Mark Bitterman calls himself a "selmelier," a made-up word meant to evoke his wish to do for salt what sommeliers do for wine: educate, surprise, delight. Co-owner of The Meadow, a specialty food and flower shop with branches in New York City and Portland, Ore., he has written a book called "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes" (Ten Speed, $35).
This handsome tribute to salt outlines its history, varieties, method of manufacture and proper use. He hopes to help Americans relearn what they know about salt and how they use it.
Bitterman thinks the government's sodium recommendation - 2,300 milligrams daily for the average person, 1,500 milligrams for others - is a good thing because it will get people thinking about salt.
"People are asking me how to use salt, how to buy salt," he said. "I don't want people to eat more salt; I don't like saltier foods, but I want them to use salt for their maximum satisfaction."
Bitterman said the biggest lesson in appreciating salt is to look at the crystal structure of the mineral. A flake salt, like the famed fleur de sel of France, "illustrates very beautifully the idea of letting salt play independently with the food," he said. "Right away you get a quick snap of intense saltiness and then it gets out of the way and lets the food flavors come forward."
Here are Bitterman's five rules for "strategic salting":
n "Eat all the salt you want, as long as you are the one doing the salting." Processed or prepared foods are the major salt sources in our diets. Eliminate those foods with the built-in salts and sodium consumption drops dramatically, Bitterman writes.
n "Skew the use of salt toward the end of food preparation."
n "Use only natural, unrefined salts." These salts provide better flavor and greater nutritional value, he writes.
n "Make salting a deliberate act." Break out of the salting habit, Bitterman exhorts - "think of salting as an opportunity rather than routine."
n "Use the right salt at the right time. ... The powers of salt in cooking and finishing are not discrete and exclusive," Bitterman writes. "There is plenty of overlap: Finishing with salt alters the surface of ingredients chemically. Salt added during cooking affects the flavor of food and stimulates taste buds."
Iodized salt may have many health benefits, and the Salt Institute will gladly spell them out, but iodized salt should not be used to combat radioactive fallout. Japan's nuclear crisis has people around the world feeling jittery about windblown radiation and the health hazards of exposure. The institute, a nonprofit trade association based in Arlington, Va., said iodized salt should not be used as a "primary defense" against fallout because it doesn't contain the "extremely high levels" of iodine needed for such use.
"A person would have to consume 3 1/2 pounds of table salt a day to reach the 130 milligrams of iodine needed," said Mort Satin, the institute's vice president of science and research. Under normal conditions, the recommended intake of iodine is 150 micrograms per day, according to the institute. Iodine is an essential nutrient required by the thyroid gland. Potassium iodine is a nonprescription drug that can protect the thyroid gland from high doses of cancer-causing radiation. But the Illinois Department of Public Health urged state residents last week not to take potassium iodine as a preventive measure against possible fallout because there could be side effects injurious to their health.