When I was contacted with the opportunity to review the use of an enormous block of pure Himalayan pink salt to cook food on a barbecue, I couldn’t say no. I then immediately googled these blocks, because this was something I had never even heard about! Few people in Australia probably have.
From the research I did, salt block cooking hasn’t been explored in Australia to any great extent. There are chefs using them in the US, but for the most part, this style of cooking is either yet to take off in a huge way, or perhaps never will. I really hope it’s the former. [Ed note: some butcher drying rooms use these blocks to help speed up the dry ageing process!]
I’ll start with the basics. Enormous boulders of halite (rock salt) are mined from the Khewra salt mine, deep within the Himalayan mountain range in Pakistan. They are sliced and lathed into various shapes and sizes, most notably as slabs or bricks for use in decorative art and cooking, smaller boulders for lamps, and of course used to season food and bathe feet as small rocks. The composition is more than 95% sodium chloride (for those scientists out there), with the addition of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron creating the distinctive pink to red hue of the blocks.
I had the pleasure to host Mr Muhammad Imran from the Health Care Minerals Company one sunny Sunday afternoon. He brought with him a variety of Himalayan salt block products, including a cooking slab, a serving slab of pink salt, and a salt serving bowl that had been lathed out of a large cube of rock salt, and even a set of pink salt shot glasses! I was informed that they were most suited to drinking tequila, and would replace the messy necessity of pouring salt on one’s hand before taking a shot. Touché Pakistan!
We cooked up some thickly sliced rump steak, and my mind wasn’t instantly blown. The steak had taken on too much of the saltiness of the block, and rather than being seared quickly on the salt block, it had stewed due to lack of heat. Having done some research before my appointment with Imran though, I knew that this style of cooking was most well suited to foods being sautéed or seared, not cooked for long periods of time. We’re talking delicate seafood, thinly sliced vegetables, and bite size or thin slices of protein. I assembled a selection of seafood and some wagyu porterhouse and put it to the test!
Now the salt block I have been using has seen better days. This fossil has seen more than 40 cooks, and while the lustre and sheen of a beautiful new block of pink salt has faded, this old girl certainly hasn’t given up the ghost. The small fissures in the block develop in response to repeated heating, and the discolouration compared to a new block I like to think of as seasoning! You’d never trust a pit master with a glossy barbecue now would you?
I used a small butane burner to heat the block. It wasn’t ideal, in that the heating took around 30 minutes. It takes 15-20 minutes on a Weber Q, and about the same on a regular 6 burner barbecue or rectangle gas burner on an inside stove. Also, my little butane stove camp top didn’t have the oomph needed to get the surface past 500f. Ideally, for the quickest cooking of delicate foods that you don’t want as much saltiness imparted into, you would have the block really hot. And it’s a gradual process to heat up the salt block too, for risk of cracking with too rapid a heating.
I seared off the scallops and prawns, and served them with some Japanese barbecue dipping sauce. Owing in part to the inadequacies of my butane burner, the seafood spent a bit longer than I would think optimal on the cooking block and when I assembled opinion amongst our dinner guests the men voted great, but the women voted slightly too salty. This is something I had half expected to happen, and a subsequent cook on a rectangle gas burner in my kitchen at a higher temperature had scallops that were perfectly done, perfectly seasoned with an earthy saltiness that didn’t overpower the delicate taste, and seasoned with nothing more than the salt block while they cooked and a squeeze of lemon juice, they were absolutely amazing.
Coming back to our original cook up, we then moved onto the porterhouse. I pushed to block as hot as I could with the butane camp burner, and quickly seared off the steak. No oil, salt, pepper, or any marinade. Steak and salt block. Consensus was that the steak was terrific overall, had a great level of seasoning from the block and nothing more needed to make an amazing eat.
A well marbled wagyu steak will always taste great. This steak in my opinion tasted better than anything I have eaten in a Brisbane restaurant, or cooked over a gas grill. It was comparable to a steak of similar quality cooked over charcoal, but without the distinctive charcoal-fired steak taste. It was pretty damned good.
There are some downsides to this style of cooking. The time involved isn’t academic; from the start of setup to eating the yields of labour is easily 45 minutes. It isn’t as easy as turning on your gas burner and searing off some steaks or seafood. The flavour in my opinion though is worth the time. Another issue was the level of saltiness imparted into the cooked food depending on the type of food and the length of cooking time. A hotter salt block will cook food faster and therefore impart less saltiness into it. Making an appropriate selection into the thickness of foods cooked on it is also definitely necessary. Think of it as an alternative to a cooking or campfire rock. The heat inherent in the heated block must be enough to sear or sauté whatever is being cooked on it, because of the inherent nature of salt as a poor conductor of heat compared to iron or aluminium. Time is then needed for the block to reheat through before cooking additional food.
This is the type of kitchen or barbecue tool that is a ‘sometimes’ method of cooking. It’s certainly unique. It a lot of fun to play around with. And it can be incredibly social! We spent the evening sitting around the outdoor table, selecting what food would be cooked next with a few drinks and great chats, similar to how a Hibachi grill or any other method of tabletop cooking can be. With the cost of a cooking grade salt block being in the range of $50-$120 depending on size, and the ability to easily get more than 40 cooks out of a single block if properly cared for, this is something I’ll go back to when we have mates over for summer dinner and drinks.
“The Meat Sweats”
This product was supplied for review by www.healthcareminerals.com