Salted caramels

Andreae Prozesky is worth her weight in salt for sure.

I hope I’ve never come off as a salt snob. Really, I’m not. I do use sea salt in most of my cooking and baking, and I specify it in my recipes because I want to record them as accurately as possible. The reason I use it is this: the last time I looked at a box of free-flowing table salt, it had a list of ingredients that read “salt, invert sugar.” Ingredients? Sugar in the salt? What the hell? I mean, I like sugar and salt together, in, say, a bag of salted caramels, or in the form of a DQ Peanut Buster Parfait, but what are those two doing in the same box? No, sir, I don’t like it.

I was living out of St. John’s when I made the sea salt switch, and I selected my salt based mainly on the packaging. The neighbourhood I lived in had a wonderful Greek supermarket, and there was a brand of “award-winning sea salt” on display there. On the side of the container there were artists’ renderings of the various awards that the salt had won, and one of them looked just like an Emmy. Hilarious. How could I not buy Emmy-winning salt? It didn’t hurt that it was cheap as chips. I took my salt home and began to imagine the sorts of acceptance speeches a container of award-winning Greek sea salt would make. Sophisticated form of diversion, I know.

So, as a sea salt user, it doesn’t bother me a mite that there are people out there dusting their chocolate truffles in fleur du sel, or flinging pink and grey mineral salts over their plates like wedding confetti over a set of church steps. And I figure that if you want to pay a fortune for glorious pyramid-shaped salt crystals made of angels’ tears, evaporated by the flapping wings of doves, fine. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t make you better than other people. It might be dead tasty, but it won’t cure what ails you, and if you go around pouring it all over everything you’ll end up with hypertension just like everybody else.

Honestly, the way people are going on about sea salt, you would think it was the new penicillin. I mean, it’s salt. You need a bit of it to stay alive, and you need a lot of it if you’re making popcorn, but it’s still just salt.
This is not to say that the idea that sea salt might be a better nutritional choice than regular table salt is completely unfounded. For one thing, sea salt tends to be sold in coarse form, which means that you’re more likely to be satisfied with a small sprinkling of it atop your food than you would with the same small sprinkling of fine table salt. The nuances of flavour in your meal will be more pronounced, you’ll be more pleased with what you’re eating, a flood of happy emotions will surge through you, and you’ll go for a jaunt in the warm spring evening air instead of having another giant bowl of pasta and passing out on the couch. It’s a roundabout kind of health benefit, but the real ones usually are.

Another potential benefit is that sea salt, coming from sea water, is full of minerals. This is why sea salt is often grey, sometimes pink or red or brownish. You can taste the difference, which is kind of neat. Whether these minerals have any real dietary impact, though, is difficult to judge. You would probably have to eat an awful lot of chunky grey salt for it to count as a magnesium or potassium or iron supplement. And while sea water is mineral-rich, it’s also full of, well, filthy man-made toxins and pollutants, which can just as easily show up as residue on the salt. If your sea salt has been cleaned and refined, the toxins will have been removed, but so will have been the fancy minerals. If the sea salt is unrefined, you’d best be sure it’s from a reputable source (or that it’s won an Emmy).

I suppose there’s an economic factor to consider; if you’re someone who tends to use too much salt, and you replace all the Sifto in your house with snappy gourmet salts at 10$ for a half-cup package, you’re likely to be a tad more judicious in how you season your food. But since the most damaging salt is not the salt you cook with but the nefarious salts that the food giants sneak into your frozen dinners and take-out meals, simply replacing your salt shaker at home with a grinder full of salt chunks probably isn’t going to do anything for your health.
If there is one major advantage that sea salt has over table salt, it’s a karmic one; most table salt is mined, and the conditions for the workers are often cited as atrocious. Mining salt has a host of negative environmental effects, too. Sea salt, on the other hand, is usually produced by small companies, and is available with fair trade and organic certifications. Your body might not be able to tell the difference, but supporting ethical business practices is definitely good for you. Even if that means eating extra salted caramels.

SALTED CARAMELS

There’s nothing difficult about making candy, so long as you have a candy thermometer, which you can pick up for a few bucks in the gadgetry aisle of your grocery store. Have all your ingredients and your pan ready to go so that you can keep an eye on the temperature: too low, and you have caramel syrup, too high and you have brittle, filling-removing toffee (neither of which is a terrible thing, mind you).

Makes a whole lot of little bite-sized candies.

1 cup whipping cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup brown rice syrup (or corn syrup if you can’t find brown rice syrup)
¼ cup water

Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment so that there will be enough overhang to pull the caramel slab out of the pan. Brush the parchment with oil and set aside. Fill a glass with cold water and keep it close by to check the doneness of your caramel.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the cream, butter, and salt to a boil. Remove from heat.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine sugar, syrup, and water. Stir over medium-high heat until sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, swirling the pan over the heat (but not stirring), until thermometer reads 248F. Add cream mixture; it will bubble up furiously. Cook, swirling, until the heat has returned to 248F but do not let it go past that point. If you want to test your caramel, drop a bit of it from the tip of a spoon into your glass of cold water; it should form a ball as it sinks to the bottom.

Pour your caramel syrup into the prepared pan and set aside for two hours to firm up. Cut into bite-sized pieces and wrap in waxed paper. If you want to dip each square in tempered chocolate, then go mad. If you have fancy, pretty sea salt, you might want to sprinkle a bit more over for decoration.

Send your questions, comments, and salty suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca

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