I opened this book equal with parts trepidation and enthusiasm. Trepidation stemmed from concern that we may not need another cookbook focused on a single ingredient. Was this going to be a gimmicky exercise in overreaching brought on by a current trend in publishing? Enthusiasm stemmed from my love of salt and the pre-existing respect I had for its power. Experiences — and experiments — in the kitchen had taught me that sound cooking techniques are, so often, linked to salt. What could be better than a book dedicated to “salting wisely and well, with recipes”?
The book opens with the following quote from the great chef Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame): “The ability to salt food is the single most important skill in cooking.” With that as a reverent jumping off point, the authors, Fritz Gubler and David Glynn (with the assistance of Nutritional Science academic, Dr. Russell Keast), assert that to “deprive ourselves of the magic that salt brings to food would be something close to madness” (9) and then proceed to give us a love letter to salt via the information, cooking techniques, and recipes that this well-researched, intelligently conceptualized book contains.
The book is divided into four sections — Salt Wise, The Salt Kitchen, The Story of Salt, and Resources — that form the building blocks of the salt literacy for which the authors advocate. They want us to use salt enthusiastically, but with a deep understanding and respect for the ingredient and its proper use. “Many of the health issues faced by the Western world," they argue, "are attributable to the things we eat, and if we make our own food, we can more easily control what goes into our bodies.” (38) Readers are urged to beware processed food, since that is where salt lurks, often virtually invisible and in surprising places, in unhealthy quantities. You only need to examine the sodium content of a can or Tetra pack of commercial soup to confirm this.
One goal of this book is to rid the world of salt shakers and eliminate the distance they create between ingredient and user. The Salt Wise section is dedicated to acquainting the reader with what it means to salt wisely and this is done primarily through educating the palate and the fingertips to be able to distinguish between different salts. How does the texture, colour, size of grain, weight, moisture level, and, of course, taste vary? The authors recommend having a minimum of four types of salt on hand as a general rule — a natural sea salt for general use, a fine sea salt or iodized table salt for baking, a soft mineral salt for meat dishes, and a fleur de sel or other fine salt for finishing dishes. By way of providing instructions for a guided tasting, they suggest one prepare a range of foods (such as suggest tomato, hard-boiled egg, melon, cucumber, grapefruit, rare beef, and chocolate) in order to compare the effects that different salts have on flavour. I appreciated this breakdown of things and had some fun comparing my workhorse natural sea salt and beloved delicate Maldon flakes with newly-acquired Murray River pink salt and crunchy sel gris
The next section, entitled The Salt Kitchen, introduces recipes as well as cooking, preserving, and curing techniques that rely heavily on salt or are solely concerned with salt. A broccoli soup recipe teaches the art of salting gradually whilst cooking. The authors suggest beginning with no salt and call for its gradual addition accompanied by careful tasting along the way. The soup blossoms from bland and tasteless to sparkling and complex as a result of the salt. Such attention to detail and mindfulness is an important skill in the kitchen — if you are salting well, you are probably cooking well.
On the fancier side of things there are lovely recipes for gravlax and herbes salées (fresh herbs preserved in salt), and the powerful technique of pre-salting meat and game is given considerable and worthy attention. Cooking with hot salt (packed in a pan, around a piece of fish as a crust, or in the form of a hot block) is also detailed. Do we need to cook scallops on a warmed Himalayan pink salt block? I’m not sure, but my gourmet spice shop does sell these blocks, so I’ll probably give it a try at some point. I can say that the recipe for Prawns Cooked in Rock Salt (which involves covering prawns with heated salt in a cast iron pan) produced juicy, perfectly cooked prawns. As well, a miracle of taste that results from the marriage of salty and sweet is explored via various dessert recipes near the end of the section and I am happy to report that Murray River pink salt and vanilla ice cream is indeed something for which we all should make time.
The section titled The Story of Salt is concerned with exploring the social, historical, and scientific aspects of salt and does so with lush photographs and intelligent prose. I have great respect for the fact that Mark Kurlansky’s 2002 book, Salt: A World History, is identified early on in the section as the definitive work on the subject. The goal here is to add to the conversation.
I would have appreciated more information about the authors. We aren’t told much about Gubler and Glynn beyond the fact that they collaborated on it and it was Gubler’s idea. Some basic research told me that Gubler is trained as a chef, and this training is apparent in both the quality of the recipes and the feel that the book has at certain points. Like many chef-written cookbooks, there’s the odd moment where ideas appear suddenly, are expressed, and then not explored further. Having worked in serious restaurants as a first career, I’ve grown to love this tic — it’s reminiscent of the controlled chaos, exploding creativity, and frenetic energy of restaurant kitchens and the minds of engaged and passionate chefs. Just as Dr. William Carlos Williams’ poetry was necessarily short, distilled, and efficient, making it imitative of the minutes he would steal to write between seeing patients, so too are chef-written cookbooks often graced with a tone imitative of their existence — creative, excited, fast-paced, to the point, never overwrought. Execute the idea — on the plate or on the page — and move on.
The librarian that I now am loves the Resources section at the end. Here you will find a glossary, a good index, a conversion chart for measurements, and a well-researched bibliography. The final pages of the book are devoted to space for your own salt-based tasting notes. And it is with this space for tasting notes that this love letter to salt does not end — it is simply turned over to the reader to continue.