The Eating Life: Himalayan salt block cooking

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 12:52am
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent
(Joon Powell for SouthComm)
(Joon Powell for SouthComm)
(Joon Powell for SouthComm)
(Joon Powell for SouthComm)

 

A new gadget in the kitchen is a good, good thing. Daily dinner duty suddenly gets more interesting, and there’s another fun reason to invite guests over.

And there’s the cook’s curiosity, the eternal wellspring of wonder that keeps us coming back to the kitchen.

There’s a new gadget on the horizon, and though it’s not for everyone, it’s easy enough for anyone:

A pink Himalayan salt block is beautiful to see and fun to work with. It’s a party trick, a cooking vessel and a seasoning, all in one.

Mined in the Pakistani part of the Himalayas, pink salt is ancient and beautiful. Cut into a block, its depths catch and transmit light like an enormous, luminous jewel.

And like a jewel, it must be handled with care. Cooking on a salt block demands the right thickness, temperature and technique. Any deviation may cause it to break. Not that it’s delicate — a salt block can be frozen to zero for serving ice cream or heated to hundreds of degrees for searing meat.

One early adopter of the salt brick: part-time Nashvillian Sean Brock at his restaurant McCrady’s in Charleston. S.C. Brock says that around 2007, the restaurant offered sear-your-own scallops as a course in a tasting menu. The block was heated to 450 degrees and guests were given tweezers and thinly sliced scallops to sear. “We would give them the rest of the dish and let them cook and plate their own dish.”

Brock, who just opened a Nashville outpost of his acclaimed restaurant Husk, has also worked with a salt block on television. Food Network Challenge’s Next Great Chef episode featured Brock preparing seared tuna and garden vegetables on a salt block. The recipe is here foodnetwork.com/recipes/salt-seared-tuna-with-fennel-courgettes-and-english-pea-pesto-recipe.

But McCrady’s “didn’t take it any further than that tasting menu.” They moved on, but not all McCrady’s customers did. “When we took it off the menu, we wanted to move to something else. But people would come in and ask for it, so we specifically had to do it for them. Because people traveled to the restaurant for that dish.”

Most of the chatter around salt block cooking in the U.S. surrounds cookbook writer and gourmet store owner Mark Bitterman. Bitterman knows salt — his 2010 book Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes won a James Beard award for the year’s best Reference and Scholarship Cookbook.

Bitterman and his wife own The Meadow, gourmet store in Portland, Ore., and New York that specializes in salts and other novel ingredients (atthemeadow.com).

Bitterman wrote the only salt block cookbook on the market, published last week. (Salt Block Cooking, $24.99, available from The Meadow website and other retailers.)

Is salt block cooking the next big thing? Probably not. From its carbon footprint (transportation from the remote Himalayas) to the time commitment of scrubbing the darn thing, it’s neither quick nor easy.

On the other hand, a pink salt block is pretty, fun and fascinating, and it turns out a darn good surf-and-turf. Like fondue pots or tortilla bowl makers, maybe it is a party trick. But it’s a good trick.

 

 

The “Do” List

… Use a salt block or salt plate for serving cold raw foods — sashimi, cheese, steak tartare, gravlax, even ice cream.

… Use a salt block for cooking foods that are easily overcooked in a skillet: shrimp, scallops, thin chops and fish fillets.

… Heat the block directly on a gas burner or broiler.

… Use a wok ring or tart pan with removable bottom if you’re heating on an electric stovetop.

… Budget plenty of time — 40 minutes to heat the salt block gradually before cooking.

… Let the block cool completely before cleaning.

 

 

The “Don’t” List

… Don’t try to cook on a thin salt plate.

… Don’t put a cold salt block into a hot oven.

… Don’t cook on a block that isn’t hot enough — the food will turn out saltier than you want.

… Don’t expect the block to last forever — you may get a few dozen uses.

 

 

Setting up

• Choose the right food. Thin pork chops, steak strips, shrimp, scallops and fish are ideal.

• Heat the block slowly. Set it over very low flame on a gas stove or broiler. After 10 to 15 minutes, raise the temperature to medium-low for 10 minutes, then medium-high for 10 minutes. Then to high for 10 minutes.

• No need to oil the block — in fact, oiling the block will prevent food from acquiring the richly mineraled salt flavor.

• Use a thin metal spatula for foods that stick, such as eggs, scallops and halloumi cheese.

• Let the block cool completely before scrubbing with a plastic scrubber or steel wool. Let it dry completely, then store it in a dry place.

 

 

What to expect

Cooking on a salt block is unlike other cooking. It cooks hot (I measure a maximum temperature of 488 degrees on my 15k BTU stove) but the heat is gentler and fluctuates less than in a metal pan or electric stove. Overcooking on a salt block is much less likely.

Salt is hydrophilic, drawing moisture from food. Expect some buildup of liquid on the block’s surface, especially if it’s loaded up with food. It cooks away in a few minutes.

The block holds heat well — it’s stays about 350 degrees for 10 minutes off the heat. You can cook on a trivet (but not over a fine wood table!).

The block looks rough after cooking, but cleans up nicely. Salt block literature encourages you to embrace the rugged character of a well-used salt block. If you want pretty and pink, buy a salt plate for serving.

A salt block is anti-microbial — the surface is too salty for bacteria. It doesn’t need to be washed with detergent.

 

 

 

 

 

More ideas

Seafood on a Salt Block

• 8 ounces shrimp (shell on or off) or scallops

Heat a salt block over a very low flame or in a flame broiler for 10 minutes, then turn to medium for 10 minutes, then medium-high for 10 minutes, then high for 10 minutes.

Use heavy oven gloves to set it on a trivet. Arrange seafood on the block — it will sizzle. Turn after the down side is opaque — use a thin metal spatula if scallops seem to be sticking. Cook another minute or two. The block will retain enough heat to cook a second batch, or you can return it to the flame to reheat if needed.

 

 

Smoky Fish on a Salt Block

• 4 whole trout, about 10 inches long, cleaned

• 2 garlic cloves, cut into slivers

• Lemon wedges or lemon butter for serving

• Stuff the trout with garlic slivers

Heat a salt block over a very low flame for 10 minutes, then turn to medium for 10 minutes, then medium-high for 10 minutes, then high for 10 minutes.

Soak a generous handful of wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes. Drain and load them into the smoke box. Light the grill. Put the smoke box in the grill a few minutes before the fish go on.

Use heavy oven gloves to move the block to the grill. Arrange up to three trout on the salt block. Cook for about 5 minutes. Turn and cook for 5 minutes longer or until flesh is opaque. Serve with lemon wedges or lemon butter. Makes 4 servings.

 

 

Flambé Bananas

Please don’t forget to turn off the flame when you drizzle high-proof liquor over the bananas. Flambé is already a big production — you don’t want the fire department (or a plastic surgeon) involved.

• Butter

• 1 or 2 bananas, peeled, cut into halves lengthwise

• Brandy or high-proof rum or bourbon

• Ice cream

Heat a salt block over a very low flame for 10 minutes, then turn to medium for 10 minutes, then medium-high for 10 minutes.

Butter the block lightly. Arrange the banana halves on the block. Grill for 30 seconds or so. Turn and grill the other side. The bananas should be seared.

Turn off the flame. Drizzle the bananas with brandy or rum. Use a long match or grill lighter to ignite the liquor. Let the flames die down (or blow them out). Serve the bananas with vanilla or caramel ice cream. Makes 2 to 4 servings.