Audi Magazin: What is so essential about salt?
Mark Bitterman: I like hyperbole. I like to say things like, “There is nothing more important than…” and with salt there’s no shortage of hyperbole. Salt is the first ingredient and the most universal. As soon as we humans came out of the caves and off the savannahs and started to grow our own food, we needed to supplement our diets and the diets of our livestock with salt.
Why is that?
Because if you don’t get enough of it, you will die. You can’t thrive in any location without adding salt to your diet. It’s the only food that is a nutritional requirement for every single person in the world. You can go without tomatoes, pork belly or cheese and you’ll be fine, but you can’t do without salt.
So salt is something of a universal?
We have such a profound, primal craving for it that every single cuisine in the world uses salt in some way — usually in some very central way. Since the dawn of time, whoever could make salt, did so — each in their own way. There are literally thousands of different salts. So salt acts as a lens on the cuisines of the world. That makes it a truly unique food. In addition, it drives flavor more powerfully than anything else. Fire does an OK job of transforming and concentrating flavors — and spices are always nice — but salt is the king of all flavor enhancers.
What makes you say that?
It enhances the flavor of food — any and every food. It makes a cherry taste more like a cherry; it makes meat taste more like meat. And, of course, it has that salty zing we love so much. So as regards flavor, salt releases aromas in food. But there’s so much more to it than that. In addition to being the most ancient and powerful food, salt is extraordinarily versatile. It is a texturizer — firming the soft, softening the hard. Most importantly, it was the world’s first preservative in the days before refrigeration and is still the most widely used preservative today.
What attracted you to salt? Why are you so intrigued by it?
I discovered salt when I was traveling in Europe. I encountered it at a truck stop. Eating a steak, I had a real revelation about this food and its distinctive quality — how each crystal has its own shape, texture, moisture content, mineral composition and color.
Someone less enthusiastic might say, it’s just salt.
That’s exactly what I heard for years and years — and I get it. Even I took salt for granted growing up. Salt was always just a box of stuff on the bottom supermarket shelf — cheap and lacking character and soul. After my revelation, I learned about salt makers, about the places where it’s made. I found that every single salt has a story and some date back thousands and thousands of years. I find that fascinating.
Tell us about those stories.
There’s a guy making salt in the north of Spain on a salt farm set up by the Romans, who took over from the Phoenicians! In Japan they’re taking seawater from 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and evaporating it in a greenhouse. I know folks who are pulling salt out of a 600 million year old deposit in Pakistan by donkey cart. You think these salts are all the same thing? They’re as alike as turnips and chicken! They are used differently in different foods, are part of different traditions and they all have different stories. That fascinates me.