Having grown up beside the ocean, the salty air coming off the ocean is a nostalgic smell for me. But salt is also an important resource. So important, in fact, that many major cities, including Rome herself, were founded in olden days to take advantage of salt trade routes.
The word ‘salary’ even derives from salt (salarium). A Roman soldier during the Roman Republic was paid his weekly pay in the ancient world’s most valuable commodity, salt. You have also probably heard an old expression — ‘to be worth your salt’. Are you worth the salt they’re paying you? Salt was used by the hundredweight to salt cod here in Newfoundland and Labrador for centuries, and our ancestors did what came naturally — they made their own.
Salt — the ocean is filled with it
So why do we buy fancy salt from the stores? Road salt might be cheap, but one look at the prices of some of the brand name sea salts and specialty rock salts on the market might make you think you are buying gold dust. The clear seawater available off the shores of Newfoundland offers a high quality alternative to pricey artisan salts: Newfoundland sea salt!
Sea salt is in fact absurdly easy to make. In essence, you just need to take a bucket of seawater, and make the water go away.
If you don’t mind waiting until July or August, you can let the sun do most of the work for you, by using shallow pans to evaporate off the sea water. Otherwise, settle in for an afternoon down at the beach, boiling some water down over a fire, or by evaporating over the stove. When we make salt at home, we evaporate half of the water off over the stove, and finish the rest up using solar power. This method is quicker and more suitable to salt-making during the rainier months.
Sea salt versus rock salt
Regardless of origin, salt is mostly composed of sodium chloride. In Canada, most salt comes from the salt mines in Windsor, Ont. Regular table salt such as Windsor salt is about 98 per cent sodium chloride, usually with some added iodine as a dietary supplement to prevent conditions such as hyperthyroidism.
Himalayan Rock Salt is currently a big fad, and an expensive one, too. Pink Himalayan salt often sells for 20 times the cost of table salt, or more. The pinkish hue of Himalayan salt can add a nice dash of colour to a dish, but don’t be fooled — aside from a very small amount of iron (which lends the salt its pinkish colouring) the chemical composition of Himalayan salt is identical to typical rock salt at 98 per cent sodium chloride. So don’t buy into the nonsense that Himalayan salt is somehow better for you. It contains trace amounts of iron, which is an important dietary mineral, but that’s it.
On the other hand, sea salt is only about 86.3 per cent sodium chloride. The ocean, as the original source of all life, also contains the basic mineral building blocks of life — the remaining 13.7 per cent is made up of mineral nutrients such as sulfate, magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium. These minerals crystallize in trace quantities in the salt crystals. So, salt is still salt, and it should be used in moderation. But if you’re going to add salt to your food you might as well eat some extra mineral nutrients while you’re at it.
Be like Gandhi — make your own salt
Before you make like Gandhi and march straight down to the ocean for your salt, first of all, ensure you find a nice, clean source of sea water. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, that should be very easy. Just ensure your collection spot is free of heavy marine traffic and far from the town’s sewer outflow pipes.
Collect the sea water, and pour it through a coarse metal strainer so remove any bits of sand. Keep in mind that sea water contains 3.5 per cent salt by weight, so if you are looking to make a pound of salt, you will need approximately four gallons of water (15 litres).
The best, and easiest, way to make your own salt is to find or build a simple evaporator pan, something water proof, preferably using food grade plastic or stainless steel. Don’t use iron — the salt will corrode it. For our salt evaporating, we use recycled plastic ‘crisper’ trays taken from our old refrigerator.
The sun isn’t necessarily going to co-operate. If we’re making salt during a sunny stretch in July or August, we will rely entirely on solar evaporation to make salt. During rainier times of the year, however, it is helpful to concentrate the seawater brine by 50 per cent before adding the brine to the evaporator trays. If you have a wood stove, it is also very easy to make salt passively in the wintertime by topping up an evaporator tray located near your wood stove. This will also help add some humidity to the room.
Once you’ve collected the sea water and poured it into the evaporator pans, the only thing left to do is wait for the sun to do its job and evaporate the water in the pans. Cover the trays or bring them in on rainy days. On sunny days, cover the trays with fine mesh. For example, we use the mesh screen material used for windows and screen doors, which is available by the roll at your local hardware store. It works like a charm to keep dust and bugs out of your salt.
As days pass, you will notice the water levels get lower, and salt crystals will begin to form on the surface of the salty slurry. This is called ‘fleur de sel’. You may collect this off the top using a wire mesh strainer. Fleur de sel (salt flowers) is specially harvested in Mediterranean countries and it is considered a superior, more refined form of sea salt.
Salt crystals also settle to the bottom as the water evaporates. The process is nearly complete when there is only a centimeter or two of water left on top of the wet salt crystals. Since the impurities from the seawater do not crystallize, it is very easy at this stage to just pour the last centimeter of water off — this will take any residual sand bits or impurities with it. If you miss this stage, and come back to a dry pan, you can simply scrape off the very top layer of the salt to get rid of any little bits of sand or other impurities in your salt.
Fluff your salt out as it dries. Once it stops caking, it is dry enough to bottle up and tuck away. The salt will flake into coarse salt crystals, which are perfect to use just as they are. If you prefer finely ground salt, just grind it down a little bit in a mortar and pestle. The final step is to challenge your creativity as you find all sorts of interesting uses for your homemade, hand crafted salt. Try making infused salts! Citrus infused salt, salt infused with rosemary, Sriracha sea salt — the options are endless, and these are perfect for adding a dash of variety to your spice rack.
Here’s a short step-by-step instructional video we made a few years ago to guide you along your way:
Join our growing online community—Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL on Facebook—for more information on salt-making and many other things. The group is becoming an important resource, bringing together experts and hobbyists alike as we learn new skills and bring about more local food options and sustainability for the people of Newfoundland & Labrador.