YOU Magazine - October 2008 - Salt It's the Spice of Life By Kirk Leins
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It's the Spice of Life
By Kirk Leins

Salt - It's the Spice of Life - By Kirk Leins

Salt – it is a simple word, yet a complicated subject, well kind of. Scientifically speaking, it is a very basic compound. Historically, however, we are talking about one of the world's oldest and richest resources, with applications ranging from food to textiles. So, do yourself a "flavor" and follow along as I apply a little reasoning to the world's greatest seasoning.

What is salt?
It doesn't seem prudent to begin our examination of salt without first addressing what it actually is. In terms of chemistry, salt is the combination of two elements, sodium and chloride. It is not only one of the most basic molecules on earth it is also one of the more abundant. Salt can be found in seawater, as well as in the form of evaporite minerals (rock salt), typically the result of enclosed waterbeds having evaporated.

The compound known as salt is absolutely crucial to life as we know it. Our bodies actually require it in order to regulate fluid levels. Salt also happens to be pretty important to the world's economy, as it has literally thousands of commercial applications. Paper, dyes and detergents all contain salt. Think about how many products and services utilize at least one of the three. It is also used to soften water, deliver trace minerals to livestock, keep our roads free of snow and ice, and preserve food.

Salt even has a deep meaning within many religions. In Catholicism, its use as a purifier dates back to the Old Testament. It is believed that the word "salvation" actually stems from this practice. In Judaism, salt was used historically as a temple offering on the Sabbath. To this day, salt water is part of a traditional Passover dinner, symbolizing the tears of Jewish slaves. In eastern religions such as Buddhism and Shintoism, salt is thought to drive away evil spirits.

If you haven't already figured it out, salt is such a large subject that a complete examination would require a doctoral thesis. My goal, rather, is to impress upon you one idea - salt is hugely important to the body, mind and soul.

3 types of salt
Before we go any further, I think it's important to talk about some of the more popular types of salt for cooking, as well as their more common uses.

Iodized Salt (table salt)
This is the stuff that's found in most saltshakers. It is made by filling salt deposits with water and allowing it to evaporate. The crystals left behind are then refined and iodized. If you're asking why the iodine, it was an attempt on behalf of the Morton Salt Company in 1924 to reduce the number of goiters in Americans. Strangely enough, it worked!

Personally, the only time I ever utilize table salt is if I'm at a restaurant and my food comes to me under-seasoned. I hardly use it at home as I don't cook with it, and rarely do I bake with it. It's considered to be very salty in flavor and due to its superfine texture it is difficult to determine how much you're actually using without measuring it first.

Kosher Salt
Aside from iodine not being added, Kosher salt differs from table salt because it is raked when harvested. This process yields larger and more square-shaped grains. While the salt itself is Kosher, its name actually reflects its use in the process of Koshering meat. That being said, Kosher salt happens to be an awesome everyday salt. Aside from being inexpensive, it is less salty than its iodized cousin and the larger grains allow for easy handling. It can be used for cooking and as a tableside condiment.

Sea Salt
Available in both fine and coarse grains, as well as flakes, sea salt is obtained by evaporating seawater. Since there are many seas, it shouldn't be hard to imagine that there are many types of sea salt, ranging from cheap to costly. The inexpensive stuff can be used just like Kosher salt. The more expensive sea salts should either be used for smaller applications, or as a finishing touch to a special meal. Sea salt has become a diverse business, as many are now being infused with wonderful flavors, such as truffles and various herbs.

The recipes…
Picking out the recipes for this article was no easy task. We're talking about salt, so I had a lot of dishes to choose from. After much deliberation I picked three, each one utilizing a different type of salt. I think you're going to love all of them, so let's get to it.

Salt-Crusted Whole Sea Bass (serves 2)
Crusting a whole fish in salt is an age-old technique that works wonders. By forming a mound of salt around the fish, you are locking in both flavor and juiciness.

The first concern most people have is that a salt crust equals salty food. I'm here to tell you that will not happen. The second issue you may have has to do with cooking a whole fish; head, tail, bones and skin included. Follow the instructions I'm about to put forth and you'll wind up with one of the best-tasting fish dinners you've ever had. Kosher salt is perfect for this preparation.

  • 1 whole sea bass (1.5 -2 lbs.), head and tail left on but gutted and scaled
  • 1 3-lb. box of Kosher salt
  • 5 egg whites, lightly beaten
  • Several sprigs of any fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, dill, etc.)
  • 1/2 of a lemon, sliced thinly (cut the remaining half into wedges for garnish)
  • Finely chopped parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine entire box of kosher salt with egg whites. Using a spoon, mix until it resembles wet sand. Set aside.

Allow fish to come close to room temperature. Season the inside with salt and pepper and stuff with lemon slices and sprigs of fresh herbs. Rub the outside of the fish with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Set aside.

On a cookie sheet, press a ¼-inch layer of salt mixture, large enough to hold the fish. Make sure the salt is packed well. Lay the fish on top. Using the remainder of the salt, cover the entire fish and pack well ensuring the entire fish is enclosed.

Place the sheet pan in the center of the oven's middle rack. Roast the fish for 25 minutes, or until the salt is golden brown and hardened. Remove from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

Using the back of a kitchen knife, crack the salt crust. Carefully remove the top portion of the crust and discard. Peel back the skin on the top of the fish. Using a spatula, carefully remove the top filet and place in a serving dish. Don't worry if it breaks into a few pieces. Remove the skeleton bone in one piece. Remove the bottom filet from the skin and place alongside the first filet.

Season filets with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges. Enjoy.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina with Arugula and Tomatoes (serves 2 to 3)
For those who don't speak Italian, "Bistecca alla Fiorentina" is simply "Florentine-style steak", and it's one of the quintessential Tuscan dishes. Traditionally, it is made with thickly cut, porterhouse steaks from the Chianina oxen of Italy. Since Chianina beef will be difficult for most of you to find, I'd suggest using the best Prime porterhouses you can get your hands on. This steak is a minimalist's dream as it is seasoned very simply with high quality sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Speaking of sea salt, I hit up our old friend, Jeff Chandler, from to see if he had any suggestions. A favorite of Jeff's and one of his website's top-selling products is Ravida Sea Salt ($7.95 for 7 ounces), harvested from the Mediterranean waters along the western coast of Sicily. The Ravida family has been producing this delicious, nutritious and unrefined salt for over 300 years. I gave it a whirl and I have to say it was great. It did a tremendous job in bringing out the flavor of the meat without making it taste salty.

  • (1) 2-2.5-lb. Prime Porterhouse steak, approximately 2½-inches thick
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Ravina sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4-6 C baby arugula
  • 1 large ripe tomato
  • 1 lemon

Allow the steak to come to room temperature and heat your outdoor grill.

Lightly brush each side of the steak with olive oil and liberally season with sea salt and black pepper.

Place steak on hottest part of grill and cook for 4 minutes per side (approximately 8 minutes total), flipping and re-seasoning it every two minutes. At some point in this process, it may be necessary to move your steak to a spot on the grill with less intense heat, in order to avoid burning. Perfect Bistecca alla Fiorentina has a doneness between rare and medium-rare.

Remove steak from grill and allow it to rest for 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the meat from the bone and slice it across the grain into ½-inch thick pieces. Serve the slices over a bed of arugula, garnished with olive oil, a touch more sea salt, lemon wedges and sliced tomato.

Black Truffle-Scented Roasted Potatoes (serves 4)
I told Jeff that I wanted to make a potato dish that could accompany either the sea bass or the steak. When I asked him for a salt recommendation, he shot out an answer – "Selezione Tartufi" (truffle salt)!

Jeff's truffle salt is made from sea salt harvested from caves in the Emilia Romagna region. The salt is then blended with black summer truffles from Umbria. This is a 5% truffle salt and it sells for $17.95 for a 100-gram jar. To say that its effect on roasted potatoes is fantastic would be a major understatement. These taters will make you cry.

  • 2 lbs. baby new potatoes
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Truffle salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves (optional)
  • Non-stick spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a cookie sheet with non-stick cooking spray and wipe away any excess with a paper towel.

Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and place inside a mixing bowl. Drizzle the potatoes with two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss the potatoes by hand, lightly massaging them with the olive oil. Transfer potatoes to cookie sheet and liberally season with truffle salt and pepper. Sprinkle with thyme leaves and roast for 45 minutes, turning them every 12 to 15 minutes.

My dissertation on salt has come to a grinding halt, but not for good. You see, as I was writing this article, several salt recipes that I hadn't considered began popping into my head. There's Moroccan-style cured lemons, salt and pepper shrimp, brined pork chops, margaritas…. See what I mean? Needless to say, don't be surprised if we revisit the subject of salt somewhere down the road. It's much too important not to do so.

For a glimpse at all of the wonderful products that Jeff Chandler sells, log on to The site has a new and improved look, and features some of the finest olive oil, vinegar and sea salt that Italy has to offer.

Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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