May 29, 2009
In My Pantry: Salt and Pepper
by Gareth Mark
Salt and pepper. The most ubiquitous pantry items in Western Civilization, they're on virtually every table. And we always say "salt and pepper" as though there were just one of each. I don't know about you, but I typically have six or more salts and at least four peppers. Let's explore my pantry.
I have several kinds of salt in my pantry. The one thing I don't have is table salt. It have no use for it except to make copper-cleaning paste (equal parts flour and table salt, add distilled white wine vinegar to make a paste). Table salt is bad for you. Worse, it tastes awful. I use sea salts, kosher salt, and natural rock salts only.
Most of the salts I use are finishing salts. They aren't used as a basic cooking salt, but rather are added at the point of "season to taste" or as the food is plated. Sometimes I'll put a cellar of the appropriate finishing salt on the table for those who insist on adding salt to their food at the table.
Sel gris is basic grayish sea salt. You can find sel gris in most any grocery store now. It's usually called sea salt or gray sea salt, but I like to use the French because it's more posh. In the picture above, the salt on the right is sel gris. This is the salt I use as my basic cooking salt.
Fleur de Sel, or "flowers of salt," is a hand-harvested sea salt. Workers scrape the topmost layer of salt before it sinks into the salt pan. Usually it is harvested early in the morning, when the dew is rising, but only when there is no breeze. Fleur de Sel de Camargue, Fleur de Sel de Guérande, or Fleur de Sel de Noirmoutier would be an excellent addition to your pantry. In the picture above, Fleur de Sel is on the left.
That pink salt in the center of the photo above is Australian pink flake sea salt. It has a slight mineral flavor and is a bit spicy. It's an excellent all-around salt, and is the salt I use most frequently to finish a dish.
I use a smoked sea salt when I want to add a smoky flavor to something; I have both chardonnay- and cinnamon-smoked salts. I also have Himalayan Pink and Alaea red sea salt from Hawai'i. I use the Alaea when I want a very earthy salt.
I believe that you really must have at least two salts in your pantry: either sel gris or kosher salt; and Fleur de Sel. If you expand to three, go with a smoked salt. From there you are only limited by your taste and budget.
Pre-ground pepper is an abomination with no place in the kitchen. I usually have four peppercorns in my pantry--five counting allspice. I also have two pepper mills.
Tellicherry peppercorns are the basic black pepper of choice. The taste is strongly peppery with a nice bite. They grow on the Piper Nigrum vine and are the fully ripe corn.
White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have been soaked to remove the husk. They bring a sensation of warmth to food without so much peppery bite, and are absolutely essential if you're cooking something lightly colored and want pepper.
Pink peppercorns aren't true pepper at all. They're actually the dried berries of the Baies Rose. They are sweeter than black or white peppercorns and are commonly used to season fish or desserts--pink peppercorns are an excellent addition to chocolate. They cannot be used alone in a pepper mill because they're too soft. It's alright to use them in a pepper blend, however.
Szechuan peppercorns are required for authentic Szechuan cuisine. They're the berries of the prickly ash ( ). The taste is citrusy and a bit medicinal, and if you taste one by itself it will cause tingling and then numbness of the lips. If you try one, be sure not to bite more than once or twice before spitting it out. If you don't feel any tingling within a few seconds, the pepper isn't fresh. Szechuan peppercorns cannot be used in a pepper mill.
You really should have both black and white peppercorns in your pantry, and a pepper mill for each. The best pepper mill I've found is the Perfex pepper mill. It offers the best control over the grind and is front-loading so you don't have to try to find your perfect setting when you reload.