From exotic origins to trending flavors, artisanal salts are enjoying a resurgence as consumers and retailers alike see their culinary and commercial potential.

by Nicole Potenza Denis

Ten years ago, the growing prevalence of unusual shapes and colors brought in from exotic locations around the globe reintroduced consumers to specialty salts. Today, a wide range of shoppers understand that artisanal salts have the ability not only to elevate ordinary food, but also to make extraordinary dishes taste out of this world.

“In a time of ingredient-driven cuisine, people are looking for quality ingredients that make their dishes pop. They are turning to artisan salts, rediscovering something authentic and real that has been overlooked for years,” says selmelier Mark Bitterman, author of Salted, A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral and owner of The Meadow, a specialty shop of salts, chocolates, flowers and bitters with locations in Portland, Ore., and New York. “The resurgence of artisan salts is no longer subtle; it is becoming mind-blowing.”

Fleur de sel, Maldon flake salt and pink Himalayan were three of the first salts on consumers’ culinary radar.

Beginnings of a Trend

A trio of salts, unrelated in size, texture or color, sparked the culinary curiosity that is now evolving into a deeper appreciation of this time-honored mineral.

“Finishing salts like fleur de sel and flake salt like Maldon along with pink Himalayan were three of the first salts on people’s culinary radar,” Bitterman explains. “These salts spoke differently to different cultures and culinary mindsets. People were amazed by their textures, non-homogenization of their crystals, their colors and nutritional properties.” These three salts, he says, were a precursor to the current constellation of salts that are available to create and enhance flavors in countless culinary applications.

“Himalayan pink sea salt has helped transform the salt industry altogether, and there’s still a way to go,” says Melissa Kushi, president and CEO of Sustainable Sourcing, LLC, Makers of HimalaSalt, an ethically sourced pink Himalayan sea salt that is certified kosher, gluten-free, non-GMO and Green-e certified (made by 100 percent renewable wind and solar energy). Himalayan Pink was a bit of a novelty at first, due to its pristine nature and 250 million year history, explains Kushi. “Foodies and first adopters were open to it because of its beauty and delightful taste. But, 10 years ago, it was not widely known and raised a few eyebrows as a passing fad.”

In recent years, the artisanal salt category overall has since seen, says Victoria Taylor, founder of Victoria Gourmet, Woburn, Mass., greater appreciation of taste differences—derived from mouthfeel and trace minerals—and openness to explore variety. “It is commonplace for people today to have more than one salt in their cabinet,” she says. “Customers all over are embracing top-quality finishing salts.” In 2003, Victoria Gourmet won an NASFT Product Award (now the sofi Gold) for Outstanding Food Gift with the Culinary Salts of the World Gift Box, a recognition that put the company on the map for gourmet finishing salts.

Familiarity has made artisanal salts more accessible and, in turn, more commonplace to consumers. “We have gone from a sense of awe over the amazing variety of artisan salts’ characteristics to mainstream usage that includes not only the home cook but also chefs and manufacturers,” says Naomi Novotny, president of SaltWorks, Woodinville, Wash.

Domestic Salts on the Rise

Like terroir, a term used to describe wines, cheeses and other earth-influenced foods, some saltmakers are adopting the term merroir, or influence of the sea. Originally coined to highlight how the chemical and biological composition of water in a particular region can create varying flavors in oysters, merroir plays an equally important role in salts. And the United States has its own swath of salty merroirs to be had.

According to Bitterman, France’s fleur de sel has played a large role in the rise of awareness of quality salt in America. But others say that Hawaiian alaea (red clay) salt was one of the first domestic salts to gain popularity in the U.S. “Its color and purported health benefits from the trace minerals was the initial appeal over traditional white table salt,” says Brett Cramer, owner of The Spice Lab, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Over the past couple of years, Cramer has seen a growing interest in some Hawaiian salts like Guava Wood Smoked and Black Lava from Kilauea. The Spice Lab’s Hawaiian Sea Salt Tasting Collection offers 11 varieties and is a store best seller.

Like terroir, a term used to describe wines, cheeses and other earth-influenced foods, some saltmakers are adopting the term merroir, or the influence of the sea, originally coined to highlight how the chemical and biological composition of water can create varying flavors in oysters.

Awareness of other domestic salts is growing as hand-harvested products from all corners of the country build solid reputations. “[The U.S.] is where the cutting edge is,” Bitterman acknowledges. And with consumers’ current fervor for local foods, the U.S. artisanal sea salt market is poised to benefit.

Ben Jacobsen, founder of Jacobsen Salt Co. in Portland, Ore., is one saltmaker concentrating on specific waters. His salt-making career began unexpectedly on a fruitless crab-fishing trip on the coastal waters of Netarts Bay in Northern Oregon. Rather than come home empty-handed, Jacobsen collected salt water and decided to try his hand at making culinary salt.

What started as a hobby has turned into a growing, thriving business. Though Jacobsen’s first clients were a couple of local chef friends, it wasn’t until Portland’s New Seasons Market showed interest that he began to build the business. Now, his hand-harvested Netarts Bay salt is being used in restaurants both locally, such as Portland’s Irving Street Kitchen, and as far as Northern Spy Food Co. in New York. The salt has the appearance of shaved ice and a sweet, clean taste with a briny finish that lends itself to a variety of foods. “I wanted something that can stand up to food, has a crunch and is approachable so people can identify with it,” Jacobsen says.

Along the East Coast, unique salts are being harvested from the lower Florida Keys to the south shore of New York’s Long Island. In Florida, wife-and-husband team Midge Jolly and Tom Weyant of Florida Keys Sea Salt are harvesting and solar-evaporating salt that has a pure, light and briny taste. “All of our salt harvests are identified by evaporation phase, date of actual harvest, season, and in some cases number of days from collection of seawater to harvest of sea salt,” says Jolly. Providing the details of day-to-day salt farming, Jolly notes, connects the customer to the practice in a way that allows them to have a deeper understanding and connection to their food. “People want to feel that there is something about their food that they can identify with that is not commercial,” she adds.

About 1,500 miles north, the swings in temperature in Eastern Long Island and the plankton and algae found there contribute to the distinct tastes of Amagansett Sea Salt Company’s products. “Our salt is evaporating at different speeds, allowing for different flavors to develop,” says Steven Judelson, who co-owns the company with his wife, Natalie. Judelson has both summer and winter salt harvests. He describes the summer salts to have a crisp, clean, almost sweet flavor, while the winter harvest is more full, possessing a “beefier” character. “If people think of salt as a seasoning rather than an ingredient, the subtle differences could be off-putting,” he notes. “However, more customers are getting it and appreciate the flavor differences. Chefs are starting to hold out for colder-month salt for its heartiness.” Four years ago, Amagansett supplied salts to six restaurants; today, around 50, including Eleven Madison Park in New York.

Local appeal plays a role in showcasing complementary ingredients. Seattle Chocolates chose a Pacific sea salt for its San Juan Sea Salt chocolate bar. “The bar draws its flavor inspiration from the Northwest—the San Juan Islands, a popular weekend destination for locals—that is north of Seattle in the Puget Sound that connects us to the Pacific Ocean,” says CEO Jean Thompson. The “farm-to-cone” ice cream store Salt & Straw in Portland, Ore., prefers locally harvested salts to complement its frozen treats. “Whenever we put salt in ice cream, it is an immediate and unexpected hit,” says owner Kim Malek. The store offers Jacobsen Salt Co.’s salt to use in lieu of sprinkles and collaborated with local chef Naomi Pomeroy of restaurant Beast to create a cherrywood-smoked sea salt ice cream.

Noteworthy Salt Companies

Here are just some of the companies manufacturing or selling artisanal salts.

Better-for-You Product Applications

With the growing interest in artisanal salt is the perception that specialty salts can make for more healthful cooking. “Salt as an ingredient has moved from the back of food labels to the front,” says SaltWorks’ Novotny. High mineral content and lack of chemicals make the ingredient appealing over table salt, along with needing less of it. “By using sea salt as an ingredient,” she continues, “manufacturers can not only enhance their products’ flavor but lower the salt content as well.”

Caputo’s Market and Deli in Salt Lake City uses Himalayan sea salt for all its cured products in its new in-house salumeria. “The only way we are able to avoid nitrates or nitrate ‘natural flavoring’ replacements is a careful balance of Himalayan and other no-nitrate-added sea salts,” says Frody Volgger, Caputo’s in-house salumiere, who says Himalayan salt accounts for about 90 percent of the salt used in the product.

The use of sea salt in Sahale Snacks’ line of products is no mere afterthought. “A good-quality sea salt is sun-dried and it will still contain microscopic amounts of sea life, which provides natural iodine and naturally occurring mineral content,” says co-founder Edmond Sanctis. “The minerals impart flavor and texture that naturally balance with our carefully selected ingredients like orange blossom honey and Madagascar vanilla.”

Added Flavor: The Appeal of Infused Salts

A major factor in the increasing popularity of specialty salts is the merging of familiar flavors—such as ginger, truffles, lime—with premium salt. “Flavored salts are fun and can provide a strategic advantage,” Bitterman says. “Not everyone can afford to buy truffles, but you can keep a jar of truffle salt in your cupboard to sprinkle on eggs whenever you want.”

Flavored salts are an important part of Amagansett Sea Salt Company’s product line. “By having salts with different flavors, we were able to develop more of our business,” says Judelson, who has been working with local Long Island wineries to perfect a wine salt. “Flavored salts are very commercially viable,” he adds.

At The Filling Station, a specialty shop featuring oils, vinegars and rare salts, in New York’s Chelsea Market, infused options like Thai Ginger, Ghost Pepper, Espresso and Cinnamon Chocolate Chipotle salt sell far better than straight sea salts, shares co-owner Laura Nuter. “Customers are looking to do something different to jazz up their same old recipes. They also want flavor and to keep it healthy. Infused salts can be the answer,” she says, noting that home cooks will undoubtedly use less salt if it offers a flavor infusion. The Filling Station’s Italian Espresso Salt is a big year-round seller and is popular sprinkled on vanilla gelato.

At Medbery Marketplace, Coshocton, Ohio, store manager Bettina Boon says infusions, such as aged balsamic sea salt, and hot flavors, like jalapeño and bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) sea salt, have really caught on at the market’s salt bar, especially for the grilling season. “Customers gravitate toward flavored salts and always come back for them,” she says.

Didi Davis, owner of Salt Traders, Ipswich, Mass., has seen first-hand how the interest in flavored salts has dramatically expanded over the years. In 2004, she started out with a popular vanilla salt. Now, she has around a dozen blends of house-made flavored salts, using salts from Maine, including such varieties as Smoked Paprika and Fennel Thyme.

Maine Sea Salt Company provides the key ingredient in a popular flavored salt offered by Chef Salt, Elkins Park, Pa. Chef Salt’s 7 Salt is a blend of seven varieties of unrefined salt (with salts from Maine, Bali and Pakistan), two kinds of peppercorns (Tellicherry and dried green) and a speck of Asian cane sugar for caramelization. “By using unrefined land and sea salts from across the globe, this blend exposes people to the world of salt beyond the singular sensation of saltiness,” says Andrew Schloss, co-founder of Chef Salt.

Trending Flavors

Retailers have seen that citrus-based and peppery flavors are shopper favorites, but other infusions are gaining momentum.

“Anything hot—like habanero, green chile and ginger—is resurging,” says SaltWorks’ Novotny. “But smoked salts have skyrocketed across the board. Chefs and manufacturers are realizing it is a natural way to add a smoky flavor.” At The Spanish Table in Santa Fe, N.M., assistant manager Rob Fettig says he’s been selling an extensive amount of artisanal salts in the past three years but recently noticed a heightened interest in smoky flavors. Some of the store’s offerings are Matiz Mediterraneo Smoked Sea Salt and La Cococha Smoked Paprika Sea Salt Flakes.

Whether the appeal of specialty salt is inspired by a health interest or a desire for culinary exploration, consumers are truly appreciating what these products have to offer. “Salt is not just a novelty ingredient anymore,” Bitterman says. “People are now coming to realize that artisan salt is the unexpected ingredient that delivers. It is practical, makes food taste better and is a quality ingredient that makes a difference in their cooking.”