3 salts that are self harvested. Photo by Carri Thurman.

I’m thrilled to publish this guest post from Carri Thurman, baker and chef at Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, Alaska, on one of life’s vital substances, salt. Without it, we die. A kitchen without it is incomplete. A cook who uses it carelessly will flounder. And the cook who, curious and surrounded by salt in solution, decides she wants to try to bring it forth herself? —M.R. 

The Alchemy: Salt from Water

by Carri Thurman

“My mother boils seawater. It sits all afternoon simmering on the stovetop, almost two gallons in a big soup pot. The windows steam up and the house smells like a storm. In the evening, a crust of salt is all that’s left at the bottom of the pot. My mother scrapes it out with a spoon. We each lick a fingertip and dip them in the salt and it’s softer than you’d think, less like sand and more like snow. We lay our fingertips on our tongues, right in the middle. It tastes like salt but like something else, too—wide, and dark. It tastes like drowning, or like falling asleep on the shore and only waking up when the tide has come up to your feet and you wonder if you’d gone on sleeping, would you have sunk?”

That arrived in an email today from my daughter who had no idea I was working on this post. It is an excerpt from an essay on water for one of her classes. Now nineteen and a college sophomore, she has been witness to more of my food experiments than she can count. This is one that worked beautifully. I boiled a lot of seawater this summer. Mostly because while those of you down south were sweltering in one of the hottest summers ever, we were freezing our butts off here in Alaska. Anchorage experienced its coldest summer since they started keeping track of those things and in Homer, 220 miles south, we suffered through more 40-degree mornings than not. With all the cold and rain that accompanied, it just seemed right having cauldrons of hot water warming up my kitchen. And, I like to think of cooking as alchemy and while we may not call it art, I believe that there are certain mystical forces at play here—to be able to take a pot of water from the ocean and with very little effort extract from it something that will in turn transform whatever it touches. The beauty of salt is its ability to anonymously elevate everything it contacts. And to be able to conjure this valuable resource from something so vast to me is magic.

My friend Maurice is a writer who loves to cook, and I am a cook who loves writing, so whenever we get together the ideas fly. This summer, at his family’s camp across the bay for their yearly 4th of July celebration, much of the conversation revolved around making salt from seawater. We wondered if salts from other parts of the bay would taste different and discussed methods of declumping. From there the experiments continued until I think we have come up with the easiest, best method. Now that I have made the switch in my career from baker to savory chef running the dinner scene here at the bakery, salt and its many abilities rule my world and make it possible to use local ingredients as fully as they deserve.

To make your own salt from seawater:

For me it all starts here.

It all starts out at the beach.

It is important to be sure your collection site is away from any possible human pollutants. Don’t collect on rainy or stormy days when things are stirred up. I gathered my water at slack tide right from the beach of Kachemak Bay. Homer has some crazy tidal changes, so it’s important to keep a tide book handy.

1. A gallon of water will produce about a cup of salt, depending on the salinity of the water in your area or recent heavy rainfall.

2. Filter your water through a fine cloth (Ruhlman’s All-Strain kitchen cloths would be perfect for this) into a glass or ceramic pot. I used stainless the first time and it worked great, but then in my research for this post I found that the stainless might react to the salt at high heat. Until I get that documented, I figure better safe than sorry. Do not under any circumstances use aluminum.

Bringing the salted water to a hard simmer.

3. Once it is in the pot, bring to a hard simmer and let it go for about 2 hours per gallon of water. Yes, the house will start to smell like the sea, but that’s part of the magic.

4. As the water evaporates, stir occasionally and at the point it becomes a wet sludge, pull it off the heat and pour into a shallow glass pan.

Pour the simmered water into a shallow pan.

5. Spread the mixture out and dry further by either putting in the sun in a drafty window for a day or baking in a 200°F oven for another 30 minutes.

Dried salt.

6. Scrape together and break it up with your fingers if you like big chunks or with a mortar and pestle to make it finer. You can also press it through a tamis or sieve.

To make flavored salt I added garlic cloves to the water and pulled them out as the sludge was forming . . . it’s got a nice caramel color and amazing roasted garlic flavor. I made the orange thyme salt by zesting orange rind into the saltwater and then grinding fresh thyme into it once it was dry. I rubbed it on pork ribs. Yeah.

If you don’t want to use fuel to dry your saltwater you can fill a shallow glass baking pan and leave it undisturbed in a sunny airy window. I unfortunately did not have enough heat or sun or patience to do this. I did use my oven for other things while I was baking the salt to not waste all that heat.

How does it taste? As she said, like the sea, wide and dark.

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.