Here’s the new shake on America’s favorite salt-preserved foods – made with the only rock we eat.
It’s tantalizing and tasty. It gives lip-smacking satisfaction. It glitters in the sunlight, but it isn’t gold. Nonetheless, until 100 years ago, salt was among the most sought-after commodities in human history, says author Mark Kurlansky in his best-seller, Salt: A World History – a truly delicious read.
Here’s the inside scoop on salt. You’ll be fascinated by the savory story of sodium chloride – the only family of rocks we eat. Plus, in your own home kitchen you can create these amazingly quick recipes for mouth-watering, salt-preserved foods.
Reflect for a moment on something that most take for granted: salt. Pour some gently into your palm. You may be surprised to learn that your very life is dependent on sodium chloride, this common household staple.
The simple reason: Everyone needs salt to survive. Salt is essential in the human diet, says the Salt Institute. Our bodies can’t manufacture it, so we have to ingest salt to replace what’s lost through bodily functions. Sodium chloride makes up 0.28 percent of the human body weight. (However, too much sodium intake through a high-salt diet has been linked to serious health problems. For the general population, the USDA recommends a daily sodium consumption of less than 2,300 mg, which is about a teaspoon.)
Salt has played an indispensable role in human history and helped civilizations to flourish, Kurlansky says, because salting is an effective, time-honored way of preserving foods, including meats, fish or vegetables.
For most of human history, salting foods was among the few means of keeping foods edible, along with drying and smoking. The implications were enormous: people could stay alive during winters, droughts or other harsh conditions, and while traveling.
“People would starve without preserved meat and vegetables during the winter,” says Elaine Corn, award-winning cookbook author and food historian. “What’s amazing is how people knew how to correctly use salt to preserve foods such as sauerkraut and pickles, when so many things could go wrong.”
Salt was one of the first international trade commodities and one of the first industries, Kurlansky says. Food such as salted cod, for example, could be sold as a commodity and exported.
“For a millennia, salt represented wealth and was often used as money,” he writes. “Until the 20th century, salt was desperately searched for, traded for and fought over.”
Ever wonder why so many secondary and local roads in America seem illogically located? This may seem particularly true of country lanes and byways.
Kurlansky serves up a fascinating explanation: these roads were based on animal-blazed trails to brine springs and other salt-laden spots for licking. These licks became good places for human settlements, such as Buffalo, New York, he says.
Salt-preserved foods were important to the flourishing of the Colonies and rural America. For centuries, Americans depended on salt for their survival – and that of their animals.
“Life was hard; they knew that salt was there for their benefit,” says Corn, author of As American As Apple Pie. “Puritans used salt pork as the primary seasoning meat in baked beans. Interestingly, they cooked these beans for hours on Saturday evening to avoid working on Sunday in observance of the Sabbath.”
Kurlansky also has an interesting shake on the Civil War, which he has dubbed “The War Between the Salts.” One of the South’s shortcomings was that it didn’t make enough salt, he says. Realizing the importance of salt, the Union created blockages to Southern ports resulting in shortages of basic foods, including salt. The Union Army attacked and destroyed Southern saltworks wherever they found them.
Salt was essential to any war effort; not only for preserving foods and treating wounds, but also maintaining horses and livestock. Salt shortages in the South made prices skyrocket, Kurlansky says, so much so that salt workers wanted to be paid in salt rather than money so they could profit from inflated prices.
Today, the United States is one of the world’s top salt producers, says the Salt Institute. In 2006, the U.S. salt production was 46.00 million metric tons, including brine.
You only may think of salt when you shake it on your eggs at breakfast, but salt currently has 14,000 known uses. In fact, today it’s used in greater quantities and more applications than any of our earth’s minerals.
Given salt’s importance, it’s not surprising that many of America’s favorite foods involve salt. For example, it’s hard to imagine eating french fries without a sprinkling of salt.
The American hamburger’s ancestor “most likely came from Jewish immigrants sailing on the Hamburg-Amerika ship line in the 1850s,” Corn says. “They salted and smoked the meat to preserve it.”
The thrill of preserving foods with salt is that nearly any vegetable you can fit into a jar can be pickled. Not just cabbage or cucumbers, but your garden’s bounty including green beans, sweet peppers, leeks, green tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant and watermelon-rind.
There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in canning, which includes pickling with salt. Once you learn the tricks to making your own salt-preserved foods, you may never be truly satisfied with mundane, store-bought pickles again. (For canning/pickling recipes and information, read the GRIT articles in the September/October 2006 and September/October 2007 issues.)
Pickling salt is an excellent choice for pickling, but you can still use plain, old-fashioned table salt. Some cooks prefer kosher salt because it lacks additives and is easily found in supermarkets.
These quick-and-easy recipes can be ready in about an hour.
The approach is much simpler than traditional canning methods; you don’t need to properly seal the brine-soaked produce in hot, sterile canning jars.
You can assemble these recipes in about 10 to 20 minutes, and let them chill in the refrigerator in clean glass jars. To save time, they call for only a few, common ingredients. If you’re sensitive to vinegar, substitute apple cider vinegar that only has 5 percent acidity.
Unlike canned, preserved vegetables, which keep for several months, these pickled cukes, zukes, cabbage and greens should be refrigerated and eaten within one week or so. Fortunately, if you and your family are happy with the results, that won’t be a problem.
You can use pickling cucumbers, which are prized for holding crispness. But because these pickles are meant to be quickly consumed, you also can experiment with other homegrown cukes such as lemon cucumbers, delicate-tasting yellow globes. Several heirloom seed companies offer an interesting line of cukes (cucumus sativus), including the Boston Pickling Improved, purported to be great for home pickling.
Have an abundance of homegrown zukes? Most gardeners continuously seek creative (and tasty) ways to handle the overflow of this prolific fruit (cucumbita pepo). Zucchini’s high water content makes it perfect for pickling. (For an entertaining and informative approach to great zucchini bread, see “Gad Zukes!” in ’GRIT’s November/December 2007 issue. Or find The Classic Zucchini Cookbook on the GRIT Bookshelf. Locate both online at www.Grit.com.)
It’s best to find small, firm zukes for these recipes. Feel free to use either yellow or green, or a combination. The ‘Golden Scallop,’ with mild and firm light-green flesh, could be a good choice from Heirloom Seeds.
Where would the world be without sauerkraut? This “sour cabbage” has been a nourishing, life-sustaining staple in Europe and the United States for many, many generations.
This approach isn’t really sauerkraut, it’s just another way to enjoy pickled cabbage. Red cabbage looks pretty in a jar with dill sprigs, but you also can use green cabbage.
Double or triple this recipe to accommodate the bounty of cabbage burgeoning from your garden. Try the ‘Red Acre’ and ‘Red Danish’ varieties (brassica oleracea).
This recipe is inspired by kimchi, the national dish of Korea. The recipe calls for kale, but you can use any greens such as spinach, collards, turnip or mustard. This makes a wonderful side dish, particularly on a hot summer’s day. (For more great greens recipes and tips, see GRIT’s May/June 2007 issue.)
Kale is particularly easy to grow in your own kitchen garden. Container Seeds has an organic, heirloom ‘Red Russian’ kale (brassica napus) that is extremely frost hardy.
Letitia L. Star is a freelance journalist and photographer who has written many features on food history, good eating and country living.
● Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlanksky
● As American As Apple Pie by Elaine Corn
● The Salt Institute www.SaltInstitute.org
● National Center for Home Food Preservation, www.UGA.edu/nchfp/index.html
● Canning and pickling salt recipes, www.MortonSalt.com
● Sauerkraut recipes: www.KitchenGardeners.org
What’s remarkable is that today American cooks can obtain natural, hand-harvested specialty salts with intriguing tastes, textures and colors from different parts of the globe. These may include Pink Peruvian Salt, Hawaiian Alae Salt and Danish Smoked Salt. Check out these resources for gourmet salts of all kinds