The Global Chef: Sea salt ingredient makes waves

For decades we savvy cooks have dutifully stocked our shelves with sea salt, shunning iodized table salt with artificial additives. Sea salt naturally contains the minerals sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, bromide, chloride, iron, copper, iodine and zinc, among other beneficial trace elements valuable for healthy functioning.

Recent studies have found that sea salt has an unexpected ingredient. That mineral rich sea salt you so lovingly purchase just may be infusing your cells with plastic.

According to researchers from South Korea and Greenpeace East Asia, recent evaluations revealed that 90 percent of salt brands had alarmingly high levels of microplastic contamination. Plastic pollution was first discovered in the 1960s during studies of ocean pollution; it has risen more in the last decade than in the previous five to six decades together.

Salt has the magnificent ability to preserve and flavor food. It insinuates itself into meat or fish and deepens flavor when rubbed on before cooking. A short dip in salt brine moves salt into meat fibers to increase flavor, juiciness and texture. Salt sprinkled on apples, watermelon or atop caramel makes the taste sharper and sweeter. Salt softens “off tastes” and draws out bitterness. Briefly salt raw fish or seafood, rinse to remove fishy odors and improve texture.

Until the last century, salt was expensive and in short supply. Although salt was all around us — the seas, oceans, lakes, rivers and inside the earth — extracting it was slow and laborious. Modern technology has made salt cheap and abundant, for use in everything from gravlax (a Nordic salmon dish), sausage, salad and corn chips to pickles and kraut. Salt continues to be important and precious. We are hard-wired for it — and nothing else can fulfill our taste or need for it.

Microplastic levels are highest in sea salt and lake salt and lowest or absent from rock salt (crystallized). Rock salt results from the evaporation of ancient oceans. Industrial salt production uses two methods: mining (rock salt) or salt water brine evaporation (solar or by open-pan or vacuum heating). Vacuum heating results in the cleanest sea salt. Brine may also be artificially produced by dissolving mined rock salt or by pumping water into wells drilled into rock salt.

The salt study, published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology,” found only three of 39 salts were plastic-free: Himalayan, Hawaiian Red and Redmond Real Salt (mined in Utah).

We're literally drowning in plastic; it’s nearly impossible to escape. Plastic is cytotoxic to human cells and is a known endocrine disruptor. It’s in plastic water bottles, disposable bags, take-out containers, toys, dry cleaning bags, utensils, plates, cups, bowls and packaging, toothpaste, deodorant, skin cream, exfoliants, kitchen tools and utensils, balloons and fleece clothing (which shed microplastic fibers when laundered), to name a few.

Plastic is so immortal that the EPA acknowledged that every bit of plastic ever made still exists. All five of the Earth's major circular ocean currents are inundated with plastic pollution; the largest has been called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

What’s the solution? April 22 was Earth Day. In honor of this day and of our home, Mother Earth, we can begin to clean up our oceans by abstaining from or limiting the use of plastics in all forms. Reduce single-use plastics. Recycle. Organize a beach or river cleanup. Support bans. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads and fleece. Spread the word. Support organizations addressing plastic pollution.

Salt is our planet’s premier flavor-enhancer. Not only are human tastebuds hard-wired for it but, like the oceans, we are made of it: human blood salt levels are similar to ocean levels.

A step closer to our planet’s health is a step closer to your own.

Salmon Gravlax with Fresh Dill

Gravalax is best saved for very fresh salmon. Purchase bouncy fillets without splits, mushiness or liquid drainage. Check for salmon that is not endangered, and environmentally sound. Wild Alaskan salmon is a prime choice.

Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Yields 6 to 8 servings as a starter or main dish salad; 10 to 12 as party food

The Salmon

1 t. whole coriander seeds

1 T. black peppercorns

1/2 c. sugar

1/3 c. coarse sea salt or Kosher salt

1-1/2 lb. center-cut fresh wild salmon fillet

1 c. tightly-packed and chopped fresh dill

Dill Mustard Sauce (Yields 1 cup)

1 small garlic clove, peeled and minced

3 T. finely diced onion

1/4 c. cider vinegar

2 T. sugar

3 T. cold-pressed canola oil

1/2 c. coarse-grain dark mustard

1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh dill, tightly-packed and chopped

For Serving:

1 small loaf dense black bread such as pumpernickel, thinly sliced and cut into triangles

2 English cucumbers peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds

Dill sprigs

Lemon wedges

Two to three days before serving: In a small skillet over medium heat toast coriander seeds until aromatic, about 3 minutes. Transfer to mortar and cool. Add peppercorns and crush coarsely. Mix with sugar and salt. Before coating salmon with spice mixture remove pinbones with tweezers.

In a shallow glass or china dish just large enough to hold fish, spread one-half cup of chopped fresh dill, then half the sugar-salt mixture. Set fillet skin side down on mixture. Press remaining dill into fish. Pack sugar mixture over fish. Cover with plastic wrap. Place a cake pan atop the salmon and weight with heavy cans. Refrigerate 2 to 3 days. Turn fish every 12 hours. Baste with the cure each time.

Prepare the mustard sauce up to 3 days ahead: Blend mustard sauce ingredients. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Refrigerate until 30 minutes before serving.

To serve: Gently scrape dill and spices from both sides of the fish. Pat dry. Place it on a cutting board skin side down and slice very thin, on a slant, across the grain, freeing each slice from the skin. Fan the slices out on a platter and refrigerate. Garnish fish with dill sprigs, wedges of lemon and cucumber rounds. Arrange bread in a basket. Place mustard sauce in a bowl with serving spoon.

To eat: Spread a thin film of sauce on a cucumber slice or piece of bread (or both), top with salmon and squeeze a little lemon over the fish.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines."

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