Salty Fish Tales

Contrary to what most people think, creating a salt crust does not leave food salty. Rather, it keeps food moist and seals in flavors.

By John F. Carafoli | Photography by Francine Zaslow

When Boston-based photographer and colleague Francine Zaslow chose salt as a concept for a food photo shoot, I immediately thought of something I had prepared recently—cooking whole fish encased in a salt crust.

I was curious to find out the history and provenance of this cooking method. Many nations have claimed this recipe as their own: the French, Portuguese, Chinese and Italians. One of the oldest sources I found was a Sicilian Greek poet and gourmand, Archestratus, who lived in Sicily around 350 B.C. The recipe for cooking a whole white fish—such as sea bass, sea bream or snapper—encased in a salt crust (with salt, egg whites and water) came from his body of work, “The Life of Luxury.” Another account dates to ancient Mongolian warriors who carried food preserved in salt on long journeys and cooked their food over open fires while it was still encased in moist salt.

There are many varieties and degrees of salt coarseness available, including pink Himalayan, black and gray salt, and salt with herbs. Contrary to what most might think, the salt does not penetrate or leave food salty. The hermetic crust keeps food moist and seals in flavors, and allows for a shorter cooking time. Similar to the French cooking technique en papillote, the preparation involves wrapping and sealing seasoned food in parchment paper. A similar method is used in Mexico with banana leaves or corn husks.

On the Cape, there are a few local producers of sea salt, one of whom is Paul Shibles of 1830 Sea Salt. I visited Shibles in Chatham and observed his solar evaporation process. You can visit the plant, take a tour and buy some of his beautiful white salt—plain or infused with herbs. You may choose to buy a box of Kosher salt from your local grocery store, or if you want to be a purist, purchase real 100 percent Cape Cod sea salt for the recipes on the following pages.

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