Salt and chocolate are as natural a pairing as peanut butter and jelly. The sweet, round, fruity, nutty complexity of chocolate sings when topped with clear, bright salt. As many of you know, I’ve been playing with different salts on my fine handmade Tangle Chocolate and getting lots of feedback from customers at pop-ups about which pairings work best, and I’m thrilled to bring to you the best of what I’ve explored. Here is some information about salt itself and all that needs to be considered when pairing it with chocolate. To read more about what salts you’ve helped me choose to use with Tangle, please check the website, https://tanglechocolate.com/.
Salt comes from seawater or saltwater lakes, either from ancient dried beds found deep in the earth or from living sea or lake water that has evaporated and leaves salt deposits. But while technically all salt is sea salt, we commonly use “sea salt” to refer only to salt made directly from living water, not from ancient former bodies of water. We call the latter kind of salt “table salt.” Although salt can be cheap to buy (at least some forms of it; some of the salt I’m using with Tangle is extremely pricey), it is valuable not only for its food flavor enhancement properties but also for its preservative and antimicrobial effects in food processing. In addition, it is used to de-ice roads in cold climates, in the manufacturing of paper, plastics, textiles, and fertilizer, and it is critical in animal and plant health. Most of the salt used to de-ice our highways is mined from an ancient seabed that is about 2,000 feet beneath Lake Erie; the salt we use on food comes from everywhere from the Himalayan mountains to Iceland to San Francisco. Salt shares something with cacao in its history: in ancient times, it was so highly prized that it was used as a form of currency just as cacao was. Another fun fact is that our word “salary” comes from the Latin root word for salt…think of the phrase of someone being “worth their salt” and it all starts to make sense!
Salt is produced in three ways. The first two involve salt mines, which are dried underground seabeds. Salt is extracted from these mines using either deep-shaft mining or solution mining.
Deep-shaft mining involves using underground explosives to blast off chunks of salt in underground mines. The chunks are scooped up, taken out of the mine, and then progressively crushed and sifted into smaller and smaller particles until they are the desired size. An optical scanner and conveyor belt are used to spot darker pieces, or those with impurities, and sets them aside for use in processes that don’t require a great deal of purity, such as to soften water; the clear pieces are packaged as rock salt or other products.
Solution mining involves drilling a shaft, or well, down to the salt deposit, injecting fresh water to dissolve the salt, then pumping out the salty water, and finally evaporating the water off in surface ponds.
The third method of producing salt, and the oldest, involves evaporation, either pure solar evaporation or solar supplemented by a heat source. Seawater is pumped into shallow salt beds, and then, over time—as long as three to five years!—the sun and wind do their thing to get rid of the water and leave salt. Depending on the water source and desired end product, there may be some cleaning to wash off any organisms that can survive in a super-salinated solution, and then the salt is packaged for sale.
Size and shape of salt crystals
Most kinds of salt come in rock crystal form. Salt that is solar evaporated can be manipulated using temperature and timing to have a flaky texture; these salts are used as finishing salts on food. A flaky salt is easy to crumble between the fingers, easy to make into more-or-less uniform size, and often leads to using less of it because the flat flakes cover more of the tongue’s surface, providing more of a salty taste with less salt than would be needed of rounder crystals to cover the same surface area of the tongue. Maldon salt, a brand name, is the classic example of a flaky finishing salt. Its pyramid crystals are made from seawater in Maldon, England, and used worldwide in restaurants and homes (and it’s used by Tangle too!).
All other salt crystals need to be ground either before they are sold or before they are used. Plain table salt (think Morton’s) is mined and ground finely. Kosher table salt is a coarser grind. Fleur de sel is another finely ground salt, also distinguished by the fact that it’s a sea salt traditionally from France that consists of only the finest, top layer of salt that is left when seawater has evaporated.
Many cooks prefer to buy salt in large grains and make it themselves into the size they like. Salt mills are almost identical to pepper mills, but they are ceramic rather than metal (pepper mills are metal) because metal would rust from contact with the salt. We speak of “grinding” pepper; technically, salt does not grind, it is crushed in the mill. For this reason, it is impossible to get exactly even sizes of salt crystals from a salt mill. When the salt is crushed, there will always be some powder mixed in with the larger pieces unless the salt goes through a secondary process of being filtered through a screen of some kind to trap only the desired, larger particles. It may seem superfluous to mention that fact, but it is actually important. The very fine grains of salt will quickly dissolve into the food, salting the whole food, whereas the larger grains are better if you want the salt to remain on the surface of the food to add texture and bursts of flavor.
The flavor of a salt is affected by the minerals in the water it comes from as well as from any seasonings that might be added during the production process. There is such a thing as a selmelier, which is, just as you suspected, a salt-tasting expert. Said expert will be way more sensitive than you or I to the different amounts of the eighty-five minerals found in salt, but you and I will be able to tell which salt is more briny, which sweeter, which has more depth of flavor or is more delicate or clean, etc.—and this pertains to salt that does not have any added flavors. The Tangle Chocolate Salt Sampler has three salted chocolates that fall into this category: English finishing salt (Maldon), Cape Cod salt (Monomoit), and Himalayan salt.
Flavored or seasoned salts open up a whole world of additional possibilities. Salt can also be smoked, as is the case with the Icelandic smoked birch sea salt and Welsh Halen Môn Gold smoked oak sea salt in our Salt Sampler. Salt is smoked using a cold smoke process with the temperature inside the smoker (which can be your home grill) at no greater than 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The salt is infused with smoke for anywhere from four to twenty-four hours depending on the type of salt you’re starting with, what wood you use, and the intensity of flavor you desire. For seasoned salt, anything from herbs to citrus peels to ginger root can be dried and pulsed into salt. After the salt rests a bit, it will be beautifully flavored.
When choosing what salts to use on Tangle Chocolate, I considered how the salt interacts with the fruity Guatemalan cocoa beans and solicited lots of feedback from customers and volunteers. I’ve landed on the most yummy combinations of these two special products: dark chocolate with Maldon, dark with Italian truffle salt, dark with Monomoit salt from Cape Cod; milk chocolate with Icelandic smoked birch salt, milk chocolate with pink Himalayan salt, and milk with Welsh Halen Môn Gold smoked oak. Each kind of salt is available by the box, and also there is a Tangle Chocolate Salt Sampler that contains 5 salted kinds plus some natural slivers. The truffle salted slivers are not available in the Sampler because the truffle salt is so strong that it would change the flavor of the other varieties of chocolate.
You know by now that I love hearing from you with any and all suggestions and questions and feedback, so please be in touch at 413-200-8062 or firstname.lastname@example.org!