At a time when most cooks prepare meals in minutes, a time-consuming culinary trend is taking shape.
Salt blocks — large pinkish blocks mined in Pakistan — are used to cook, cure, freeze, brown and present food. The salt imparts flavor to the food resting on it, but not overwhelming saltiness.
Because the blocks have very little porosity or residual moisture, they can be heated and cooled to extreme temperatures. Blocks come in a variety of colors, sizes and grades for various uses. They're sold in gourmet food and cookware stores, starting at about $35 and going up.
Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur Restaurant, said salt blocks are "wonderful for very pristine ingredients (prime beef, tuna, lobster) because the simple, natural flavor of the ingredient is nourished by pure salt. I never muddy the flavor with any other seasoning.
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"A lot of times I like to use the salt slabs chilled and preset raw fish ceviches on them. After dressing them with citrus, red onion, cilantro and chilies, it's fun to drag the fish along the block for perfect seasoning with every bite."
Salt blocks, also called plates or platters, are ideal for cooking fish, said Michael Yessin, who sells the salt blocks at Lexington Seafood Co. "They are great as long as you don't move food around much because that puts excess salt into your food," he said.
"I left mine on the grill and would light the grill and leave it on high for about 15 minutes, scraping any old residue off with a spatula. Cover it with olive oil and place the food on it, leaving it on high. Flip it one time, and pull it off once it's done.
"My opinion is the hotter the better, and cook indirectly, leaving the top down on your grill. I have cooked fish, chicken, and beef on it, and the added flavor is hard to describe, but wonderful. I carry them because they are a great way to cook out of the box," Yessin said.
Lexington Seafood sells an 8- by 12- by 2-inch block for $85, and an 8- by 8- by 2-inch one is $65. The Williams-Sonoma store at Fayette Mall sells a salt plate (8- by 12- by 11/2-inches) for $34.95. The store is offering a class on cooking with the salt blocks at 11 a.m. on June 9.
There's a lot to know about cooking with salt blocks, and before you buy one, take time to read Mark Bitterman's Salt Block Cooking (Andrews McMeel, $24.99).
A Himalayan salt block is not a steel skillet, Bitterman said. It is a natural stone and requires special treatment. It can crack or pop, so you must use only cookware-graded blocks. They must be heated slowly, but they get very hot, and you must wear professional high-temperature oven mitts while handling. You'll also need a ceramic trivet, which can withstand very high temperatures. Do not place a hot salt block on trivets of silicone, wood or metal.
Cooking on a salt block takes patience. The blocks are heated in 15-minute stages. Heating to 100 to 200 degrees can be achieved in one stage (very low), and heating to 550 degrees is done in three stages, very low, medium, and high.
Ranges and grills tend to work best for heating, Bitterman writes in his book. It's possible to heat salt blocks in the oven, but it's not the ideal method. On an electric stove, you'll need a ½-inch to 1-inch metal ring such as a stainless-steel, pop-out bottom tart pan with the bottom popped out to keep the block away from direct contact with the heating element.
Once the pretty pink block has been used to cook on, it transforms from a thing of beauty into a thing of practicality.
"The vibrant color of the block vanishes when you heat it," Bitterman writes. "A salt block can be used indefinitely for serving and then cooked on later, but it cannot be cooked on and then used for serving."
So, before you cook on your salt block, use it as a serving platter. When certain foods such as fruit, cheeses, fresh vegetables, and cured meats are served on a salt platter, they take on more of the block's flavor. Even more delightful is to chill the block and use it to make ice cream, salted peanut brittle, caramels, and salty chocolate curls.
Here are two recipes from Salt Block Cooking.
Salt crust scallops with Thai lime dipping sauce
1 (9- to 10-inch) square salt block
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 hot chile pepper, such as bird chile, habanero, cayenne, or Scotch bonnet, stem and seeds removed, minced
¼ cup finely shredded carrot
1¼ pounds large wild-caught sea scallops (about 16)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place the salt block over low heat on a gas grill or stovetop for 10 minutes. Turn the heat to medium and heat for 10 more minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and heat the block to about 600 degrees, about 20 more minutes.
To make the dipping sauce, mix the lime juice, fish sauce, ¼ cup water, vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, chile pepper, and carrot; set aside.
Pat the scallops dry and pull off their white gristly tendons if not already removed. Season the scallops with the black pepper and let stand at room temperature until the salt block is hot.
When the salt block is very hot (you should only be able to hold your hand above it for just a few seconds), place the scallops on the hot block and sear until browned and springy to the touch but still a little soft in the center, about 3 minutes per side. Work in batches if your salt block cannot comfortably fit all the scallops at once. Transfer to a platter or plates and serve with the dipping sauce. Makes 4 servings.
Watermelon and feta on a salt block
1 (8- by 12- by 2-inch) salt block platter, or 2 smaller blocks
4 (½ -inch-thick) quarter slices large watermelon, rinds removed, or 8 (½ -inch-thick) quarter slices small watermelon
3 ounces feta, crumbled
6 fresh mint leaves, slivered
Chill the salt block platter in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Arrange the melon slices on the block, slightly overlapping — the more the overlap, the less salt imparted to the melon. Scatter the feta and mint leaves over the top. Serve immediately. For added pop, allow the dish to stand 20 minutes before serving. Makes 2 servings.