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October 1st, 2008

Baking in Salt

A recent meal brought to mind this piece I wrote for the Washington Post a few years back on baking in a salt crust. Recipes for Salt-Baked Pork Loin with Creamy Roquefort Sauce and Salt-Baked Whole Red Snapper with Quick Pumpkin Puree follow. Enjoy.


Buried In Salt
By Jeff Koehler
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page F01

When I moved to Barcelona eight years ago, I joined a culture that celebrates the soul through its stomach. Food is a main ingredient in Catalan life, the center of nearly everything, and forms, with politics and futbol (soccer), the holy trinity of conversational topics.

Catalan cuisine strives to heighten — not disguise — the natural flavors of the freshest and finest products. Preparation is generally straightforward, and surprises, more often than not, are in the use of the ingredients — the mixing of meat and seafood, the regular inclusion of fruit in savory cooking — rather than in the method of preparation.

Nowhere is this style more apparent than in the creative use of salt.

Just after I moved here my wife and I went to lunch at friends of hers and were served lomo a la sal, pork loin baked encased in salt.

It was brought to the table still buried under a cylindrical mound of oven-browned salt. A hammer was theatrically produced and the shell cracked open. The large pieces of crust were pulled away, the lingering salt flakes brushed off, and a ruddy, dripping pork loin was lifted out.

The lomo was tender and juicy, robust in flavor with a slight gamy tang around the edges, and, perhaps most surprisingly, not salty. It was cut into finger-thin slices and served with small bowls of sauces — a creamy Roquefort sauce, a sweetened raspberry puree and applesauce — each counterpunching the full-bodied taste of the pork as well as each other.

The most important ingredient wasn’t the salt but the meat, and the same is true whether it’s seafood, chicken or vegetables encased in the crust. Salt-baking doesn’t create flavor from nothing but rather intensifies and heightens the flavor that is already there.

The mechanics are simple. A couple of pounds of coarse salt is mixed with a few egg whites. A thin layer of the mixture is spread on the bottom of a baking dish, the pork loin is placed on top and then completely covered with the remaining salt mixture. As it bakes, the salt forms a hard, impermeable shell snugly around the loin, sealing in the juices and keeping any of the natural flavors from dissipating.

Juame Fàbrega, the Catalan historian, journalist and cookbook author, thinks that salt-baking was brought to Catalonia from the south of Spain, possibly by the ancient Phoenicians, the first producers of salt in Spain. Some 3,000 years ago they settled Cadiz on the southern tip of the peninsula and began building salt pans to evaporate sea water in the sun to yield salt.

What they undoubtedly baked was fish, still the standard a la sal dish in Spain. The Spanish fish of choice is dorada (sea bream), perfectly suited with its firm white flesh, ideal size and thick skin that acts as a natural barrier keeping the flesh from getting salty. Sea bass is another excellent option; so is red snapper, though any non-oily white fish will work. It is one of the simplest ways to prepare these fish whole, and perhaps the best way to get a true, clean taste with subtle hints of brine.

The scales, head and tail are left intact, and the fish is gutted. My fishmonger in Barcelona does this in two ways: either by making a tiny keyhole incision in the belly and feeding the entrails out or by cutting out the gills and pulling the entrails through the mouth. But such a special skill isn’t necessary. The fish can be gutted normally and the opening closed with a toothpick before burying in salt. If the slit is quite large, a strip of aluminum foil can be placed over the cut. The goal is to keep the salt out of the body cavity.

The hardened crust needs to be broken apart more carefully with fish than with pork. Ideally, it should be cracked along one ridge and the whole top chunk pulled off in a single piece. Once the residue salt flakes are brushed away, the top side of the fish is lifted out onto a serving plate, the spine removed, and the bottom side lifted out. The fish can be served alone, simply in its own succulent, pooled juices, or with a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of good quality olive oil. For sauces, we often opt for a subtle, almost sweet pumpkin puree.

Cooking a la sal isn’t exclusive to Spain. Eastward along the Mediterranean one finds daurade au gros sel (sea bream baked in salt) in France and branzino al sale (sea bass baked in salt) in Italy.

In China, salt baking is an age-old method of preparing chicken. In his exhaustive book “Salt: A World History” (Penguin, 2002), Mark Kurlansky writes that the Chinese were cooking in a salt crust more than 1,000 years ago. According to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of, among a number of notable cookbooks, “The Chinese Kitchen” (Morrow, 1999), the nomadic Hakka people in Canton would make “ovens” in the ground by digging shallow holes in the earth, filling them with stones that were heated, and then adding whole chickens in sea salt.

At home we prefer the salt-baked flavor of smaller chickens (under 21/2 pounds) and Cornish game hens. Because of their shape, birds are trickier to evenly cover with salt than pork loin or fish. I mix in a bit of water to make the salt more pasty and take plenty of time, carefully pressing and sculpting the mixture around the birds. Once placed gently in the hot oven, the salt sets quickly and won’t crumble down the sides.

Before trussing and encasing the bird in salt, the cavity can be stuffed with unpeeled cloves of garlic and a sprig of thyme or rosemary. The meat comes out moist and tender, with a resonating taste of garlic and herbs, especially pronounced in the breast.

The range of what else can be prepared a la sal is wide. Eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes are all good. Medium-size White Rose or Yukon Gold potatoes take about 45 minutes to bake. An interesting fish option is burying a mess of sardines in salt. To make the extraction a bit easier, mark the space between each with a toothpick. Crack the shell and let everyone pull out the sardines, eating them with their fingers. The same process goes for shrimp. Use whole shrimp with the shells and, ideally, heads. Sardines and medium-size shrimp both take about 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven.

Because of the amount of salt used, this way of cooking, as Kurlansky observes in his book, was “for either the very rich or for a modern age of inexpensive salt.”

Indeed salt doesn’t command the exuberant and empire-building prices that it once did, but buying three pounds of imported sea salt can be expensive. Coarse kosher salt is more affordable — about $2 for a three-pound box — and works very well. The coarser the salt the easier it is to work with.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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