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Preserving Salts

I have something of a weakness for salt. Many a meal has been ruined for me by its absence. I’ve munched through sad, flavourless chicken baguettes, grumpy in the knowledge that they could be bearable and even delicious if only for a sprinkle of the white stuff. Like my sister, who also has a salty tooth, I’ve taken to carrying little sachets of salt in my wallet for salt emergencies, pilfered from takeaway restaurants. But my salt preferences have been shaken up by researching salt for this issue of Feast. Salt expert Mark Bitterman explained to me how the ubiquitous, pristine and uniform table salt that permeates our pantries and kitchen tables, is a product of the chemical industry, a sanitised facsimile of the heterogenous natural salts that are harvested around the world for culinary and preservative uses. His preference for minimal intervention in salt making was echoed by Max Jones, food archivist and itinerant cheesemonger, who talked to me about salt’s use in curing foods and the perils of industrial food processing.  Perhaps it’s time I swapped my sachet of Saxa for a more epicure-appropriate portable pot of artisanal fleur de sel.

Black Salt

Black Icelandic lava salt flakes.

The nature of salt

Salt is a substance we crave and one we need to stay alive.1 It is unlike the other foods we consume, as it is not immediately derived from a living source; since prehistoric times humans have taken salt from the sea or from rock deposits. It is the only mineral that we consume regularly in its mineral form.2 Very occasionally others are used in foods, for example gold leaf for decoration, but salt is the main example of human consumption of geologically intact minerals.

Salt is like no other substance we eat. Sodium chloride is a simple, inorganic mineral: it comes not from plants or animals or microbes, but from the oceans, and ultimately from the rocks that erode into them.


There is no variety of plant or breed of animal that has been cultivated as food for as long, in as many paces, and in as many ways as salt. It is not only the only universal food, it is also the most varied.


Yet there is more to salt than pure utility; it is a subjectively experienced phenomenon that in the right quantities, gives us pleasure and satisfaction through its taste. One of the five basic tastes, salt plays a foundational role in cookery. It is a “taste enhancer and taste modifier”5, giving particular qualities to our sensory experience and interpretation of food.

In addition to adding desired saltiness to food, salts potentiate flavour through the selective suppression of bitterness (and perhaps other undesirable flavours), and the release from suppression of palatable flavours such as sweetness.


Furthermore, salt has a seemingly magical ability to preserve food which in pre-modern times was essential for the survival of communities. This preservative capacity, along with our fundamental biological reliance on it and its culinary advantages, have historically made it a highly valued commodity, both banal and luxury.7 As Mark Kurlansky’s monograph on salt so eloquently describes, salt has been at the root of conflicts, powered economies, shaped nations and redrawn borders.

For much of history, the story has been much the same wherever salt was produced: whoever controlled salt making had the economic upper hand.



salt crystals © Mark Bitterman

‘Natural’ vs industrial salts

The processes of salt production have undergone huge changes in the last two hundred years. Until the nineteenth century, salt was rather taken for granted as a product of the natural environment and generally made in localised, low-impact ways. Broadly speaking, there are two types of salt, rock and evaporative.

Rock salts are mined from salt deposits in the earth. Evaporative salts are crystallised from saltwater seas, lakes or springs… the vast majority of artisan salts are evaporative salts, each a manifestation of the unique circumstances inspiring and constraining its production.


These were complex, unrefined salts made with high levels of human skill to longstanding traditions. They were unique and characterful, expressing the heterogenous landscape and environmental characteristics of where they were made, with variety in flavour, strength and texture. The term ‘merroir’ is sometimes used to describe the particular qualities associated with coastal salts; like ‘terroir’ is used to describe the impact of particular environmental conditions (of land) on the taste of wine. 
However, things changed dramatically in the 1800s when the extraction of salt from natural sources took a leap into mechanised modernity. In the nineteenth century, industrialists in Cheshire began to use pumps to extract ground water for the intensive boiling of brine, reflecting the global transition to industrial salt production.

Lsw Archive Shot Of Men At Work Over A Steaming Salt Pan 1

Men work over a steaming, iron salt pan at the Lion Salt Works.
Photograph courtesy of Lion Salt Works.

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A steaming, iron salt pan, full of brine heated by coal furnaces beneath.
Photograph courtesy of the Lion Salt Work

According to Mark Bitterman, whose book Salted is an expert text on the history of culinary salt, salt making on an artisanal, regional basis reached its peak worldwide in the mid 1800s.10 After this traditional ways of making salt started to decline all over the world.  The trajectory of salt’s production reflects the evolution of our food systems more generally towards intensive, industrial, and standardised processes of production.

The sophisticated artisanal techniques developed over millennia to cope with the considerable topographic and climatologic constraints of northern Europe were no match for such economies of scale… by the end of the 1800s, artisanal salt making was in rapid decline in Europe; by the 1960s mechanised salt producers had obliterated most small-scale saltworks around the globe.


This up-scaling of production was further consolidated by developments in the chemical refinement of salt, stripping the natural salt of its other minerals to produce more standardised sodium chloride crystals. As a result, mass produced iodised table salt is nutritionally depleted compared to most traditional salts. But that’s only one issue; Bitterman and others insist that it is bereft of flavour as well. After some salt-tasting experiments myself, I would agree. While some traditional salts, like Trapani, are strong and intense, overall the ones I tasted were more complex and nuanced in flavour, lacking the harshness that defines table salt.


Salt farms, Guatemala 
© Mark Bitterman

Revival of traditional salt making

In recent decades artisans and food activists have rallied to preserve traditional salt production. There has been some success, even though the vast majority of salt consumed globally is still industrially made. Consumer demand for traditional salts has played a big role. There has been a backlash against ‘Big Salt’, linked to a broader food movement reacting to unsustainable agricultural practices, highly processed food, and the overall industrial commodification of food systems. For a long time, industrial salt was the absolute standard and salt was treated as a chemical substance rather than something with character or localised qualities. I spoke with Mark Bitterman about the revival of these older ways of making salt. He explains,

nobody really appreciates right now that these older ways of making salt bordered on extinction. In the mid twentieth century we went through the industrialisation of food along with the industrialisation of everything else. By the 1970’s we’d pretty much forgotten about salt as food. When I was a kid, a child of the seventies and eighties, there was no such thing as salt that was not just a chemical out of a tube, out of a box.

Mark’s fascination with the substance springs from a salt-sprinkled steak epiphany he had while living in France in the mid-eighties. His experiences led him to Guérande, where the saltmakers or paludiers of the region, historically famous for sea salt, were agitating for their rights and working cooperatively to save their tradition. Mark says, "they had been forced to try to compete with increasingly industrialised processes, in the Mediterranean, around the world, where salt was being made on a vast scale, cheaply and an inferior quality. They said this is part of our cultural patrimony, this is part of our foodways." He realised that,

salt was a food, that it has tradition, that it has an intimate connection to the environment, so intimate that it’s almost uniquely intimate, almost like no other food, and above all, bar none, a connection to history.

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Guérande salt marsh

Bitterman opened a shop called The Meadow, in Portland, Oregon with his wife Jennifer in 2006. The shop showcases salts from around the world.  He believes that the search for speciality food and luxury is eternal, from Pliny’s flo salis to Guérande’s fleur de sel, the Romans to the Phoenicians, “Interest in the quality of salt goes back to the beginning”. That includes both good and bad salt. For instance,

there was an incredible amount of vitriol around ‘Liverpool salt’. There was a lot of coal in the north of England so they had the ability to burn a lot of coal. They made enormous qualities of this incredibly bad salt which they would send all over the world as part of their trade practice, and dump the salt there virtually for free, disrupting if not destroying salt making economies all around the world. You can find all this literature calling it blown salt. They talk about it tasting like hell, they said it corrupts the food, defiles the senses. It was recognised as an inferior product that was a bad thing for the economy, ecology and the cuisine. For me that’s interesting, that my dislike for products that are big and industrial like kosher salt and industrial sea salt, I’m just continuing what was there before.

The shop started off quite casually, but he says he soon became politicised, “I want to fight for what is needed in our society, that is that authentic connection, real relationships between the food itself, the makers, the earth itself and the people that sell the food. That’s what is meaningful”. In line with a broader food movement which prioritises ethical and quality foods over industrial and environmentally unsound products traditionally made salt has had a revival.  Mark’s shop was an early outpost for the movement, but specialist food shops and delis in general have been expanding their selection of salts including, for example, Himalayan salt, flake salts, sea salts and black salts.

1600Px Salt Evaporation Ponds Ston Croatia

Salt evaporation ponds, Ston, Croatia.

The Guérande peninsula mentioned by Mark, is now a famous example of how traditional ways of salt making have been protected. Similar examples of protected means of salt production can be found in relation to Japanese Moshio seaweed salts, Slovenian salt made in Sečovlje salt pans

and many others. Recently, the international Slow Food organisation included a number of centres of salt production in their protected ‘Ark of Taste’; Añana salt valley in the Basque province of Álava, Ston in Croatia, and Zerradoun in Morocco. The Ark aims to protect food heritage and the environment of its production. In the food world there has been a shift to acknowledge the culinary superiority of traditional salts, particularly artisanal sea salts. The most famous celebrity endorsement of a salt is perhaps Maldon from Essex, which Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and recently Goop-y Gwyneth Paltrow have promoted as the ‘must-have’ cooking salt.12  In contrast, industrial salt has been painted as an environmental villain, for instance, the huge coastal salt mine in Baja, Mexico, part owned by Mitsubishi, has had a detrimental effect on Californian grey whales.13 Compared to this, preindustrial salt production had a much lower level of environmental impact, and was in many ways beneficial to the surrounding ecology. As Mark explains,

Traditional salt production is a kind of magical dance with nature that actually fosters wildlife, biodiversity, wetland health, community health. There’s a huge difference between these folk farmers working together as a community versus these industrial mega farms. Those solar salt works create massive ecologies for birds and shellfish, they integrate into ecosystems.

While a return to artisanal, natural salt seems unequivocally a good thing, locavore and organic trends can often be expensive and unaffordable.  Obsession with food trends can further result in a throwaway, commodified relationship to food and the natural world. I discuss ‘foodie-ism’ with with Mark, who highlights the importance of respecting food heritage.

I don’t consider myself a foodie. What I think a foodie is somebody who fetishises food. I don’t fetishise it. I will just as soon eat a burger in a fisherman’s dive bar in a crappy little town as eat in a fine dining restaurants in Paris or New York. I like both. It’s when people say, I don’t care about the thing I just want the semblance of connecting to the thing. I want to attach myself to a product and not have to invest myself in it or know about it or care about it. It’s wanting the security of belonging to the tribe of people who use particular things. Wanting to belong to that tribe is great, but as long as you respect that. I like food for what it is and above all I love home cooking. I love food for its role in our lives, as a connector to nature and farmers and markets

Bitterman sees preserving artisanal, ecological salt production as fundamentally important to how we eat but also to food systems. I ask if he is hopeful about the future of salt. He says,

I am very hopeful. I think the alternative is the world ecology collapses. I don’t know how much more devastation there has to be before we see it prevail. Salt exists because of the incredible importance of the ocean, which is the foundation of the entire planetary ecology. Salt farming is the foundational economic enterprise that preserves coastal health and wetland health.

Curing with salts: preserving artisanal crafts

As well as the direct use of salt in cooking and seasoning, it is also central to preserving foods, such as in fermentation and curing. Curing processes, quite simply, involve rubbing salts into meat or vegetables. This draws out the moisture, reducing its water potential and increasing its solute potential. In so doing the produce becomes inhospitable for microbes which would otherwise proliferate and spoil the food. Through the curing process new and often potent flavours are created, highlighting the relationship between salt, its preserving function and its resulting alchemical impact on taste. Salt has been used in this way for millenia by artisans to make traditional foods like cheese, salami, and smoked fish. Salt is a crucial ingredient in our global culinary heritage.

Max Jones1

Sally Barnes, Woodcock Smokery 
image © Max Jones

I spent some time with Max Jones, a cheese monger, food archivist and filmmaker who has been traveling around Europe intricately documenting food crafts at risk of being lost. He has spent time learning from a number of craft producers, most recently from the legendary wild fish smoker Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery in County Cork, Ireland. I was curious about how Max understands salt as a working ingredient as opposed to one for seasoning, based on insights from the food producers he has worked with. His initial reaction was to point out salt’s role as flavour-enhancer rather than primary actor in terms of taste, while also highlighting its functional role,

I’ve yet to be thrilled by tasting salt in the way that I might be by eating an interesting cheese, or piece of charcuterie, but it is precisely salt which allows us to preserve base fats and proteins and promote or curb fermentation into some of the most incredible flavours available to us.

At the same time, he recognises salt flavour can be sensorially discerned, using acoustic qualities as a way to understand how different salts vary in taste.

We can use different salt to maximum effect on an organoleptic level. For example, I have come across salt in small, hand sized holes in rocks, dried by the unusually sunny summer in Ireland that had been splashed up by busy waves at high tide, evaporating off a bit, filling again, getting ever more salty through gentlest evaporation, until perfect, perfect pyramid crystals had formed, the size of your fingernail. Having gathered enough to actively use for the kitchen, its very round, flat, bassy character lent itself particularly well to zippy and tart labneh and young acidic cheeses, whereas the salt a friend gave me that he obtained from a more intense, heated evaporation and micron filtration had a very spiky, trebly attack to it that sits well with oily fish or fried food.

His work with artisans has given him a more ambivalent perspective on the importance of using particular or specialist salts. In his experience, artisan makers often see salt as a primarily a utilitarian ingredient. Perhaps this is because the salt immediately and obviously available to them is of high quality.  He says,

they didn’t have options, they would just go with what was readily available to them. As an example, just earlier today I was with a fourth-generation traditional cheese and charcuterie producer who makes an unusual pork blood, potato and bull meat salami in the Italian pre-alps. When we came to the salting, I asked him what salt he used:

“what do you mean?”

“you know, what salt do you use?”

*genuine blank expression *


“but is there anything else in it?”


I then went to the store room to look for the salt and it was in one of those brilliant boxes from the 90s that was bought in bulk, with the logo and font designed in the sixties that had just one thing on the ingredients list, “Sale Marino”.

Just salt from the sea.”

Purity and contamination

But when is salt ‘just salt from the sea”?  Questions of purity and ‘naturalness’ are difficult to navigate in today’s hyper-processed and polluted world, whether than be contaminated seawater or the addition of anomalous chemicals during the processing period. While sea salt is often held up as being of better flavour and more mineral-filled, Max draws attention to the question of the environmental degradation of coastal areas. He says,

once upon a time sea salt was desired for its purity, and Halite, or rock salt was sometimes considered an inferior, tainted option on a level of mineral impurity. A thought that always excited me was that if I ever stopped to live in one place and it were by the sea, I would want to process my local seawater to preserve the fish I caught. But now, looking at the level of corruption of the earth’s waters through pollution, I think potentially I might be more inclined to seek out rock-salt found in mines, as Halite was the salt of seas from millions of years ago, before industry and excess trivialised our ancestral engagement with nature and food.

Returning to the issue of chemical interference in our foods, Max mentions a processed salt additive that is commonly found in salt used in curing foods. Considered safe by the EU for use in food preservation, nonetheless it is an example of the industrial, and consequently often chemical, interference that many food activists would rather was not part of our everyday diet.

In Ireland and other parts of Europe, if you make food, you are often required by law to use FOOD GRADE SALT. But if you look at the ingredients list, it reads “Sodium chloride and E535”. If you then decide to look into what E535 is, you will find that it serves to prevent the salt from absorbing moisture which makes it occasionally clump together, known as an “anti-caking” agent. And if you then get past “anti-caking agent” to its actual, chemical nomenclature, you will find this, and take from it what you will: E353 = Sodium Ferrocyanide. To navigate the mountain of misinformation in the world of gastronomy these days is a task of monumental proportion that none of us should have had to take on. But unfortunately, we must.

Considering salt

The history of salt production offers a particularly sharp lens on the evolution of food systems more broadly. Salt is a substance that exists plentifully in the natural world, can be made available to eat and to preserve with fairly minimal intervention and ecological impact. This process has been transformed by industrial technology.  Developments in the nineteenth and twentieth century led to a chemical standardisation of salt, a distancing of salt from its heterogenous landscape origins. While this has consequences for our general health; processed salt is mineral deficient compared to natural salts; an additional deficiency comes in terms of the taste. This re-appreciation of the better flavour of traditional salts has led to a resurgence of consumer interest in ‘speciality salts’ and preservation of artisanal salt traditions. At the same time, the sale of artisan salt as a consumer product is an example of the difficulty of negotiating a direct and authentic relationship with food in a highly commodified global food marketplace, a market in which artisanal and ecologically sensitive foodways are increasingly under threat. But whether we take it for granted or exalted as a luxury, our appetite for salt will ensure that it always remains on the table. Or for some of us, as a portable supply – whether speciality or plain old table salt - in our wallets.


Mark Bitterman at salt farm
© Mark Bitterman

For further information on the work of Mark Bitterman and Max Jones:
Mark Bitterman
Max Jones Instagram @uptherethelast

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen (revised edition). Scribner: New York 2004, p. 644.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Very occasionally others are used in foods, for example gold leaf for decoration, but salt is the main example of human consumption of geologically intact minerals.

Go to footnote reference 3.

McGee, p.640.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Mark Bitterman, Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes. Berkeley, Ca: Ten Speed Press 2010, p.9.

Go to footnote reference 5.

McGee, p.640.

Go to footnote reference 6.

P. A. S. Breslin & G. K. Beauchamp (1997) "Salt enhances flavour by suppressing bitterness". Nature 387, p.563.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History. London: Jonathan Cape 2002, pp.11-13 & 203.

Go to footnote reference 8.

ibid. p.22.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Bitterman, p.48.

Go to footnote reference 10.

ibid., p.24.

Go to footnote reference 11.


Go to footnote reference 12.

'The Story of Maldon Salt', Bon Appetit 31 March 2017 [accessed online]

Go to footnote reference 13.

'Ecologists Fear Baja Salt Mine Would Threaten Gray Whales', LA Times, 6 March 1995 [accessed online]

Caitriona Devery

Caitríona Devery is a contributing editor to FEAST. She currently works as a research manager at the Earth Institute in University College Dublin. She is the Food and Drink editor for Dublin's District Magazine and features writer for its food offshoot CHAR.