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Mugaritz vs. Marshalls: A Salt Showdown

Sea salts

Food 52 (which I always want to call Seasons 52) recently wrote about “10 Salts to Know.” It reminded me of the eight barely known to me salts I wrestled up from various shelves and cupboards a while ago to assess. The massive plastic shaker of Trader Joe’s sea salt is the only one I paid money for. Frankly, I don’t recall how most of these specimens found their way into my apartment at all.

Palates, palates, always something to be praised on Top Chef and even Hell’s Kitchen. I’m not convinced I have much of one. I know which flavors I enjoy and dislike (sweet, powerfully fiery, shrimpy nam priks vs. cloying, dirty, perfumey melons) but subtleties can be lost on me.

Dueling salts

So, the best head-to-head taste test would have to pit the most haute with the lowest-brow of contenders. That would be Añananko Gatza from the Añana Salt Valley in the Basque county, a parting gift from Mugaritz, the third best restaurant in the world, and the $3.99 glass jar of Pepper Creek Farms Mayan sea salt from Marshalls, a Christmas gift from James’s mother (to him–she doesn’t buy me strip mall presents. I wonder if she’s aware of Home Goods, the offshoot devoted to all the balsamic vinegars, bath salts, and Keith Haring-themed cleaning supplies falling off the shelves at Marshalls?).

Originally, I thought I’d give the two salts a go on vegetables. I put together a haphazard salad using produce on its last legs: wrinkled grape tomatoes, browning mint, squishy cucumbers and  half a jalapeno. Bad idea. (Also a bad idea: doing a salt taste test the night before going to see a specialist about my blood pressure that doesn’t respond to medication.) The chile dominated everything and rendered the salt practically unnoticeable. I added in a can of chickpeas try and temper the heat and gave up on distinguishing the sources of saline.

Meat seemed like a better vehicle, so on to the Wegmans flank steak. After all, the label on the Pepper Creek Farms’ bottle said it was good on the “finest beef tenderloin” (and margarita glass rims).

Salted meat

Though not that clear from my so-so photo, the textures are what set the two apart most obviously. The fine, snowball powdery Marshall’s salt (on the right) disappeared immediately. After the first few bites, which produced an initial salt blast, I was left with meat juices and salty water. The jagged Mugaritz salt crystals remained distinct, and added not just crunch but a savory quality that made the meat meatier.

It wasn’t exactly a contest to compare extremes. What I could barely tell apart was the Mugaritz salt and the La Paludier Fleur de Sel de Guerande (with a $8.75 price tag) that that I normally use to finish dishes that could use a boost.  The two were more or less on par with the fleur de sel coming across slightly less salty.

I don’t know what the Añananko Gatza  salt costs; obviously it wasn’t free when you account for airfare to San Sebastian and the cost of a meal at Mugaritz. I would say you could save a few hundred euros and no one would know the difference. I’ll  keep the Basque salt as a souvenir until I know I can replace it easily, and stick with the widely available French sea salt I was already using. The Marshall’s salt? A perfect candidate for re-gifting.


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