We recently visited with our friend and selmelier Mark Bitterman, the man who — quite literally — wrote the book on salt. His manifesto Salted won a James Beard Award, and now he’s teamed up with us to bring high-quality, natural salts to home cooks across the country. We chatted about the right way to salt a steak, changing your salting habits and why you need to toss that box of kosher salt tout de suit.
How did you become interested in food and cooking?
Today there are a lot of foodies out there, and there’s kind of a whole foodie culture. But I grew up before there was such a thing as a foodie. I didn’t think very seriously about food, other than it was just part of my life. We had a giant garden in my backyard. We didn’t have very much money so we grew a lot of our own food and made pretty much everything ourselves. So my background was really just naturally eating good-quality food without ever really knowing it.
It wasn’t until I traveled that I discovered something different. When I went to Europe, I suddenly saw that foods have this amazing story — the cheeses that come from a farm that’s down the road, or vegetables that come from this amazing grower and the lettuce looked like a flower it was so beautiful. And I started to pay more and more attention to food as something kind of rooted people, place and tradition. And it was this sudden realization that food speaks to something that’s maybe more than just eating.
And what about salt? What sparked an interest there?
Like anybody, I grew up with salt as just not a thought at all. It wasn’t until I was traveling — I was actually on a motorcycle trip and spent about seven years traveling all over Europe. One day, early on in that trip, I stopped off at a truck stop and I ordered a steak. I take a bite and realized that there was something going on with flavor that was blowing my mind. And I look at the salt, these beautiful, silver crystals on the surface of the steak. And I take a bite and there’s this mineraly crunch and this kind of wild unraveling of flavors as I eat. And I realized right then and there that salt isn’t just stuff. It’s not this neutral thing. It’s something that has character and soul and unique qualities. So after that, wherever I went and wherever I traveled, I’d find that there were these special salts being made all over the world. And I started to collect them. Slowly and surely, I realized that salt was probably the most varied and unusual and distinctive food that there was out there.
So can someone get away with having just one, all-purpose salt in their kitchen?
Many people come into the store with that question. And that’s a really valid question because, of course, we’re raised with one salt, so we think we need one salt. But the funny part is that it’s actually the wrong question. What we need are salts that do the job of making every food we eat taste better. And if you think about how salt is the most powerful flavor enhancer we have for food, how it’s the one thing that elevates flavor more effectively than anything else you can use — more than fire, more than spices, more than knifework, more than combinations of ingredients. Salt itself is the one thing that will elevate. So using salt well is really important. If you’re looking at how to take a salt that will make every single food taste good, why would it just be one salt?
There are many, many salts and the most natural, effective and frankly the most powerful way to use salt is to use the right salt for whatever you’re cooking. So I’ve simplified it down from the tens of thousands of salts that are out there to just three. And that gives you a core toolbox of salts that will just knock every single dish out of the park.
That’s why you have your fleur de sel, a natural, moist, mineral-rich salt. You sprinkle that on your everyday cooking: toast and butter, cooked vegetables, fish, pork.
Your second salt should be a flaky salt with parchment-fine crystals. This goes on fresh salads and any kind of bright, clean, fresh ingredients that you want to have a little bit of a sparkling pizzazz of salt.
Then you’ve got your coarse, chunky, minerally salt that’s hefty and hardy. You put that on your steaks, your lamb, your roasts, your greens — any kind of coarse, heavy dish that wants some substantial salt to back it up. So each one of those salts will have the character that will elevate and complement whatever foods there are.
You’ve said that “challenging your salting can be one of the most rewarding things you do in cooking.” Can you explain what you mean?
We grew up with salt being something very simple, and it’s tempting when you have a simple solution to keep it that way, to leave it alone. But the problem is that this is a simplification that does not serve you well. Going from a salt that costs almost nothing — cheap, industrial salt is almost free, it’s so inexpensive — to natural, whole salts is actually complicating your life somewhat, right? Let’s admit it. But you’re doing it for massive results. This is not a subtle improvement; it’s a radical improvement in how you eat and in your nutrition.
Going from an inexpensive salt to a natural, balanced high-quality salt is like going from a fiftieth of a penny or a twentieth of a penny per serving to maybe a penny a serving. And the most expensive, beautiful salt that you’re using generously — maybe that’s two pennies a serving. Choosing high quality, natural salt isn’t really the economic hurdle that you might think it is.
One of the things that I love to draw attention to in using salt is that it’s something that has character and soul — it has qualities and characteristics that you want to look at. If you just dissolve the salt into your cooking, you’re not seeing the salt crystal at all — and the crystal and the food have their own independent voices. So what’s beautiful is when you use salt as a finishing touch, you actually let the food have its own voice and the salt have its own voice and together you get a harmony.
What about the salts most people have in their kitchens, like table salt or kosher salt? Can good food come from these?
If you have a box of iodized table salt or kosher salt at home, be aware that those are actually refined chemicals that come out of a giant chemical factory. I think it’s important to recognize it for what is. I think we need to divorce ourselves from that reflexive attachment to whatever you’ve always had in your house and recognize it for what it is. It’s not food; it’s a chemical. I think the best thing to do with it, if you live in a snowy place, is to put it on your driveway in winter. You can also use it to clean cast iron. It’s a good cleaning agent, but it’s not a food.
We’re all told nowadays that the “in” salt, the hip salt is kosher salt. This is what the food magazines, the cooking TV shows, the celebrity chefs, and frankly many of the restaurants are all using, so obviously that’s the best salt. But, they’re all wrong — and not just by my standards, but by their own. No celebrity chef, no restaurant owner, no cooking show host, no food magazine editor is going to say “use the cheapest, poorest quality, most refined, artificial substance possible.” Well, that’s what kosher salt is.
The reason everyone says to use kosher salt is because it’s predictable, cheap and universally available. But we’re solving the problem by making quality salt available. And as we’ve talked about, the highest quality salt natural salt is a penny a serving, maybe two pennies a serving. Anybody can bring that into their home. And then there’s the predictability factor, which I love. The idea that food should be so uniform and predictable that every time you use it, you don’t ever have to think about it. That’s kind of the equivalent of saying, “well I’m not ever going to buy a chicken, but I’m going to buy a chicken loaf because chickens have bones and skin and they’re kind of weird to cook with.” No one would ever do that! You want fresh, whole ingredients that aren’t predictable — just like salt.
How do you suggest people ease into this new way of using and understanding salt?
You can’t really tell what a salt will do by just tasting it, because salt isn’t something you eat all by itself. So you need to try it out when you get a new salt. One of my favorite things to suggest to people is toast and butter, or just bread and butter. But always use unsalted butter. Take a nice, crusty piece of bread and smear it with some beautiful, sweet cream, unsalted butter. Sprinkle some fleur de sel on top and take a bite of that. It’ll blow your mind. Then try some coarse, chunky sel gris on top of that. It’ll be a bit more vibrant, a bit more intense, but it’s really satisfying.
I would like to extend an invitation to people to start using salt more mindfully. One of the best ways to make your food taste better is to be thoughtful about when and how you’re going to use salt. So when you’re shopping, buy unsalted ingredients — unsalted tomato sauce or tomatoes, unsalted butter especially. Any ingredient you can, buy the unsalted version of it so that once you get it back home to cook, you get to use your beautiful, natural salt instead.
Aside from salt, what else you always keep on hand in your pantry?
I think I have slightly counter-to-popular-wisdom ideas about cooking. I’m not an enemy of fat. I think that fat is a beautiful thing to use mindfully in your cooking, so I keep a pot of duck fat by the stove — and often even a pot of bacon fat. And of course I have my butter and my olive oil. I love oils a lot, and I think they’re important for transporting flavor.
I am kind of a condiment freak in general. I think I like condiments as much as I like food, for some reason. So I have lots of little chutneys and hot sauces and relishes and jams, and I use those things to add complexity to my food. I also have tons of cocktail bitters in my kitchen, as well as in my bar. Whenever I’m cooking something, I’ll deglaze the pan with wine and then I’ll add a dash of bitters or a scoop of a chutney or a jam and I’ll reduce that down with some butter for beautiful, rich flavors. It’s also a fun little shortcut to cooking.
Have you changed the way you approach certain dishes as you’ve learned more about salt?
A dish that I never thought of as being driven by salt is a simple roast chicken. I used to always make it with salt patted all around the skin with olive oil, and that would give me a salty, crusty, crispy skin — which I thought was the bomb. But then I started to do things a bit differently a few years back: I started to just rub the cavity with salt, and just rub the outside with olive oil — no salt at all. And now, I carve it at the table and sprinkle coarse, chunky sel gris all over the top of the chicken. So now I have these moist, crunchy crystals and that super juicy chicken, and the play of those two off of each other is mind blowing. You can really pull back. Carve your chicken, sprinkle some salt — it works great.
Another example is salad dressing which, to me, is one of the most mis-executed dishes in cooking. Cooking channels, professional chefs, magazines — they’ll all tell you to put salt in your dressing. And the reason is that salt is necessary to make flavor come out of vegetables. But the weird thing is that salt is the best thing there is to wilt your vegetables. So as soon as you put salt on your vegetables, you’re wilting them. So try making dressing with no salt at all. It sounds crazy, but do it. Dress your salad, toss it and serve it, then sprinkle a beautiful flake salt on top. You’ll get these bright little sparks, these crystals that dance off of the lettuce leaves, and you get much more flavor and a crispier salad at the same time.
Let’s say it’s steak night chez Bitterman. How do you salt your steak?
I’ve traveled all over the world talking to people about salting food. And I’ve learned that one of the best ways to get into a fight in Texas or Oklahoma is to tell somebody how to salt a steak. There are some really deeply held beliefs about this.
To do a steak, I think the most effective way is the 1-2 punch. Put a light sprinkling of salt on both sides of the steak and let it stand for maybe 45 minutes. The salt is going to penetrate in and release that protein-rich moisture. Then throw that on the grill or under the broiler — however you do your steak — and then, at the table, you serve it with a nice sprinkling of a coarse, chunky salt like sel gris. So you’ll have a deeper penetration of salt in the meat, developing flavor and complexity, and you also have a vibrant, crispy crystal at the very end that’s playing off the steak and elevating the whole thing.
Why did you make the leap from salt collector to salt retailer and author?
I’m not a merchant by trade, and I don’t come from a retail background, but I’ve found this to be probably the most inspiring thing that I’ve done in my life — the simple act of sharing salt with people, and sharing a few basic ideas about how to use it. I love it when customers come back in, days later, and their eyes are glowing as they tell me that this has revolutionized and transformed the way they cook. That’s incredibly rewarding. Professional chefs, James Beard Award-wining chefs say that it’s the single biggest change they’ve made to their cooking career. And that makes me confident saying that this is a formidable thing you can do to improve your cooking.
The Meadow started in 2006 and by and large, one of the reasons for the store was to find a place to keep my salts. I have about 150 salts from all over the world there. Setting up a store wasn’t something I was thinking anybody else would be interested in. But it was surprising, and I found that I had a lot to share with people. We have added a few other things — chocolate, which I love, cocktail bitters, fresh-cut flowers — really elemental things that are personal passions. So once the store opened, we found ourselves to be connected to our neighborhood and connected to the culinary world and to the farmers and chefs in town, and that just grew.
Then in 2010 we opened up a store in New York City, which was really kind of a different ball of wax. New Yorkers are interesting people and a lot of fun. I was born in New York City, so I’ve always had a connection to that part of the country. It’s a very different kind of culinary world than in Portland, Oregon. People there love restaurants, and here in Portland we really love the food itself. They love the dining experience and we love the shopping experience. I found this difference to be really stimulating and exciting.
Back then, there was no book on salt. Here’s the most important ingredient in the world, the most universal ingredient, the most powerful and diverse and there’s nothing written on it. So kind of out of my own personal frustrations, I pitched the idea of a book. And so I wrote Salted, which catalogs about 160 salts from all around the world, with recipes and some history and background on salt.
Then in 2013, we opened up another store, this time on the west side of Portland, so now we have three locations. Each store is kind of its own personal place. I actually built the stores by hand myself. I like carpentry, and the natural materials and woods. It’s kind of a project for me. I keep kidding around that I like to open new stores just because I get to build them with my own two hands — it’s a lot of fun.
And each of these shops is really just a personal source of joy for me.