Pass the Salt

WNYC gets the great salt debate and a quick rundown of a few finishing salts.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Meadow, a store that offers more than 100 types of gourmet salt, opened in the West Village this past November. At first glance, the timing seems like it couldn’t be worse. Last year, New York City joined the National Salt Reduction Initiative, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg heavily publicized the campaign to lower sodium in foods. The initiative was just the start to a much more nuanced debate, one that was dubbed “the Salt Wars,” by former New York Times columnist James Tierney.

Arguing for the National Salt Reduction Initiative is Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the cardiovascular disease prevention and control program at the city’s Health and Mental Hygiene Department. “Hypertension is one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke,” she says. “And when we eat salt, when we get too much salt in our diet, our blood pressure goes up. When our blood pressure goes up it increases our risk for heart attack and stroke. So, as a public health issue, this is of great concern.”

On the other hand, Mark Bitterman, who owns The Meadow with his wife Jennifer Turner Bitterman, says some research shows that salt only elevates blood pressure for a short amount of time. Instead, he prefers to cite the research of Dr. David A. McCarron, a nephrologist at U.C. Davis who argues that humans have a naturally determined appetite for salt and are programmed to satisfy that desire. (More about Dr. McCarron’s critics and supporters here.)

In the end, however, both Bitterman and the city’s health department share one thing in common: the willingness to gang up on pre-packaged, processed, high-sodium foods. “The majority of salt that we get every day is not what we put on at the table,” says Dr. Angell. “It’s not what we put in the food when we’re cooking. It’s actually in the packaged food that we buy in supermarkets and bodegas, and it’s in the restaurant foods when we buy them.“

The similarly named, well-known New York Times food writer Mark Bittman also agreed on that point in an op-ed published this week, noting that “the salt shaker is not the culprit.”

Bitterman says that his store often advocates cooking with little to no salt, instead sprinkling salt on at the end. “A huge thing about how we detect the salt flavor is in the shape of the crystal,” he says. “And, of course, that’s one of the things you lose when you cook a lot of salt into food. You just basically have this homogenous saltiness.”

One of the most basic finishing salts Bitterman recommends is fleur de sel, which he describes as delicately crystaled, minerally and moist. "If you sprinkle this lightly moist, granular salt on top of food, it just hangs out there,” he says. “It’s happy. It doesn’t dissolve into it and it doesn’t suck any moisture out of food.”

Bitterman also recommends Maldon, with its parchment-thin crystals, for baking. All Things Considered host Amy Eddings agrees, adding that she garnishes her chocolate chip cookies with Maldon.

Molokai Red Salt is a deep ruby color because of Hawaii’s volcanic alaea clay and works well on top of pork, seafood, or melon. Bitterman says it’s a good salt to have on hand for fancy presentations.

As for the commonly found kosher salt, the self-described “selmelier” won’t even carry it in his store. “Kosher salt gets a wonderful rap because chefs love it,” says Bitterman. “It’s easy to grab. It’s easy to dose with your fingers. So, if you’re working on the line in a fast paced kitchen and you need to build a season by feel, it’s the natural choice to make. However, kosher salt is entirely refined, so it’s a pure sodium chloride chemical, which doesn’t exist in nature. It’s about as close to a natural food as Velveeta is to a natural cheese.” He also adds that being kosher, which is often associated with being wholesome, actually attests to the absence of brine shrimp and that it is safe for passover.

“We’re really all on the same page here: Bloomberg and everybody else,” says Bitterman. “Don’t buy these processed foods that have salt in it. Unsalted butter is far richer and fuller in flavor. Professionals would never buy salted butter.”

Another point on which everyone can agree is a mutually shared love for cookies. Below is Bitterman’s recipe for Bali Rama Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Bali Rama Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 18 medium-sized cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 two-finger pinch Bali Rama Pyramid salt, coarsely ground with your fingers
  • 2 1/2 cups regular or quick oats (not instant)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups dark chocolate morsels
  • 2 three-finger pinches flake salt, such as Bali Rama Pyramid

Preheat the oven to 350° F and line two cookie sheets with foil.

Mix together the flour, baking soda, the two-finger pinch of Bali Rama Pyramid salt, and oats in a bowl; set aside.

Beat the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl by hand until well combined. Don’t over mix. Add the eggs and beat by hand until well-combined. Stir in the flour mixture and beat well by hand for about a minute. This will develop some gluten in the batter, which will help the cookies hold their shape and stay chewy. Stir in the chocolate morsels.

Scoop rounded tablespoonfuls of batter and place them about 2 inches apart on the prepared cookie sheets. Sprinkle the cookies with the flake salt and bake just until the edges are browned and the centers are still soft, about 8 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 3 minutes.

Using a small spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before devouring. These cookies stay fresh for nigh upon a week if stored in a cookie jar shaped like Winnie the Pooh.


Mark Bitterman

Hosted by:

Amy Eddings


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Comments [9]

tom from Long Island

Dr. Landesman - what are the OTHER factors that make salt intake such an issue?

Right, you know it as do many others who care to learn the truth - SALT intake ALONE will not cause the health issues you mention...

Genetics, diet, lifestyle (read sedentary) etc, etc are all factors - NOT just one normal food additive.

Stop the obfuscation...stop singling out One thing...

Feb. 11 2011 08:41 PM
Ann Hall Every, CCP from Forest Hills, NY

I'm not positive - although from the research I just did - I believe Mr. Bitterman may be incorrect in his estimation of Kosher salt being on the "dark side" of the salt conversation.... the following is a quote from a googled page when I searched on "kosher salt origin".

Because Kosher salt is not heavily refined or iodine treated, it has a flavor which many chefs consider to be more pure. For this reason, it is favored for seasoning in professional kitchens. The coarse grain of Kosher salt also allows chefs to measure out pinches of the salt with ease.

Feb. 10 2011 04:56 PM

Thank you, Amy!!! And the Bittermans!! When is Allopathic Medicine going to get it that like the other sciences, it is not dogma it is one way of looking at things - and lately a pretty unreliable one! Even hospitals are starting mind-body centers and offering alternatives - even Ahmet Oz - uses other modalities to support his work. Any doctor worth their "salt" will tell you their nutrition education is severely wanting.

"The salt that you find in table salt and most processed foods is sodium chloride. Salt in this form has been processed at high temperatures, which changes the molecular structure and removes vital minerals from the salt. Table salt also contains additives, anticaking agents, and even sugar. Excess salt consumption is associated with high blood pressure, fluid retention, heart and kidney disease.
Trash It: Dump out your salt shaker and toss out all other packaged or processed foods with a high sodium content. This should be pretty easy for most people.
Stash it: We have been told for years to avoid salt, but following this advice can lead to even more problems. We are all salty on the inside--our blood, sweat, tears, and even our urine--it's all salty. It's important to replenish the salt in our body, using the right salt is what makes all the difference in the world. The best way to put salt back into your body is to use Celtic sea salt. This high quality salt contains over 80 balanced minerals from the sea. Celtic sea salt is essential for maintaining proper fluid balance and utilization in the body. It also normalizes blood pressure, enhances digestion, and nourishes the adrenal glands. Celtic sea salt is available at many natural food stores or can be ordered through The Grain and Salt Society, call 1-800-TOPSALT."
"Salt limitation to less than six grams per day “to lower blood pressure” is advocated by the authors despite very persuasive evidence showing that when limiting salt to such an extent blood pressure will go down in only one-fifth of people, that it will go up in one-fifth, and that three-fifths will be almost unaffected by changing salt intake. Overall, in the gigantic Intersalt trial, there was little effect of salt on blood pressure, while increased potassium intake was hypotensive. In 2003, the Cochrane Collaboration agreed." (review of "Understanding Nutrition")

Feb. 10 2011 10:37 AM
sheldonlandesman from nyc

There are many uncertainty in medicine. However, the causal relationship between salt intake ,hypertension and cardiovascular is not one them. These relationships have been confirmed in hundreds of well designed studies. Mr.Bitterman statements , with their evident self interest are analgous to cigarette executives blantantly false statements about the safety of cigarettes. That NPR should give a platform to such falshoods in antithetical to important public health programs.
Sheldon Landesman, MD
Professor of Medicine
Downstate Medical Center

Feb. 09 2011 10:16 PM

My understanding is that kosher salt is called that because it is used for making meat kosher (to draw out the blood). It should really be called koshering salt. There are many other salts that are "kosher" meaning they've met the kosher guidelines.

Likening kosher(ing) salt to Velveeta is a false analogy. Velveeta contains all kinds of non-cheese elements. Kosher(ing) salt contains salt. Mr. Bitterman just objects to its structure, I would guess. And the fact that it is inexpensive.

Feb. 09 2011 10:10 PM

Those cookies look excellent. I need a Pooh-shaped jar.

Feb. 09 2011 07:07 PM
Tom from Long Island

BTW - Oatmeal cookies without raisins are missing an integral ingredient. :)

Feb. 09 2011 07:04 PM
Tom from Long Island

All this talk about hypertension and salt is very far to date, no data exists that salt alone causes prolonged hypertension in nay but the smallest of populations.

All these people who do need to limit their salt intake, are usually suffering from many other problems that the extra salt doesn't help them to deal with.

I think the Medical Community at large has to stop these isolated attacks on isolated products and/or ingredients and get on board with PUSHING a more Wholistic (W intended) approach to health with their patients...and stop with the isolated diagnoses...nutrition, exercise, psychology, etc...all need to be addressed instead of the Chop Us Up in Parts system we have now.

Feb. 09 2011 06:43 PM

There is NO chemical difference between ANY of the salts in Mr. Bitterman's diatribe against Kosher salt--
only a difference in physical structure. They all harmful in excess, and so is Mr. Bitterman. As an old adman, I place him side by side with MDs on the payroll of big tobacco, because he intends to make a living by fudging the accuracy of scientific analysis.

Feb. 09 2011 06:10 PM

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