Standing outside Scottsdale’s Allstate Appliance last week, I thought about everything I knew about salt. Salt was a valuable commodity in the Middle Ages, it’s a combination of two elements that are toxic to humans on their own, and too much of it causes health problems. Most of all, though, there was no way someone could fill a two-hour lesson on salt tasting.
Aaron Eckburg, co-owner of go lb. salt and the teacher of the class, had no such problem. A self-described selmelier (that’s a salt expert — one of the first things I learned in this class), Eckburg and his wife, Liz, have sold unrefined sea salts at Valley farmers markets since 2011.
They began teaching culinary classes centered around salt in the spring and started their second round at a new location in July.
“Classes just seemed the next logical progression to what we’ve been doing in farmers markets,” Eckburg says.
I attended their first, most basic class, Sea Salt Tasting and Pairing, which will be held in September and October. Later classes will have participants making their own bacon, dry aging beef and cooking on a Himalayan salt block.
The first half of the lesson was dedicated to learning about sea salt itself. Contrary to what I’d thought, it comes in many varieties, all with a distinct flavor.
SEA SALT VS. REFINED SALT
Most people aren’t familiar with the varieties of sea salt, Eckburg says. He knew nothing about it until a trip to Hawaii in 2008, when he ate food prepared with natural sea salt from the area.
Eckburg says he could immediately taste the difference between it and the refined salt he was used to, and while he couldn’t bring any back to his Fountain Hills home, he spent the next few years reading voraciously about sea salts.
He found there were varieties of natural sea salt all around the world, and in 2011, go lb. salt was born. Customers can order this salt — in quantities from an ounce o more — online, at farmers markets and after each class.
It comes in different colors, grains and flavors, but all the salts are unrefined — that is, they haven’t been treated to remove minerals or add iodine, as almost all salt available in supermarkets or restaurants is.
Not only does this make the natural sea salts taste better, Eckburg says, it keeps them healthier.
“Once you’ve started cooking with this, you won’t want to eat out as much,” he says. “I can taste it now. Whenever I eat anything that has refined salt in it, I go about two to three hours before I get cottonmouth.”
And the sea salt can be used in larger quantities than refined salt without any long term effects, Eckburg says. However, with the strong flavor most of them possess, there isn’t any need for more than a pinch of the flavoring — you’d need 70 percent less sea salt than kosher salt for the same taste, he says.
TASTE & SEE
We got to test this ourselves in the second half of the lesson: the practical application. One by one, Eckburg and assistants prepared samples of watermelon, heirloom tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, cut into sections and topped with different flavors of salt.
“We do everything like a wine tasting, less savory to bold,” he says. “It takes a while for your taste buds to wake up.”
I’m beginning to understand the appeal of these natural sea salts when Eckburg brings out the last thing I’d ever expect someone to sprinkle any form of salt on: a container of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
The trio of women I’m sitting next to, who drove down from Verde Valley for the class after learning about sea salts from Martha Stewart, are equally perturbed.
But these aren’t regular salts — they’re applewood sea salt, or sel gris, or black truffle, and they ended up just lending flavors of caramel or hot fudge to the ice cream.
“Salt accentuates the creaminess of milk fat,” Eckburg says. “Hands down. Period.”
The class drew to a close shortly after he served the ice cream, but most of us stayed with more questions — two hours just wasn’t enough.
• Julia, a junior at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.