Salt is everywhere on earth. In the oceans, inside the earth, in our food and in our bodies. It is essential to life, and it plays a central role in fermentation. Many people struggle to consume less salt because it can cause high blood pressure. But our bodies require some salt. Along with some fun facts, I hope to convince you that eating fermented foods can be a healthy way of having our friend, sodium chloride, in your diet.
Salt’s ability to preserve food was central to the development of civilization. It helped to eliminate dependence on seasonal availability of food and made it possible to transport food over large distances.
The word salt comes from the Latin salarium, which means salary. In ancient Rome, it was considered a form of currency and meant the amount of money allotted to a Roman soldier to buy salt, which was an expensive but essential commodity.
In Britain, the suffix “-wich” in the name of a town such as Sandwich or Norwich means it was once a source of salt. In Pennsylvania, Native Americans and early settlers made salt from brine springs all over the state. The liquid was collected and evaporated in shallow ceramic or stone pans placed on open fires or on beds of hot coals. The dried, crystallized salt could be scraped out of the pan for use.
Major methods of production today are solar evaporation from sea water, mining salt from the earth, and solution mining in which water is pumped into a well, the salt below is dissolved, and the resulting brine is dehydrated. Today, we can get many types of salt from all over the world.
Ordinary table salt is highly refined and includes anti-caking agents and added iodide because the natural iodide is stripped away during processing. Kosher salt is also highly refined but usually contains no added chemicals. Sea salt is minimally processed and can have a range of colors from local minerals and even algae. Fleur de Sel (flower of salt) is a special salt from shallow pools in the French coastal region of Brittany, and must be harvested by hand. Consequently, it is rare and expensive. Pink Himalayan salt is from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan, near the Himalayas. It is one of the largest and oldest salt mines in the world. The salt from this mine formed from the evaporation of large bodies of water in ancient times. The mine is more than 5000 feet deep below the Himalayan Mountain range.
In fermented foods, the percentage of salt ranges from 1.5% in vegetables and breads to 6% in miso and soy sauce to 10% in cured and brined meats such as salami and bacon. Salt is used to preserve the food and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. Fermentation creates a wonderful array of flavors and health promoting benefits such as improved digestive health, stronger immunity, and increased availability of beneficial nutrients such as vitamin C and iron. A one half cup serving of typical sauerkraut has 470 milligrams of sodium which is 20% of the recommended FDA Daily Value. For comparison, one serving of Olive Garden’s Five Cheese Ziti clocks in at 2160 milligrams which is 90% of the Daily Value. That sauerkraut also has 50% of Vitamin C and 62% of iron.
If you are on a salt restricted diet, fermenters recommend reducing the amounts of salt hidden in restaurant and processed foods in favor of enjoying salt along with the remarkable health benefits of fermentation. You can purchase delicious fermented vegetables from two excellent local companies, The Cottage Kitchen and Cucina Verde Or, you can take a class with me and learn to make your own.
Karen Palcho is a Berks County artist, educator, gardener and fermenter whose interests are rooted in transforming earth based raw materials and plants into things that are beautiful, tasty and useful. She teaches classes in fermentation, botanicals, and art.