Nov 15, 2019 Last Updated 6:31 AM, Nov 9, 2017

A Pinch of Salt

Category: Pastry & Baking

Pastry chefs find inspiration in a new mine of artisanal salts.


Taking it with a grain of salt has acquired a new and literal meaning as pastry chefs from New York to Oregon to Toronto are embracing the use of salt from all over the world as a crowning touch on their desserts. We all know that balancing sweet and acidic elements in a multicomponent dessert is the key to making a dessert memorable and pleasurable. Adding salt to the mix is a way of heightening the complexity of that dessert even more. Whether pink salt from the Himalayas, sea salt from coastal Oregon or fleur de sel from Brittany, sodium chloride can be nuanced, offering subtle flavor and texture notes, adding finesse and contrast to desserts featuring fruit, chocolate, and of course, caramel.  Long a secret truc of Brittany caramel makers, salt can set off fireworks in the mouth, focusing and intensifying the flavors of other ingredients in a dessert.

Banana Beignets
Bertie Tanaya's Banana Beignets. Click image above or link below for recipe.

A Breton by birth and true to tradition, Garry Larduinat, Executive Pastry Chefat Hotel Bel Air (Los Angeles) says, “I love how the caramelized fruit in my variation of a Tarte Tatin and the finishing salt work together. Salt is also used to great advantage in another entry on my dessert menu – the Peaches and Cream French Toast served with ginger sorbet and almond cremeux.” Both are good examples of how salt, even in minute amounts, can make something taste more of itself, with the inherent sweetness of the featured fruits complexed and lingering.

 Thoughts from a selmier (“salt sommelier”), Mark Bitterman, owner and founder of The Meadow, Portland, OR and NYC 

  • In all high quality baking and dessert making, where chefs are attentive to the quality of ingredients used in their production, salt, as an ingredient, is often taken for granted (it’s the least expensive ingredient in a dish after water) and its quality (or lack thereof) is dismissed as unimportant.
  • As chefs, we care immensely about the integrity of ingredients and focus on their sustainability, how and where they were produced, how their production matters from an ecological point of view and connects to people; as with other food products, there is a social equity dimension.
  • Anyone in pastry “worth their salt” should make that ingredient consistent with all other ingredients.
  • Salt is a texture as well as a flavor; mouth-feel and speed at which salt dissolves on the tongue is a factor to consider when mapping out a recipe.
  • There are subtle differences in the flavor character of salts which affect the overall flavor and taste impressions of the finished product using it.
  • Think of salt as a layer, both of flavor and as a demarcation between textures in a dessert, i.e., in a verrine.
  • Salt modulates sweetness in a dish, and in the calm of that storm of a highly flavored dessert, it creates room for more flavors to come forward.
  • Tune your palate: Taste salts from different parts of the world –Italy, Hawaii, Slovenia, France and elsewhere, and you will find that each one has its own signature though subtle flavor profile, from bright and metallic (think stones and granite) to mineralic and bittersweet, and from sweet to buttery.


Cioccolato con Agrumi
Joseph Settepani's Cioccolato con Agrumi. Click image above or link below for recipe.

From sunny California to less temperate Toronto, Bertie Tanaya, Pastry Chef at the Rosedale Golf Club, uses a number of different salts including volcanic Hawaiian salt – which is smoked inside tubes of bamboo – and smoked charcoal salt in his multicomponent desserts. He says, “I am always looking for a final flavor profile in my desserts which reflects a harmonious blend of things.”  As part of that goal, realizing salt’s full potential in a sweet context, Tanaya concocts imaginative combinations in his desserts. On his menu he features seasonal pear with curry and dark chocolate touched with a hint of bamboo salt, pistachio matcha cake with a praline fleur de sel ice cream flecked with seaweed, and a spiced carrot cake with Himalayan pink salt, mascarpone coconut ice cream and caramelized pineapple.  In another of his signature desserts, Tanaya recalls Elvis’s favorite combination: peanut butter and banana in beignets with a smoked sea salt peanut white chocolate ganache, garnished with caramelized banana and candied bacon ice cream and then finished off with a clear caramel tuile dusted with smoked charcoal salt.

Francois Brunet, Executive Pastry Chef for the Boulud group (NYC), takes the classic brioche, layers it with butter to a shattering crispness and then takes it to a new level by topping it with a sprinkling of fleur de sel  (“the finest, purest salt,” in his words), reflecting his Breton patrimony, for a fleeting crunch and a delicate marine salinity.

Joseph Settepani, another pastry chef (Pasticceria Bruno, Staten Island, NY) following in his family’s large and deep footsteps, remains true to his Italian heritage in his Cioccolata con Agrumi (a tart shell of chocolate sable with Celtic salt, white chocolate mousse, pistachio sponge and a chocolate web garnish sprinkled with lemon infused salt, further garnished with candied orange peel, pistachios and Amarena cherries). “For me dessert is memory and nostalgia. All of the flavors used here have special meaning for me – the cherries recall the zeppole fritters that are a specialty of Easter in Italy. Using lemon zest on the chocolate décor stems from memories of times in Agrigento in southwestern Sicily, tasting a tart lemon sorbetto served inside of brioche. The pistachios and orange are each specialties of Sicily, the place of my ancestors. There they are used as decor on the cassata, the quintessential celebration cake based on sponge cake filled with ricotta layers.”

Poached Peach, Almond Cremeux, French Toast, Ginger Sorbet
Garry Larduinat's Poached Peach, Almond Cremeux, French Toast, Ginger Sorbet.Click image above or link below for recipe.
Toasted Pound Cake & House Ricotta
Natasha Hillendahl's Toasted Pound Cake & House Ricotta. Click image above or link below for recipe.

Riding the crest of the wave of artisanal ice cream, Wiz Bang Bar (an offshoot of Kim and Tyler Malek’s Salt and Straw, Portland, OR), Natasha Hillendahl, Executive Pastry Chef overseeing R and D for the company, concocts five seasonal rotating flavors of soft serve with delicate dairy notes.  She explains, “Soft serve’s lower fat and slightly-less-cold-than-ice cream profile allows the other subtle nuances of flavors to shine through. Using locally produced dairy products from Alpenrose in our ice creams, here we make a soft ricotta-like cheese which is featured in a fun sundae, composed of toasted pound cake, pickled cherries, roasted peaches and chocolate soft serve.”  Further keeping things local, she uses fleur de sel made by Jacobsen Salt with salt works on Netarts Bay on the Pacific coast of Oregon) in both the ricotta and chocolate syrup (used in the ice cream) elements of this ice cream bowl.

In the world of dessert and pastry, small things mean a lot. In the hands of thoughtful and visionary pastry chefs, precise additions of salt, that elemental often taken for granted ingredient, can elevate flavor, impart texture, making sweet things taste sweeter, acidic ingredients rounder and mellower, focusing flavors that spell pure pleasure on the palate.


Find 'A Pinch of Salt' recipes in the Recipe section or click the links below.


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