supposed to," scoffs Brian C. Luscher, executive chef at The Grape. "It makes a difference in certain situations, but mostly you have people who spend 20 bucks on salt but don't know what to do with it."

"They season things," Garza says of the high-end salts. "That's what they do. It's interesting for five minutes."

For others, that five minutes is precisely the point. McMillan favors sel gris, the French sea salt dulled into a soft gray color after resting on the dirty sea bed. "A final sprinkle on veal or lamb and the physical aspect disappears, leaving only the flavor," he says. If you can get past the notion that sel gris draws its flavor from clay and sand and anything else embedded therein--raw sewage, rotting Spanish galleons, leftover pieces of "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero--it's a remarkable product. "There's not much difference between the white sea salts," admits Chris Peters, executive chef at Lola, "but people can tell the difference with the clay."

The Burning Question crew dropped by Nana for a salt taste test...oh, and to whoever called the feds, those were indeed salt crystals. And incoherent babbling is quite normal for us, thank you. Ask our editor.

Anyway, the flavor profile of each salt is vaguely distinct when sampled, but the clay-based products--sel gris and alaea--stand out. They are earthy and salty. The other sea salts taste lighter than the processed stuff and cleaner than the clay varieties. Yet that doesn't necessarily mean they make food taste any better. "You have to evaluate the taste, texture and sight and then incorporate it into your repertoire," says Michael Marshall, formerly of The Riviera. He uses fleur de sel and sel gris strictly as finishing salts, tossed onto a dish just before presentation.

To use upscale salts as all-purpose seasonings is to expose yourself as a trend-follower, a faddist. "I can use it right, and we can send it out there, and no one will get it unless the waiter explains the salt and its qualities," Luscher says.

So, do expensive salts make a difference? For skilled chefs, perhaps. But we'll stick to salted margarita glasses.

That's eight.

 
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