Monday, October 10, 2016

Lessons from Cooking with Salt Blocks

I’ve spent the last few months doing some recipe testing with various salt blocks in order to demonstrate how to cook with them for a business person who stocks them in her store.

I’ve served several dishes made on salt blocks, from grilled fish to ice cream, and served the results to several guests in my home. My reviews are mixed. First, the positives:

There’s no better way to grill trout on the BBQ

When you get a big salt block good and hot on a gas grill, you have the perfect surface to sear and season your fish at the same time. The trout ends up with crispy, salty skin, which my kids go nuts for.

I’ve also seared scallops on the salt block, and that was also a success.

You can use them like a cookie stone or pizza pan

I’ve baked a peerless rustic apple tart on a salt block. It came out of the oven looking dramatic, and also tasted delicious. There is a recipe for walnut scones cooked on a salt block in Mark Bitterman’s Salt Block Cooking, which I would also love to try.

They are a dramatic way to serve food

A pink, translucent Himalayan salt block is a stunning surface on which to serve high quality ingredients. My absolute favourite was sushi-grade ahi tuna. The rich reddish hue of the tuna, laid out on the ethereal rose glow of the salt block was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Now, the qualified commentary:

You can make ice cream on them, but…

I have made a lot of ice cream on a frozen salt block as part of my recipe testing. The sweet and salty ice cream tended to be a bit too salty and was too much for people too attached to the idea of ice cream as a sweet treat. I secretly sneak a spoonful or two from the container I keep in my freezer once in a while, because I love the sweet, salty, creamy indulgence and find it sooths multiple cravings in one bite.

I also made a savoury ice cream of Parmesan and cream that received many positive reviews. But I wonder, would a less committed home cook find it worthwhile to commit to the time and mess of using a frozen salt block to make ice cream? Now that my research is complete, I for one probably won’t do it again for a long time.

The weight can be prohibitive

As I followed the recipe instructions to create a double batch of trout gravlax, pressed between two salt blocks, I realized I had a 50 lb. block of fish and salt that now needed to take up a two cubic feet in my fridge. This didn’t seem to make as much sense as the traditional method of putting a salt and sugar blend on the fish, tightly wrapping it in plastic and placing it under some kind of weight.

The weighted salt block method is kind of like the pressure cooker of salt preservation. It happens faster under pressure, and salt serves as both seasoning and the weight, but with some trade offs (like the risk of breaking your refrigerator shelves).

There is no hurrying a heating salt block

There is no such thing as using a salt block on a whim. They take about 50 minutes to heat up. And I found out the hard way what happens if you try to speed up that process at all.

In the midst of tempering a salt block according to instructions (or so I thought), I had a hot salt block explode on my range. I think the heat was too intense on my gas range to allow it to heat as slowly as it needed to. I had better luck on my gas grill. Electric ovens are supposed to work well as well. The instructions recommended against my gas oven, however, because gas ovens are more humid and can cause more reactions on the salt block’s surface.

The good news is that even a broken salt block can be used. I gathered up the broken pieces and put them into my salt grinder.

I absolutely love to experiment with new kinds of cooking equipment, and salt is such a versatile and fundamental ingredient in my kitchen. I’m grateful to have these salt block tools and to have had an opportunity to explore ways to use them and share that information with others. While they don’t replace all of the traditional cooking methods, I am certainly glad to have them as part of my cooking arsenal.