What was quite possibly the single best dish I’ve eaten this year came to my table as a bleak white mound that looked less like food than some kindergartner’s art project igloo. That it was wheeled with such ceremony through the dining room of Providence restaurant on a table-side service cart only added to the sense of surrealism. What in the world could this be?
With chef Michael Cimarusti standing by expectantly, his manager-co-owner, Donato Poto, used two spoons to crack the crusty top of the mound and lift it away, revealing two perfectly cooked spot prawns and releasing the most remarkable aroma of supremely fresh shellfish. After a quick trip to the kitchen for shelling, those prawns reappeared, drizzled with a little very good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and sprinkled with sea salt.
I took one bite and had to close my eyes. Many dishes are good; some are excellent. A very few are truly profound, and this was one of them. It had the deepest, purest taste of shellfish I’ve ever experienced, like some distilled essence.
The fact that, as I’ve since learned, it’s remarkably easy to make at home only adds to its magic.
Salt-roasting, essentially nothing more than baking something in a mound of salt, is a technique with ancient roots but a thoroughly modern result -- food that tastes clearly and intensely of itself.
You can try this at home
You don’t need any fancy equipment. You don’t need days of preparation. You don’t need a pantry full of exotic ingredients. With nothing more than a roasting pan and a box of salt, you can create moist, richly flavored dishes that derive their complexity not from complication but from concentration.
The first thing I tried to salt-roast at home was fingerling potatoes. I moistened some coarse salt and buried the potatoes in it. On a whim, I chopped some rosemary into the salt. I roasted the potatoes until a knife slipped into them easily, about 25 minutes at 400 degrees.
I lifted off the salt crust and brushed away the stray flakes that clung to the potatoes. They didn’t look all that different from regular roasted potatoes. I took a bite. The flavor was amazing. Not only was there the strong, minerally overlay of newly dug potatoes, but there was also a gentle, almost haunting, fragrance of rosemary. Despite having been cooked with 2 cups of salt, the potatoes weren’t too salty.
So off I went, on a salt-roasting binge. Over two weeks (and using more than 18 pounds of salt), I salt-roasted whole fish, spiny lobster, chicken breasts, shrimp, prawns, pork roast, roast beef, steak, even pears.
I don’t remember the last time I have been so excited by a cooking technique. It’s like combining the best features of roasting and steaming. Time and again, I was surprised, even shocked, by what emerged from under the salty crust. Pork tenderloin that was moist and tender; whole fish that was buttery and juicy; spiny lobster that was tender, not chewy. And everything with a deep, even profound, taste of itself.
Even the failures were instructive.
The pears, for example, came out tasting weirdly savory; they might be good in a salad, but not for dessert. Shrimp without heads didn’t work so well either: The salt stuck to the cut surface and was too strong, though once I’d trimmed away a quarter-inch, the flavor was fine.
For some reason, the salt didn’t stick to the cut surface of the steak, except where there was exposed fat. The flavor was terrific, concentrated and beefy, but the lack of browning was obvious. (No problem: I sliced the steak thin and served it in a salad with arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano.)
This lack of browning was more problematic with the pork tenderloin -- pale meats really need to be seared first. That’s the same reason the chicken breasts were also disappointing: Without the browning, the skin is flaccid and gummy.
Perhaps the most telling failure was the previously frozen freshwater prawns I’d picked up at a Chinese grocery. Though the flavor was extremely concentrated and the meat was incredibly moist, the prawns just didn’t taste very good. With this technique, quality of ingredients is paramount.
Salt-roasting has been around for ages, and there are all sorts of variations. Some cooks make an extremely salty pastry and wrap that around the food. Some beat egg whites into the salt to form a rock-hard crust.
Cimarusti (who has now made a seasonal change from spot prawn to spiny lobster) doesn’t add anything to the salt but heat -- and a lot of it. He bakes the salt in a 550-degree oven until it is incredibly hot, and then roasts the prawns in that. It works very well, but he warns that it is extremely risky.
“I will tell you from personal experience that that hot salt is the most intense heat I’ve ever felt,” he says. “I’ve touched my arm on the side of 550-degree ovens plenty of times -- every cook has. And it smarts. But that is nothing compared to the time I touched that hot salt.”
But none of that complication is really necessary. I simply stirred water into the salt until it looked like gritty snow (one-third cup water to 2 cups of salt seems sufficient). When heated, this forms a crust sufficient to cook the food, but not so tough that you need a hammer to crack it. And although it may not cook as quickly as Cimarusti’s, it seems to function in about the same way.
Exactly how the process works is a bit of a mystery. Cimarusti credits it to “the combination of the absolute lack of moisture and the incredibly searing heat. The steam that is created in the cooking is forced inward.”
‘Oven within an oven’
Martina SABO of the Salt Institute, an industry trade group, says that’s about the size of it: The salt melts and forms a crust, making a kind of “oven within an oven,” she says. The effect is quite like steaming, but because salt is hygroscopic -- meaning it absorbs any moisture -- the surface of the food stays dry, giving a texture that is closer to roasted.
Sabo’s boss, Institute Technical Director Morton Satin happened to walk into her office when we were on the speakerphone and chimed in: “I have no idea how it works, but I can tell you that I lived in Italy for 20 years and always cooked fish that way. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I never stopped to analyze it. It’s not steaming, and it’s not roasting, but it’s a kind of hybrid of the two. And it’s very, very good.”
Satin says the food doesn’t taste overly salty because of osmosis -- the salt pulls the water out of the food and then before it can be reabsorbed and make the food salty, it bakes into a hard shell that can be easily removed.
You can use pretty much any kind of salt. I did my tests with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, my default salt at home -- I like the feel of its flake. But just out of curiosity, I baked some potatoes with extra-coarse ice cream salt and extra-fine iodized, and the results were similar (though the extra-fine did make the hardest crust).
Any time you have a main ingredient that has flavor as deep and pronounced as these salt-roasted meats, the best thing a cook can do is pair them with something complementary and leave well enough alone.
Stuff the belly of whole Tai snapper with some sliced lemon and parsley stems. Roast it in the salt crust for 20 minutes. While the fish is cooking, whisk together a simple sauce of parsley, lemon and olive oil. Bone the fish (skin it, too, if you prefer; the soft skin peels easily). Then serve it napped with the sauce. The sweet flavor of the meat is perfectly matched by the simplicity of the sauce, though it is so flavorful it would also be good dressed with nothing but a little good olive oil and some sea salt, a la Cimarusti.
Spiny lobster has a more assertive flavor -- particularly when salt-roasted. In addition to the intensely sweet, moist meat, there is an interesting hint of bitterness that reminds me of saffron. So make an aioli and whisk in some soaked saffron threads. The saffron not only strikes a similar flavor note, it also stains the sauce a shade of crimson that echoes the color of the lobster’s shell.
Maybe the biggest surprise of all, though, was when I revisited the pork tenderloin, searing it first and then roasting it in rosemary salt along with the fingerling potatoes.
I cooked the pork just to an internal temperature of 145 degrees -- still pink on the inside, though the muscle fibers were set and firm. Not only was the meat moist (and you know how uncommon that is with meat as lean as pork tenderloin), but it was also suffused with the same gentle perfume of rosemary as the potatoes had been.
Served with only some braised broccolini and lemon, it was a memorable feast that came together in less than an hour.
Now, if only I could get one of those serving carts and find a maitre d’ who makes house calls.