Friday, October 5, 2012

Salt From The Ocean (Part 2)

Eighty-two years ago, Mahatma Gandhi led Indians to the sea to make salt. They were protesting the British salt tax as a tangible, every day reminder of the British rule of India. All Indians were affected by the salt tax, with the burden falling heaviest on those who could least afford to pay. So Gandhi marched 240 miles to the ocean to make salt and by-pass the tax. The Salt March, or Salt Satyagraha, became emblematic of Gandhi's commitment to fighting British rule through non-violent civil disobedience, the path later followed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.

I did not make salt to avoid a tax or to take part in civil disobedience. (But it feels great to do something that Gandhi did and the Salt March is one of the big reasons I know that ordinary people can make salt out of ordinary ocean water.) I made salt to help a friend who is fighting a different fight. As I explained yesterday, Local Food Friend (LFF) is participating in a local food challenge with several other people. He is attempting to eat only food grown in our region. Why is this a fight, you ask? Eating locally is a great way to stick it to the Man, as Husband would say. In this case, the Man is the global corporate food system that promotes GMOs, feed lots, over-processed and over-packaged foods, and pushes sugar and corn syrup into every product known to humankind. Eating locally keeps your money in your local economy, supports your local farmers and food processors, minimizes the number of food miles your dinner travels to get to your plate, and tastes really great in the process. What's not to love?

One very key thing that is not produced here is salt. And really? Life without salt is just barely worth living. The "tastes really great" part of eating locally is not quite so bright and sunny without the world's favorite flavor enhancer. And so my local salt quest began with three zip lock bags of ocean.
As described yesterday, I tried two different methods for turning the Pacific Ocean water into salt. Most of the water was boiled last night to kill off any potentially-harmful biological nasties. This morning, I poured about a third of it into my large lasagna pan, which fits over two burners, and turned on a medium heat. When that was reduced by half, I added half the remaining water. Steam poured off the pan, but the water was almost never actually boiling (bubbling) because salt raises the boiling point of water, so the more concentrated the salt got, the higher the temperature needed to bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, I had taken the rest of the water and partially frozen it. I explained why in yesterday's post, so just go ahead and read it already if you haven't yet. I removed an ice cap from this water three times, leaving just a cup and a half or so of water. After straining it, I brought it to a boil and within about 25 minutes, I had salt!!
Beautiful, fluffy, bright white salt. Most people warn that making your own salt will result in a brown or slightly grey salt. And that would have been fine. But that's not what I got. It's everything one would expect salt to be. It was only a couple tablespoons worth, but it was also not a lot of water. In hindsight, I think I probably should have just done one round of freezing. Freezing is good because it gets rid of a lot of water without using the energy required by the boiling method. (Of course, if you lived somewhere hot and sunny, a well-vented solar oven would really be the way to go.) I think that freezing three times meant that I was pulling out ice with a fairly high salt content by the end, which left me not much salt.

Shortly after I photographed the frozen salt, my other pan really started to come together. This is what I learned about making salt: it happens all of a sudden. I was watching my lasagna pan of water and it was water. Salty water if I tasted it, but very clearly, it was water. And it evaporated and evaporated and evaporated, and what was left in the pan was still just water. Until it suddenly wasn't. I looked one minute and it was a pan of not-quite boiling water. I looked the next and there was a salt crust forming on one half of the pan. And as I looked at it, I realized that it wasn't so much a salt crust as a salt puddle and it was spreading across the rest of the pan.
(Unfortunately, this is difficult to illustrate. My lasagna pan is white enamel. White salt doesn't really show up that well, even when the whole pan has a layer of salt crust. Such is life.)

I had to run to get to a meeting just about five minutes BEFORE I got to this point, so I had to abandon my salt in order to be only fashionably late. When I came back, I popped the pan in a 250 degree oven to finish drying it out. It worked like a charm and this was the result:
Another cup or so of beautiful, locally-sourced-and-produced salt. Those of you who have been reading Isolated Foodie long enough to remember how much I LOVE gathering wild foods might have an inkling of just how tickled I am that I made salt. I made salt! It's so awesome! All in all, there's almost a cup and a half of freshly-harvested, undomesticated, home-made salt for LFF. If he's careful, it should last the rest of the month. If not, he'll just have to wander down to the sea and make his own wild salt.

If he does (or if you'd like to give it a try), here's the method I would suggest based on my limited experience:
  1. For a cup of salt, gather up two gallons of ocean water. Try to collect it away from stream outlets, marine mammal hang-outs, inner harbors, and other potential sources of pollutants.
  2. Let the sand settle out for a few hours.
  3. Strain the water through coffee filters, cheesecloth, or a non-terry-cloth towel to remove additional grit or foreign objects.
  4. Freeze the water until there's a reasonably solid sheet of ice covering the top. Remove the ice.
  5. Bring the water to a hard boil for about 25 minutes to take care of biological contaminants.
  6. Strain the water again. Pour about a third into as large a pot as you can. You want to maximize surface area. Bring it to a low simmer and steam away until it's reduced by half. Add half the remaining water and do the same. Add the remaining water and reduce by half.
  7. At this point, keep a close eye on your water. Soon it will magically transform into salt. When the salt crust is completely covering the pan and there is little free water remaining, transfer the pan (if you can) to a 250 degree (F) oven for 15-30 minutes to dry out the salt. You might want to stir it around a few times. 
That's it! Not too hard, right? The freezing takes a little of the carbon footprint out of the process. I think I boiled the big batch for about 2.5 hours all told. Maybe a little more. That's quite a bit of energy for a cup of salt. (Although, really, how much energy is used to  process, package, and transport the cardboard box of kosher salt that's in my pantry? Given that the box had to be made and printed, along with the little metal pull-out spout, it represents a significant amount of energy.) No matter how much energy it took, I'm glad I did this for LFF. We're working on the details of the salt hand-off right now. I'm giving it to him in a lidded container, but this is the full beauty of both batches of salt:

3 comments:

  1. I bow at your feet. Fantastic.

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  2. SO COOL. And I have SO missed your food blog (mum may not have known about it, but I followed it closely).

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  3. No bowing necessary, but it is a cool and fantastic thing to do. Now I feel that I need to keep doing the food blog.

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