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Salted

(article, Mark Bitterman)

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h3. From the section titled "History: First Bite"

An estimated 97 percent of the salt produced globally is not consumed in food. In 2008, Morton Salt reported 42 percent of its sales were de-icing salt, 34 percent industrial salt, and just 22 percent food salt, with the remainder going to chemical uses.

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h1. About the book and author

Salt aficionado Mark Bitterman is a co-founder of The Meadow, a boutique salt purveyor with shops in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. He keeps a blog called Salt News.

Bitterman's first book, Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes is both a cookbook and a compendium, covering the history of salt production, the science of the mineral, production techniques, a salt taxonomy, and a variety of techniques for using salt in the kitchen. 

Copyright © 2010 Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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But Morton, like many other salt companies, is actually a division of the much bigger fertilizer, chemical, and salt company K+S, which surpassed industry titan China National Salt Industry Corporation as the world’s largest when it purchased Morton from Dow Chemical.

Big salt companies serve enormous markets and crank out mind-numbing quantities of mined and evaporated salt. K+S had a production capacity of 30 million tons of salt in 2009. China National Salt had a 19-million-ton capacity. Compass Minerals and Cargill each have a capacity of about 14 million tons. 

The other biggies — Dampier Salt (9 million tons), Artyomsol (7.5 million tons), Exportadora de Sal (7 million tons), Südsalz (5.3 million tons), the Salins Group (4.1 million tons), Mitsui & Co. (3.8 million tons), and AkzoNobel (3.6 million tons) — all split their sales among road, industrial/pharmaceutical, chemical, and food sectors. The production from just the top 10 salt manufacturers would be enough to fill 1,475,714 railway cars, which would form a train 14,000 miles long. 

More industrial salt is on the way, with a new salt field on Djibouti's Lake Assal — which has a salinity of 34.8 percent salt, 10 times that of the ocean, and is considered the largest undeveloped salt reserve in the world — slated to produce 4 million tons per year starting in 2012. 

The solution mining of salt, which involves pumping water into an underground salt deposit to make a brine, is an equally huge business, and makes up the bulk of salts used in chemical manufacturing, bringing the total annual output worldwide to about 260 million tons, enough to fill a train that would circle the planet one and a half times.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="A variety of salts."]

Small producers focusing exclusively on culinary salt are few and far between. Guérande, once a pillar of the global salt trade, now makes less than 0.005 percent of the world’s salt.

Any business that deals in hundreds of thousands of tons of a raw material must be attentive to consistency, purity, and cost. The salt industry is no different. Industrial solar evaporated sea salt costs about $67 per metric ton, or six cents a pound. Production is geared toward yield of pure, commercially valuable sodium chloride. Everything else present in natural salt is viewed as a contaminant. Industrial salt makers regularly achieve 99.7 percent or higher sodium chloride purity. Culinary salt is usually refined even further, removing pollutants introduced by mechanized handling or by the industrialized surroundings, and often adding a host of chemicals to ready it for mass markets. 

Salts, once nearly infinitely varied, are today standardized into a handful of products. The salt most modern people sprinkle in their food, even home cooks and chefs who pride themselves on using only wholesome natural ingredients, is an artificially uniform cocktail of refined NaCl (sodium chloride) marketed as table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, or rock salt. 

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h1.Featured recipe




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The takeover of salt by industry was inevitable, and many aspects of the modern economy would not have been possible without it. NaCl is, in that sense, a celebration of industrialism.

But regardless of industrial demand, the salt we put on our food would never have changed so much without a fundamental shift in cultural values. The 19th century brought an increased fascination with all things refined and manufactured. Something made by a machine was better than something made by hand. This logic viewed all irregularities (whether nutritional, social, or regional) as undesirable, hailed economies of scale as egalitarian and cost-reductive, and promoted manmade things as superior to naturally created things.

Salt, for so many millennia an inescapably unique and regionally specific food, vanished. In its place we adopted the NaCl proffered by industry. Thousands of years of salt history were abruptly whited out.


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