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I've found links here and here on making finishing salts, but this isn't the kind I'm talking about. These are just mixtures of salt and some flavoring.

I'm referring to salts like Maldon Sea Salt and Fleur de Sel. I know that these have (purportedly) minerals that make the salt taste richer. Back when I was working in a kitchen, I was taught that part of what makes these nicer is that they're large crystals that dissolve slowly on the tongue (instead of nearly-instantly like your run-of-the-mill Morton's).

So basically, I want to try making my own large salt crystal flakes. Maybe I'll use kosher salt instead of iodized salt, but the goal is to get large crystals that look like this, or even larger.

Finally, the questions:

  • Has anyone done this before?
  • What should I keep in mind?
  • What should I look out for?
  • How can I maximize crystal size?
  • Is there any overlap with growing crystals in general?
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I have to wonder as to the purpose of doing this. Salt is one of the cheapest cooking ingredients and even up-market sea salts and rock salts are not really a big expense. It seems like allot of effort to make something that will never be as good as the real sea salts (lacking those minerals you mentioned.) –  Rincewind42 Jul 30 '11 at 11:21
    
It's something I'd like to try, as I'm skeptical how much of a difference those minerals make in the flavor. Morton's Kosher Salt is about 10 dollars for 3 pounds. Maldon sea salt is about 16 dollars for one pound. The actual dollar difference may not be significant, but if it can be done, I may prefer this as a substitute. –  Eric Hu Aug 1 '11 at 19:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

A simple way to get "more" out of your salt, is to start with BIG crystals, and coat them gently in oil before sprinkling them over the food. That way they do not melt on contact with the food as they are protected from the water by the film of oil , and add a awesome crunchy texture to the serving.


Technically I think that your question is more chemistry related and not directly cooking related.

I can give you a few hints no what you can do to get crystals, but a chemist should be able to give you a lot better advice.

First, making the salt water solution:

  1. Get distilled or at least demineralized water. You do not want to add random minerals that are dissolved in water to your salt :)
  2. Make a saturated solution of salt-water at a high temperature ... something like 90-95C (~194-203F). The idea is that at higher temperatures you get more of the salt dissolved in the water more easily.
  3. Keep the salt solution at that high temperature (well covered to reduce evaporation) for some time to make sure that any undissolved salt has settled to the bottom. You are interested only in the salt in the solution.
  4. Take only the saltwater without any undissolved salt. Until and including this step, the solution should be best keep at the same temperature. If you have to move the solution, at least make sure that the thing that you are moving it into is not cold.

OK, now it is time to make the crystals:

  1. Crystals grow. If they grow too fast or are disturbed (thermally or mechanically) they fall apart and end up being smaller. This is why when you make ice cream you churn the ice constantly (mechanical disturbing the formation of possibly ice crystals) or chill it with liquid nitrogen (thermally shocking the crystals and make them break apart). What you get are very small crystals if you disturb them.
  2. Crystals grow when they are "forced out of solution" - that is, when the concentration of the salt in water is higher than the solubility of salt in water at that specific conditions. Pressure is one of the factors, but we will just ignore it completely. The factors that you can work with are Temperature and concentration (just remove water from the solution by evaporation)
  3. To get BIG crystals, you have to let them grow slowly.
  4. So, what you need to do is to cool the solution very slowly AND/OR
  5. Evaporate the water out of solution very slowly (take care not to get dust in the solution during this procedure :) )

Unfortunately this is all the advice that I can give you now. Be aware that crystals are delicate and you might need a few attempts until you get the desired result. As a fun fact, there exist conditions where you will actually get a BIG salt Cube aka, a single salt Crystal by doing this :) . Cool indeed , but not very useful for cooking :)

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Awesome answer overall :) I want to give this a few days to see if anyone can chime in with experience about crystallizing salt specifically, to address some specifics like you mentioned about distilled water. I wonder, for instance, if brita-filtered water would be sufficient to be unnoticeable. My theory with this entire question is that the extra 'minerals' in fleur de sel and maldon sea salt don't actually lend to a much greater experience. –  Eric Hu Jul 29 '11 at 9:06
    
Also a couple of other points: 1. excellent point about the oil. Dissolution makes perfect sense, but hadn't really occurred to me (though every time I used a finishing salt in the kitchen, it was over something already topped with a fine oil). 2. I wonder if total dissolution of the salt is necessary. Random grains in the liquid could act as nucleation points to hasten crystallization? 3. From what I've read about the industrial fine-sea-salt business, they grow crystals in large sheet pans, producing huge sheets of salt. The final product is broken up before packaging –  Eric Hu Jul 29 '11 at 9:11
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Isn't all cooking just a form of applied chemistry? ;-) –  ESultanik Jul 29 '11 at 14:55
    
I'm not a chemistry expert, but I wouldn't think a brita would be sufficient. A brita works by trapping fine particles in the enormous surface area of the charcoal particles with all their nooks and crannies in the filter. Dissolved salts would seem to just flow with the water. In chemistry classes, we used "deionized" water, which had been filtered by exposure to surfaces specifically designed to pull out dissolve salts, lest those salts interfere with our experiments. –  Jonathan Jan 13 '12 at 5:21

I boiled 2 cups of regular sea salt to completely dissolve in 1 cup water then put it in a flat tray in the dehydrator on the jerky setting - the next day I did have a load of big crackly crystals and some dust.

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If you live near the sea, you could copy the methods used industrially to make sea salt. Simply collect some sea water and spread it over a wide flattish pan in the sun to evaporate, repeat again and again until a decent layer of salt builds up. To do this you do need to live somewhere hot, with plenty sun, near the sea.

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