A Salt-Making Pioneer Visits the Test Kitchen
Learning more about this essential ingredient.
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One perk of working in the test kitchen at Martha Stewart Living is that a lot of experts and really interesting people come by. This means the food editors get a chance to take a break from the stove and taste different foods, learn new techniques, or find out more about favorite ingredients. Recently Ben Jacobsen, founder of Jacobsen Salt Co., visited. Everyone knew and had used Jacobsen's flaky sea salt before, but we didn't know Ben or the background to his salt-making, and we were eager to learn more.
Flaky sea salt, like Jacobsen Salt's signature product, is a finishing salt―in other words, it's used to season food after cooking or at the table rather than added to pasta water. "When you taste our salt, it's very clean and very briny, with no bitter aftertaste," Ben explains. "Part of that is the seawater, and part is our process that gives it that flavor profile."
Ben started Jacobsen Salt Co. in 2011, and it was the first company to harvest salt in the Pacific Northwest since Lewis and Clark built their salt works there back in 1805. The salt is made at Netarts Bay on the Oregon coast, where there are also oyster farms and the water is high in salinity.
Ben explained the process to us: "Seawater is filtered, then boiled in large pots to remove calcium and magnesium." Greg Lofts, our deputy food editor, wanted to know more about the filtration, so Ben clarified: "It's filtered all the way down to one micron to eliminate any sediment and even micro plastics, though we've never seen any in our seawater."
"After boiling, the seawater has become a thick brine, and it is moved to very shallow stainless steel evaporation pans, where it's gently heated. Salt crystals form on the surface of the brine or fall to the bottom of the pan." Ben made the process sound more beautiful than technical: "The salt just kind of cascades down like leaves or snowflakes do. Very, very slowly."
The salt crystals are harvested, drained, and dried. It takes about two weeks to get from seawater to flake salt, and it's a round-the-clock, hands-on process.
Food director Sarah Carey asked Ben how he got into making salt. He explained that it started from simple curiosity, when he filled a kiddie pool in his backyard with seawater and let it sit. How did that turn out? "It did make salt, after about four months, but it wasn't good," Ben told us, laughing. "Anybody can make salt, but to make good salt is very difficult, and to make good salt consistently is even more difficult."
Once he got serious about salt-making, he began using seawater from Netarts Bay, driving a U-Haul truck filled with 275-gallon wine totes of seawater some 75 miles to Portland, where he cooked it down on a six-burner stove.
When Ben mentioned that he also made kosher salt, Sarah was very interested. Kosher salt is probably the ingredient we use most in the kitchen―it's called for in just about every recipe that the food editors develop. Sarah examined and tasted Jacobsen's kosher salt, and she explained that if a home cook used the same amount of iodized table salt as kosher salt when cooking a recipe, it would make the dish much, much saltier. "Even using different brands of kosher salt will affect a recipe," she says. The most readily available kosher salts have differing levels of salinity―one is about twice as salty as the other.
Sarah took out a scale and weighed grocery store kosher salt and the Jacobsen kosher salt to compare them, and she discovered that Jacobsen's is heavier. Ben said that was probably because his salt had more moisture. He also explained that when cooks are switching from regular kosher salt to his kosher salt, he recommends that they use about one-third less salt, because Jacobsen kosher salt is, well, saltier!