Interview with Mark Bitterman, Leading Expert on Culinary Salts

  ElevenKindsOfSalt
So many great finishing salts to try!

I've been fascinated with the wide variety of salts available for cooking and especially finishing your dishes for years. After I wrote about the importance of salt, I learned of The Meadow, a shop in Portland, Oregon that carries a large and beautifully curated selection. I visited their brick & mortar store a few months ago and came home with some incredible items.

The Meadow's owner is Mark Bitterman. He's not in this just to make a buck; he's insanely, utterly passionate about salt. I recently had the opportunity to interview him. If you find his thoughts interesting, you might like to pre-order his book, Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes, which will be out in the fall, and I highly recommend you pick up one or more of The Meadow's salts.

I think my current favorite is the Haleakala Ruby, which I brought to Salty Seattle's recent taste test, and I hear it won one of the best pairing categories! But it would be hard to pass up the Iburi Jio cherry-smoked salt from Japan or the Black Diamond. You can find them all on The Meadow's website.

Here is the interview with Mark Bitterman:

Me: You've had quite a varied career! How did you go from editing a journal on superconductivity to salt expert?

Mark B: It was the superconductivity effort that was a lark, not the salt. I've worked as a writer for much of my life, but I've been an avid traveler and eater since forever. I discovered salt when I first visited France about 25 years ago, motorcycling around the countryside and eating. I later lived in the south of France for a number of years restoring a chateau, and eating incredible food. Chefs would come visit and they'd actually bring their salt with them! I took note: salt was a core ingredient, an ingredient with place, purpose, and its own majesty.

Me: Other than flavored salts, do you find that different salts have a strongly different taste, or are the main differences in texture and color?

Mark B.: The most important thing to take into account when thinking about salt is that the flavor of the salt itself is not what matters. Nobody eats salt by itself. What matters is the interraction of the salt and the food. Three main things that determine how salt will play up the flavors of food are its crystal shape, its mineral content, and the residual moisture caught up in the crystals. Delicate moist clean flavored fleur de sel is the go-to salt for all the subtle to medium bodied and flavored foods, from buttered toast to steamed veggies to fish to caramels. Snappy bright flake salts are great for fresh vegetables and green salads, or anywhere that you want a spark of salt to contrast vibrantly with the food. Coarse minerally sel gris is the best salt for finishing red meats, root vegetables, and other heartier foods, and this is also your go-to salt for most cooking uses, from boiling pasta water to rubbing the cavity of a chicken before roasting.

Me: The Meadow has one of the most extensive and best documented collections of salts that I've seen. How do you go about finding new products?

Mark B.: We scour the earth, we read everything, we have friends and customers from all the corners of the globe that bring us stuff, and sometimes we just get lucky. But I'm always looking for salt, ALWAYS.

Me: What are the best uses for salts with very large flakes, like your Black Diamond?

Mark B.: Those hefty flakes salts are great for adding drama to a dish. Peas and flake salt give geometric electric pizzaz to the spherical sweet vegetables. Black Diamond salt is a great salt for sprinkling atop any pasta dish, risottos, polentas, on baked potatoes, grilled salmon and other fish. I make a pumpkin soup topped with toasted sesame seeds, guacamole, crème fraiche, and Dlack Diamond salt and it ROCKS.

(Me: Indeed it does! I hope you all enjoyed the interview with Mark and are motivated to try some new salts. They can really be an easy way to make your dishes sing. It takes only tiny amounts to finish a plate, so although you might think they sound a little pricey, you'll find that they last a long time.)

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, June 10th, 2010 in Miscellany.

13 Responses to “Interview with Mark Bitterman, Leading Expert on Culinary Salts”

  1. June 10, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    I am a confessed salt lover. I love the Meadow. I bought so many goodies when I was there and had them shipped back to Michigan. (In fact in my most recent post I show a beautiful little salt spoon I bought there). Great interview. I wonder what salt is Bitterman’s favorite?

  2. June 10, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Michael great article, I have been a fan of salts but have not been down to Meadow. Thanks for the heads up, I look forward to seeing at least part of your demo today at QA farmers market.

  3. Fran
    June 10, 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    Hi, I live in England and near to where Maldon Sea Salt is produced. This is the favourite salt of the top chefs (including the French). I have never heard of black salt but would love to try it.

  4. Michael Natkin
    June 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    I'm with you… Maldon would be my "you can only take one to a desert island" salt.

  5. Karen
    June 11, 2010 at 4:34 am #

    Um… his name is Bittman – not Bitterman

  6. Heather
    June 11, 2010 at 4:34 am #

    Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! (Just gearing up for the World Cup.) As an Australian ex-pat in Philadelphia, I was so happy to find Murray River pink salt from Australia at our local Whole Foods. Flaky like Maldon but the flakes are smaller and more delicate. Worth seeking out, for sure. Thanks for this interview. I found it very interesting and look forward to seeing some special salt recipes here.

  7. Michael Natkin
    June 11, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    Hey Karen – nope, this is a different person. I could see why you would be confused though, very similar names!

  8. June 11, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    Weeeee I don’t have time to read this, will keep it for later…just a quick note to tell you that I linked you on a chain on link to alessandrazecchini.blogspot.com

    maybe fun…

    ciao
    A

  9. Jan
    June 15, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Neat article! I am obsessed with gourmet salts myself, and have been using them for years. I’ve tried the Black Diamond, and it is very nice. From another of my most favorite salt shops, SaltTraders.com you can buy a Danish viking Smoked Salt from denmark – wow — that takes salt to a WHOLE new level. Don’t waste your time with other smoked salts – check this one out!

  10. June 17, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Great interview, who knew that salt selections were so varied and that new salts were so sought after?

  11. Selah*
    June 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    Thanks for the article, but I was disappointed that you didn’t post information about the mineral content of different salts, and I didn’t see a note about their varying degrees of goodness to the body. Would you or Mark Bitterman comment about the nutritous value of your favorite salts? For example, how many minerals are in your salts as compared to common sea-salt? Where do your salts come from? Rocks or the sea/ocean? Are there salts that are more nutritious for the body than others? Thanks so much for answering if you can. And thanks for giving me the heads-up about The Meadow. I plan to be in Portland tomorrow so I’ll google The Meadow and try to find your brick and mortor store! :)

  12. Michael Natkin
    June 21, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Hey Selah – the detailed nutritional info is beyond the scope of my knowledge. Let me know how you like The Meadow if you go there! I think it is quite an amazing shop.

  13. September 10, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I love The Meadow and usually go when I’m in Portland. I’m sure you also know SugarPill right here in Seattle–her selection of salts is much smaller but also fun, and I love some of her infused and flavored salts (not the same thing, I know, but they’re darn tasty). :)

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