Food & Drink | July 2016

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Salt Block Cooking

Prior to a couple of weeks ago we had never heard of cooking on a salt block. We had heard of a salt block, of course. It was something you had out in the pasture that the cows licked. I have no idea what good that does the cow, however.

But one recent Saturday morning, while drinking coffee on the front porch, Ryan Beck rode up on his scooter. Beck lives a few blocks away from us and passes by our house several times a day when he goes to see his father. If we’re out front, he’ll pull up in the driveway, take out his earbuds and talk for a while. On this Saturday the talk turned to cooking, and the subject of cooking on a salt block came up. Beck had heard about the technique and was planning to purchase one and give it a shot.

About a week later we were having dinner at Lula Jane’s — owner Nancy Grayson offers a subscription dinner a few times a year, and a subscriber couldn’t make it, so we were lucky enough to secure a couple of seats — and were seated across the table from Anne and Nelson Rue. Nelson owns and operates Schmaltz’s Sandwich Shops, and Anne is the CEO of Schmaltz’s. Again, the conversation topic turned to food (actually, that’s pretty much the only thing we talked about, through all five courses of the wonderful dinner), and the Rues said they’re big fans of cooking on a salt block. So we decided to give it a try.

Before we bought one, I did some research because that’s what I do. It takes us forever to book a vacation because I have to check out pretty much every hotel. And we can’t simply stop and eat at the nearest restaurant. Gotta check those Yelp reviews! I learned that salt blocks are probably the crystallized remains of an ocean from millions of years ago.The block itself is full of various minerals that give it a lovely pink hue.

I also learned that cooking on a salt block has become popular in the last few years. The oldest salt block cookbook I found was published in 2013, and it was written by Mark Bitterman, whose first book was “Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral.” I think he found a niche. Although we don’t yet own a copy of Bitterman’s “Salt Block Cooking,” it looks intriguing. Bitterman’s website says the 70 recipes in the book are divided into six cooking techniques — serving, warming, curing, cooking, chilling and drinking — including recipes ranging from fajitas to candied strawberries and salt-frozen Parmesan ice cream.

The salmon we made was moist, flaky and delicious. The rice, while we didn’t prepare it on the salt block, was also really good, but it sat directly on the block for a while during the photo shoot, and it definitely picked up the flavor of the salt.

The salt block can be used, various websites say, hot, cold or at room temperature. When it’s hot, the block can be used to cook or sear meat, fish or fruit. To properly heat a salt block, place it on a cold grill and turn one burner on low. After 15 minutes, turn on another burner and set both at medium heat. Then increase the heat every 15 minutes until the block is at the desired temperature. (As always, check the directions that come with your particular salt block.)

To chill a block, simply place it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours and then it can be used to serve fruit or cheese or anything else that needs to be kept chilled.
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The Recipes

Salmon Filet with Ginger-Vanilla Butter

  • 1/8 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon onion powder
  • Pinch garlic powder
  • Pinch dried thyme
  • 2 salmon filets, about 6 ounces each
  • Pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds removed
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Heat the salt block according to manufacturer’s directions.

In a small bowl, mix together paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, thyme and pepper. (Do not add salt to this mixture — the salt block will
provide enough salt.) Sprinkle the mixture over salmon.

Meanwhile, peel and chop ginger and remove the seeds from the vanilla pod. In a small pan, melt butter and let it cook until browned and fragrant. Add ginger and vanilla seeds; whisk together until fully blended and sauce is warmed through.

Place salmon directly on the hot salt block and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, depending on thickness, until milky white spots appear on the side of the filet. The flesh should be flaky when tested with a fork.

Very carefully remove the salmon from the salt block when it’s done. Place on top of a serving of rice and pour some of the extra ginger-vanilla sauce over the top. Makes 2 servings.
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Lemon-Cilantro Rice

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups uncooked rice
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 3-4 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Pour stock into a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in rice, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for 18-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, saute onion in oil until translucent. Stir in lemon zest.

Add onion and lemon zest mixture, lemon juice and cilantro to cooked rice and fluff with a fork. Let stand for 4-5 minutes to let flavors blend. Makes about 8 cups of rice.
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Salt Block Asparagus

  • 1 pound fresh asparagus
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the salt block according to manufacturer’s directions.

Coat asparagus with olive oil and add pepper to taste.

Place asparagus on the hot salt block, still on the grill, and cook until tender, for about 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings.
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Honey and Black Pepper Shrimp

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 small shallot, peeled and finely minced
  • 1 medium garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
  • 1 pound large shrimp, cleaned
  • Kosher salt, as needed

Heat the salt block according to manufacturer’s directions.

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add shallot and garlic; cook until shallot has softened, for about 3-4 minutes. Add honey, lemon juice and pepper. Stir to combine, then taste and season with salt and pepper. 

Using a pastry brush, brush shrimp with glaze mixture. Place shrimp directly on the salt block and cook until lightly browned, for about 2-3 minutes. Using tongs, turn shrimp onto a clean spot on the block. Brush again with glaze and continue cooking until the center is slightly opaque, for about 2-3 minutes more. 

Divide shrimp between 4 heated serving plates. Drizzle with 2-3 tablespoons of reserved glaze mixture and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
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Caramel Cashew Brittle

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup cashews, roughly chopped

Cool the salt block in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or longer if possible. Spray the block with nonstick cooking spray as you make the caramel.

Place sugar in a saucepan and set over medium high heat. Shake the pan to distribute sugar evenly. Let sugar melt completely, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a deep amber color, for 8-10 minutes.

Add corn syrup and baking soda. Watch carefully, as the mixture will bubble up while stirring. Immediately add cashews while the mixture is
foaming and then pour out onto the salt block, spreading it as quickly as you can. (It hardens quickly.) Once cool, lift the brittle from the block with a spatula and break into pieces. Makes about 2-4 servings.
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Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/3 cups pastry flour (or 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour mixed with 1 cup cake flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 cups chocolate chips
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped (optional)­

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together butter, sugars and salt for about 3-4 minutes. Beat in eggs and vanilla until the eggs have been incorporated into the butter mixture.

Add flour and baking soda; mix until the flour is just combined.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape down the sides. Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts, if using.

Cover the dough and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Heat oven to 350 F with the salt block in the oven.

Using a scoop or your hands, divide the dough into about 24 equal portions. Roll into balls and keep chilled. Open the oven and place the dough balls directly on the salt block, leaving about 2 inches around each. Bake for 10-14 minutes or until golden brown around the edges and slightly moist in the center.

Use a pizza peel or a flat metal spatula to remove the cookies; lay on a wire rack to cool. Continue cooking cookies in batches until all the dough is used. Makes about 24 cookies.


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