Salt II

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Of all the projects we’ve undertaken thus far, I think lobstering is the hardest. Not only does it require a lot of hard, cold, dangerous work, it involves the acquisition of expertise – what kind of traps, where to put them, how to bait them, when to check them. Lobsters are enigmatic and lobstermen are tight-lipped, so acquiring this expertise isn’t nearly as straightforward as learning about, say, gardening. Gardeners will tell you anything.

The slush stage

The slush stage

At the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum is sea salt production. It requires very little work and absolutely no expertise. All we have to do is get some sea water and put it in a pan on top of our wood stove, so it’s hard for me to explain our fascination with the process. The first time we did it, in the dead of last winter, Kevin and I stood in front of the wood stove for minutes at a time, staring at a pan of evaporating water.

We’ve just started our second year of production, and we’re still fascinated. And it’s not just us. People who know us and follow what we’re doing seem to think that our sea salt manufacturing is our most interesting undertaking. Mushroom foraging raises a few eyebrows, but that’s mostly because people think eating wild mushrooms is a benign form of lunacy. Lobstering is old hat to Cape Codders, and chickens only get us a polite smile. But sea salt!

It caught the fancy of my friend Elspeth, who writes Diary of Locavore and does the Local Food Report for our Cape NPR station, WCAI. Not only did she do a radio spot on it (and me, for which I thank her), she tried it at home. Her husband, Alex, is a serious food guy (if you’re ever in Wellfleet, visit Mac’s Seafood), and he reportedly caught the sea salt bug. “He’s been keeping the house at 110 degrees so he can make more of it,” Elspeth said.

I was also recently invited to speak at a gardening forum at Cape Cod Community College, and the organizer emphasized the sea salt portion of the program. “I know you do a lot of things,” Aimee said, “but make sure you talk about the salt.”

In a way, I find this very gratifying. In another way, not so much. “Hey!” I want to say. “I go out on a small boat in lousy weather to haul 50-pound lobster traps up from the bottom of the bay. Don’t you want to hear about that?

In a word, no. It’s all about the salt.

Making sea salt, step one from Tamar Haspel on Vimeo.

“Does it come out gray?” I’ve been asked, many times. The first time I did it, I thought it would, and was very surprised when it dried to a pure snowy white.

“Is it safe to eat?” is generally the next question. I suspect, in the history of the world, nobody’s ever gotten sick from salt for the simple reason that it can’t support life. There are all kinds of microorganisms in the water, but they die as it evaporates. There are other things dissolved in the water – minerals and inorganic compounds – and they don’t go away. If I re-dissolve my salt in water, there is a little residue (mostly calcium carbonate, I suspect), but it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which it’s going to do me harm.

“Can I just boil the water to get the salt?” ask people who don’t have wood stoves. Of course you can, but it doesn’t make sense. Energy is expensive and salt is cheap. This is only worth doing if the energy involved is going begging. If we got more sun, I’d try a solar version in the summer.

The finished product

The finished product

It’s reassuring to me that we’re not the only ones who find this interesting, but I still can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that holds our attention. It may be that, even though we’ve all known since elementary school that salt dissolves in water, the miracle of something useful materializing out of bucket of water still captivates us.

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Comments

  1. Interesting post; the salt is lovely, and I wonder why I chose to live now far from the ocean. Liked the video, especially the two-footed wave jump!

  2. I think I’m going to have to try this some time- maybe the next time we are on the coast. Which should be next week, actually, now that I think of it. And I have the wood stove, so why not?

  3. I can see the appeal, while you may know theoretically that there is salt in sea water, it’s quite magical to actually see it appear.

    I’m going to try it next winter (I’m in Australia, so it’s summer here & no matter how much my son asks, I’m not lighting a fire when it’s 40 deg C!). We keep a pot of water on top of the stove normally, ready to fill hot water bottles, so we should be able to manage this. Thanks for the great idea.

  4. I never thought of doing this but it makes perfect sense when one has a wood stove and lives by the ocean. Thanks for the description of what to do.

  5. We also make sea salt on our woodstove, and we’ve found that the location the water comes from is actually fairly important. We’ve made some from ocean-side spots that dried more gray and less salty, believe it or not, than the Cape Cod Bay water, which is where most, if not all, of the saltworks in my town were once located.
    I did try some solar evaporation a few years ago when I was in between woodstoves – it was much more of a pain in the rear, because of night and it’s cooling effects and also because of bugs, leaves, wind, birds and all the other things that can’t get in the house. That said, I didn’t use a custom-built evaporator. I was trying to dry it in pans on a flat black roof. Major waste of time. We make enough during the winter that we don’t need to build an outdoor system, but I’ll be interested to see how you do if you end up trying it this summah.

  6. Mimi — Glad you appreciate Kevin’s athleticism!

    Paula, Toria, and Alexandra — Try it. There’s nothing to lose, and salt and a conversation piece to gain.

    Beth — Glad you told me about your solar experience. We’ve thought about doing it with a pan and a greenhouse-type structure of some kind, but it seemed like it would be an iffy proposition on the Cape, what with high humidity, low temperatures, and unreliable sun. I’m leaning toward your system — salt in the winter, forget about it in the summer.

  7. We live 5 miles from the sea, have a woodstove going constantly, and I’m a saltaholic – why did this never dawn on me? I’m inspired and I’m going to give it a try, following your very helpful guidelines. Thanks Tamar. p.s. I am totally impressed by your hauling of lobster pots – they’re bloody heavy!

  8. Oh, I so want to try this! Do you filter the water before you boil it to remove any sand, etc.? And about how long does it take for the gallon of water to evaporate? We made the mistake of buying a wood stove that’s too powerful for the smalli-ish room that it’s in, and since the room quickly gets to 80 degrees plus, we don’t use it constantly.

  9. Jen & Ann — Try it, you’ll like it! As for the filter, I just use an ordinary coffee filter in a mesh sieve.

    And, for those of you who give this a shot, I’d be very interested to hear about your results.

  10. In August 2000, I filled two quart bottles of water from the Great Salt Lake and flew them home to Boston. I wasn’t sure at the time why I wanted this water – I just knew I had to have it. I have saved the bottles for nine years without knowing what to do with them. But now I do!

  11. Ken — You flew a half-gallon of water home from Utah almost a decade ago, and you still have it? It’s high time you did this little experiment.

    Sea water is 3.5% salt, so a half-gallon yields a little over 2 ounces of salt. A quick Wikipedia check reveals that the Great Salt Lake varies from 5% to 27%. So, if you evaporate the water, you should end up with somewhere betewen about 4 ounces on the low end and over a pound on the high end.

    Please do let me know how you fare.