Even in the easiest of winters, when the temperatures don’t plunge too often or too far, the trek outdoors to the grill can seem, for all but the truly dedicated, a daunting march. Add the polar vortex and paralyzing snowstorms, and the prospect of that walk becomes a good reason to pull a throw tighter around your body, watch another TV show and order in.
If the pit master won’t go outside, sometimes the grill has to come in. Or at least some of its flavors do. Smoked salt is that migrating grill.
Well, not exactly. A sprinkle of the stuff on a pork shoulder isn’t going to win any prizes in a barbecue competition. (On second thought, given the disdain these days for deep, penetrating smoke flavor, maybe it will.)
The thing to remember is this: Smoked salt is not smoldering wood or ashen charcoal. It’s salt. But it does impart an unmistakable smoky flavor to food. And it does so in an interesting way. Because it is part of the flavoring of the salt, smoked salt harmonizes brightness and darkness, the equivalent of a soprano and baritone singing together.
As you might expect, there are different types. Most are sea salt that’s cold-smoked using apple wood, alder, hickory or one of many other woods, each of which gives the salt a particular flavor. Alder, for example, is pretty aggressive. Hickory also is intense, but sweeter. Apple wood is mild.
I’ve smoked my own in a kettle grill, using a “hot smoke” method, a higher-temperature form than cold smoking. The result lacks some of the complexity of high-end artisanal smoked salts (see the sidebar for where to buy), but it still tastes great, plus it’s inexpensive, easy to do and fun to experiment with. During these frigid days, it’s great to have the convenience of reaching into your pantry for a jar of the homemade stuff to use, say, in a soup, and save the pricey crystals for finishing a delicate dish, like a baked fish.
No matter which you use, consider yourself warned: You might find yourself adding smoked salt to nearly everything, including steaks, caramels, pasta, even yogurt. My craziness led to an epiphany: Adding smoked salt is a little like casting Jack Nicholson in your movie. He chews the scenery, the movie gets amped up, and you might have to reel him in. Smoked salt, like Jack, has a wild streak. Heeeeeere’s Hickory!
But a little Jack goes a long way. Unless, of course, you love Jack. Then you can’t get enough.
That’s how I am with smoked salt. Recently, my wife and I experimented with three different smoked salts on home-popped popcorn. We buttered the popcorn and sprinkled regular, unsmoked sea salt on about half of it, which we used as a kind of control. Then we divided the remainder into three separate bowls and did a little smoked salt tasting, adding by pinches as went along: Hickory’s strong but pleasant smoke, we agreed, could be felt in the nose. Coconut lime (yes, there is such a flavor) had a bright, tangy taste with a very light smoke. Red alder added an earthy, woodsy note. Our conclusion? We may never eat popcorn the old way again.
Recently, I bathed some salmon fillets in a slight variant of an Asian-inspired marinade I’ve used countless times, substituting smoked salt for regular table salt. I decided to use alder wood (also called red alder) smoked salt. Alder is a hardwood commonly used in the Northwest for smoking salmon, so it struck me as a natural pairing with the region, the fish and the Asian flavors that characterize the Northwest. I broiled the salmon for a few minutes. When I slid my fork into it, the fish was beautifully moist, and when I tasted it, the salt added a beguiling note to the soy, chili sesame oil and orange flavorings.
Wanting to replicate a light summer meal on the grill without going outdoors, I paired the fish with a longtime favorite coleslaw. Made up of green and red cabbages, carrots and cilantro, it is a colorful visual antidote to gray winter days. It’s also a lighter version of slaw, eschewing mayonnaise for olive oil and lime juice — and made this time with smoked salt. I used hickory, but I see no reason why you couldn’t use any smoked salt you have around. The trick is to keep the smokiness from overwhelming the slaw, so I used just a little of the somewhat robust hickory. If I’d used apple wood, I’d probably have added more.
Whatever you do, start conservatively and correct at the end. Smoked salt is addictive, and it can add dimension to almost anything. But, just like Jack, it’s mischievous — and needs a little direction.