Salt Crust Baking As A Cooking Method: Tips For Beginners
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When you think of buried treasure, what’s the image that comes to mind? Gold coins, glittering jewels or well-preserved parchments with knowledge from ages ago? If yes, and if you’re a foodie, then this article will introduce you to a buried treasure that’s more accessible, thrilling and enjoyable. I’m referring here to the cooking method that buries ingredients together under heaps of salt and bakes them, only to get the most flavourful, juicy and decadent dish, ever. The technique is known as salt crusting or salt crust baking, and it is buried treasure indeed because it has a long history.

The History Of Salt Crust Baking

Given that salt crust baking is a method used across the Mediterranean, parts of Europe and Asia, its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. The earliest written proof of this method has Graeco-Roman origins. The Greek Epicurean poet, Archestratos, mentions what is believed to be the first record of salt-crust recipe in his epic poem, Hyppathia (around 330 BC). While travelling through Sicily, the poet talked about the value of fish in a healthy diet and described a particular recipe. A sea bass is first gutted and cleaned, its belly is stuffed with a few sprigs of thyme, and then the entire fish is coated with a thick mix of salt, water and egg white. Once properly sealed, the salt-crusted bass is baked to perfection.

This, in case you don’t know, is exactly how salt-crusted fish dishes are prepared even today. Historians, however, believe that salt crusting has an even earlier history going back to the ancient Pheonicians of Carthage. The Phoenicians had a trade empire based on their sale of salt, salt-cured fish and fermented fish. Other experts believe that salt crust baking has Asian origins as the Mongols carried salted and salt-baked meats while travelling on horseback. References of salt-crust baked chicken recipes have also been found in the Guandong region of China, during the Qing dynasty period (1644-1911).

The Challenges Of Salt Crust Baking

No matter what its origins, the fact remains that salt crust baking is a brilliant gourmet cooking technique. It not only preserves ingredients you choose to seal under that thick salt coating, but also keeps the ingredients juicy, adds to the flavour and makes for a spectacular unveiling. This is not to say that salt crusting is easy and a beginner won’t face any challenges. The first and foremost challenge for those who aren’t used to traditionally using this method is the sheer amount of salt used. 

Usually, coarse sea salt is used in salt crust baking, and the availability of this ingredient—that too in such a huge amount—is not easy for all. This might be the reason why salt crust baking hasn’t been adopted by the ever-adventurous Indian home cook as a weekly celebration. And this brings us to the second challenge. Most recipes for salt crust baking involve fish, giving people the wrong idea that only whole fish can be cooked using this gourmet technique. The fact is, you can cook everything from whole chickens to robust veggies like eggplant and onions using this method. 

The third challenge is a logistical one. Salt crust baking is done in an oven, and not only do you need an proper electrical tandoor or oven for it, you need it to be large enough to fit in a whole fish or chicken along with a thick salt coating. To resolve this issue, beginners can indeed take smaller cuts of fish or meat—or get smaller birds like pheasants or quails—to start off. Once you’ve learnt and are committed to cooking more frequently, get a larger oven.

Some Tips To Get You Started With Salt Crusting

Here are some tips that will come in handy when you start using the salt crust baking method.

1. You will need at least two to three kilos of coarse salt for any salt crust baking recipe. Make sure the salt you use is either rock salt, sea salt or Kosher salt.

2. Mediterranean fishermen use only salt and water to create the coating. In case you don’t want to use egg whites, which is a great binding agent as well, then feel free to use only water to make the coating.

3. The salt crust, whether made with water or a mixture of water and egg whites, must feel like damp sand. It should not be like a dough or a thick paste.

4. Always use a large baking tray that fits your ingredients plus the kilos of salt properly. 

5. Lay half or less of the salt crust mix on the tray, lay your ingredients on top of it, then gently add the remaining crust mix. 

6. You can always add more than just a whole fish or chicken to the salt crust. You can add potential sides, like potatoes or eggplant to ensure you get the best of the flavours and the heat generated within the sealed salt crust.

7. Make sure you bury and seal all the ingredients properly with an even half-inch layer of salt crust mix. If the crust is too thick, it’ll make breaking it later more difficult. If it’s too thin, then the heat and moisture may escape during the cooking process.

8. Always preheat the oven to ensure the salt crust shell firms up quickly. 

9. During the baking duration, the shell may crack at places or turn brown instead of golden. This might tempt you to crack the shell further to check if everything is fine, but don’t. Follow the cooking time without tampering with the salt-crusted ingredients.

10. Once the baking is done, remove the tray from the oven and let it cool a bit. Get a hammer to cut the shell into large pieces.

11. While removing the salt crust, remember that you’re opening a hot, sealed chamber. There is bound to be lots of steam ready to escape, so be mindful of that to avoid burns. 

12. Once the top shell is removed, quickly take the cooked dish out and transfer into another platter. Brush off any loose grains of the shell before serving the dish hot.