Status Report

as prolific as I try to be, I must of course have a real job in order to pay the bills. I’ve just made a major shift out of restaurant management, into an Area Manager position with Schwan’s, here in my home town.

This move will cancel too many years of 2-3 hour daily commutes to and from work, as well as blessing me with a Monday through Friday work week. I couldn’t be happier about those changes, frankly.

I’ve got to learn a whole lot in a relatively short time period, so during the transition, new posts will be few and far between. Fortunately, there’s something like fifteen years of good stuff here to revisit and revise. I’ll be leaning on those archives while I get up to speed.

That said, what I post may well still be new to you, so stay tuned! By the same token, please do poke around and see what’s here. I’ll be back on track with weekly new posts just as soon as I can.

if there’s something you want and can’t find, or if you’ve got a specific request, drop me an email or message, and I’ll go to work for you.

Thank You for being here, it’s deeply appreciated!

It’s Time to Talk About Kitchen Waste

One of the greatest challenges we face in the world is food waste. Yeah, we hear about it most when it’s colossal, like from countries, or major grocery and restaurant chains, but fact is, it’s every bit as pervasive and problematic right here at home, in our own kitchens. It’s time to talk about kitchen food waste, and act on that.

Dive into food waste numbers just for the USA, and prepare to be seriously bummed out. Overall percentage of what’s produced – 40%. 20% of what goes into landfills. According to a NRDC study in 2015, American households tossed $165 billion worth – That’s billion with a B – or roughly $2,200 per household. Worldwide, the figure is around 1.3 billions tons and $990 billion annually. Sobering figures to say the least. When you hear that the biggest problem with feeding the world isn’t the ability to grow it, it’s pretty much true.

What’s to be done then? Obviously those figures are completely unsustainable. While it might seem like little ol’ us are such a drop in the bucket that we couldn’t possibly alter those numbers, I beg to differ – Understanding the nature and magnitude of the problem is the first step. Every little bit helps, and frankly, we can fairly easily do more than just a little bit at home – That’s important not just to help stop wasting food, but to buoy our pocket books and consciences too.

Battling food waste is huge in the restaurant business, (is if you want to stay in business in any event). We track it closely, in order to construct a viable and effective plan to keep the numbers down. Recording waste lets us study things a bit and decide where the problem lies – That might be how much we order or prep, or a mistaken assumption about how much of what we’ll sell. Waste can also stem from over-portioning, or improper storage – There’s a lot to think about, but once you get a good system in place, it becomes a lot easier to manage.

Considering those figures on average waste are in tons and thousands of dollars per American household, I don’t think there’s any question about the importance of having a plan and system in place at home, is there? Same answer comes to mind for the question of whether or not the additional effort is worthwhile – If you didn’t cook at home a lot and care about that, you wouldn’t be here. What then is a viable and effective plan to help reduce food waste for the home cook?

Always shop with a list, and review it before you go.

First thing that comes to mind is how much perishable food we buy, and how often. For the former, we really need to plan our shopping, and not do any significant part of that willy nilly. Having a realistic shopping list, one based on what your household will actually in all likelihood eat in the period you’re shopping for, is key. Secondly, sticking to that list, (and never shopping when you’re hungry), is equally important – Impulse buying does no one any good.

A shopping list is a living thing, usually composed over several days. When it comes time to head to the store, a review is in order, to determine not just if you missed something, but also if there are things there you don’t really need – Especially when the items in question are perishable. If you love to cook and are always looking for new things to try, it’s easy to think you’ll make that crying tiger beef this weekend and then buy a bunch of stuff to do just that – If life then intrudes, you may well be left with things that end up getting tossed.

When you shop, you absolutely must pay attention and be picky, picky, picky. When I go, I see maybe a couple people other than me who are really and truly checking things out – Squeezing, inspecting, sniffing, and rejecting anything that doesn’t look spot on – checking packaging and expirations dates, (and that pickiness includes not buying something you wanted if there just aren’t any good ones that day.) Fact is, very few shoppers do that – Most folks grab whatever and take it home, and frankly, whatever usually goes bad really quickly. You get what you pay for, and if you’re assuming all produce, proteins, dairy, and other perishables are on equal footing, you’re being a pretty clueless shopper.

Same goes for meal planning. Avoiding waste means not buying for, or cooking far too much, for your household to reasonably use before it spoils. Yes, leftovers can and should be refrigerated or frozen whenever possible, but far too many fridges and freezers are filled with things that sit there until they are eventually thrown out – Be realistic about what you can, like to, and really will eat. As we advocate around here, plan meals around judicious and inspired use of leftovers – A single chicken used wisely is two or three great meals for a small family.

How many folks are you really cooking for?

The concepts from that last paragraph are especially important for us empty nesters – We had kids and grandkids over for dinner last night, and prepared what was easily two to three times the normal amount of food we’d do up for a Sunday night as a result – That’s fine if it’s going to get eaten and/or sent home with the kids – but not so much if it’s happening several nights a week because we’ve forgotten that, these days, it’s just the two of us. Always keep in mind who you’re cooking for on a day to day basis.

Specialized produce containers really do a good job

How we store perishables, especially fruits, veggies, and proteins, is potentially a huge contributor to excessive food waste. Bags, plastic or natural, and most crisper drawers, do a fairly shitty job of maintaining fruits and veggies. Of course the first line of defense is knowing what should be in a fridge and what shouldn’t, (potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, shallot, bananas and most citrus fruit don’t go in the fridge.)

We’ve researched a bunch of storage options, especially for veggies since they tend to go bad so quickly, and found that glass or rigid plastic containers with tight fitting lids do a great job for most things, while specialized containers for lettuce, cabbage and the like do an amazing job – We’ve extended the shelf life of a lot of things from 2 or 3 days to 10+ just by using the right container, as you can see from some of the images here in. Yes, they’re plastic in some cases, but they’re not even close to single use.

Specialized lettuce containers really do a good job

Realistic consideration of what you will cook in the next few days should dictate what gets refrigerated and what gets frozen. A lot of food gets wasted because we violate that rule. Expensive proteins, from beef to firm tofu, need to be scheduled for cooking, and that schedule stuck to – If you can’t or don’t, wrap them properly and freeze them well before they go bad, (and mark the packages for date and content.)

The Freezer - Know what’s in there, and when it arrived

Yes, clearly marking what something is and when it got stored is critical. Everything in a restaurant gets FIFOd, (First In, First Out rotation), and our home fridges and freezers shouldn’t be any different. As for marking what they are, if you’re seriously thinking about trying to tell me that you don’t have, right now, containers in both appliances that you have no clear idea of the contents or age of, I’ll call bullshit on y’all. freezers need to be emptied, inventoried, and thoroughly cleaned at least twice a year, too – See our post on that.

Look this essay over and you’ll realize there’s really not that much here, and certainly not much that’s genuinely revelatory – Tackling a food waste reduction program at home is no more difficult than reading about it, frankly. That said, common sense goes a long way in the kitchen, just as it does in life, right?

Are Home Cooks an Endangered Species?

Steve Sando runs Rancho Gordo, our go to bean purveyor. He also speaks his mind in a way I particularly enjoy.

His most recent newsletter included a ‘rant’ which resonated with me – he wrote,

‘You may not realize it but as time marches on, we home cooks are becoming rarer and rarer. The fact that we get excited about a new bean, a cooking pot, or even a new wooden spoon, puts us in the minority. Most of us think of cooking as fun and a great way to bring people we care about together. We see a pound of beans and we imagine how we’ll be cooking them, how we’ll be serving them, and maybe the smiling faces that will be eating them. I have a constant vision of leaving the kitchen and walking towards the dining room table with a huge pot of something good between my hands as I ask for help finding a trivet. This is possibly my favorite moment of the day. I try and do it most nights. 

A meal kit is fine. A frozen dinner is an emergency. A dinner out is fun and sometimes inspirational. But a refrigerator full of cooked beans, roasted vegetables, stocks and broths, pickles and condiments, is like a palette waiting to be put to use to create something new.’

Notice that the title of the newsletter was, You Are Not Normal – So I gotta ask, do you think that’s true? Does Steve’s rant resonate with you, too? The thought that struck me most was his first line, ‘You may not realize it but as time marches on, we home cooks are becoming rarer and rarer.’ Do you think this is true? If so, it’s a very sad state of affairs.

It was also not lost on me that this mornings check of social media found an unusual volume of politics, doom and gloom news, and general negativity. When that’s the case, finding something positive, something genuinely wholesome and good to focus your energy around is a critical process – If we don’t, we drown. As far as I’m concerned, that really aughta be cooking great food at home for those we love – If not doing that is ‘normal,’ I want nothing to do with normalcy.

If that last thought seems shallow to you, I respectfully disagree. When I do orientation for new hires in the café, I tell them a story about how they’re going to be at work one day, and they’ll come back to the line and exclaim, ‘man, I don’t see how somebody can get that worked up about a sandwich.’ Then I tell them why it happens – it’s because people deal with overwhelming waves of crap all day, and they think, ‘I’m gonna go to the café and get my favorite thing to eat, and for a time, all will be right with the world,’ – And if we screw that up, it cuts deep. Food is closer to the heart for humans than dang near anything else.

get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!

Secondly, what we eat has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing, spiritually, mentally and physically. We must eat well to thrive, and that’s especially so when times suck. Highly processed food, fast food, junk food – All that is poison when you’re feeling down. What’s called for is healthy, fresh stuff, made with love, at home.

A friend posted this on FB, ‘When you notice your mental health declining, do one small thing that brings you peace. Take a shower, text a loved one, step outside. One little step is all you need to remind yourself that this is not permanent.’ And that’s key – Sure, grilled cheese is just a simple sandwich – But when you’re feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, the process of making and sharing a delightfully crunchy, melty creation with family or friends, in the warmth and comfort of your own home, is exactly what’s needed to reestablish balance.

Teaching love for cooking

And what are we teaching our kids and grandkids, if we don’t cook at home, regularly and with love? That sustenance is just a thing to be shoveled down, and nothing more? What a sad thought. Food is life, sharing great food is love, and without that, we perish, literally and figuratively. When schools no longer teach Home Ec, who will if we don’t? Who will pass on family favorites, comfort food, and the will and desire to explore exotic culinary worlds? If we don’t do it at home, Steve’s right, and a critical skill and joy in life is extinguished. It’s already happening in this country, more so than most others, and that trend absolutely must be reversed.

I don’t think it matters what you make, or how often you make it. It certainly doesn’t matter if it’s simple or complex. It probably won’t be ‘restaurant quality,’ and that’s likely a very good thing. What matters is that you come home, decompress for a bit, maybe have a glass of wine – And then you go see what’s what in your fridge and pantry. I hope that, when you check out that palette, you find stuff that makes you think, ‘I dunno if that’ll really work or not, but… what the heck, let’s take a swing at it.’ 

Do that with love. Repeat same the next night, and the next, and so on for most nights. Find some peace, share a meal, teach your kids and grandkids those passions. That’ll do much to bring the balance back.

Operation Reduce Kitchen Plastic – Ork Pee!

Hello! We’re back from winter vacation – We trust the holidays were good to you and yours, as they sure were to us – Family, food and fun are three of our favorite F words. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

In any event, here’s what’s up in our kitchen. I researched, tested and chose some new non-stick pans – A thing I didn’t like very much until I got my paws on these new ones, which I think highly enough of to include on our essential Cookware page. What? You don’t see that page? Well truth be told, no, you don’t, yet – But that, along with some other fresh Essentials pages, will be appearing soon, so please do stay tuned! Then finally, Santa gifted us with a home sous vide unit, so expect some process and execution thoughts and recipes from that in the not too distant future as well.

We’ve also been working diligently on Operation Reduce Kitchen Plastic, (ORKP, or Ork Pee, if you prefer), and have an update on that worth sharing with y’all –  Here then are a few considerations for you.

The focus for this phase of ORKP is elimination of single use plastics, arguably the heart of the kitchen problem. While we tend to think of this in terms of ziplocks and such that we employ at home, the trail really begins at the store. There, everything from bags for produce and bulk foods to the bags our stuff gets stuffed with really adds up over time. The solution is simple – Reusable bags to replace all that – And those work great, if you can remember to get them out of the trunk when you arrive…

For big grocery bags, there are a lot of options. We went with a set of Earthwise cotton canvas whoppers. With hefty fabric, larger size than typical, double-stitched and machine washable, they hold up really well to hefty, regular use.

Earthwise canvas shopping bags

To replace produce bags, we got a great set of 10 solid and mesh bags made by Colony. They’re sized just right for the stuff we usually buy, and they’re machine washable cotton, well made, and hefty enough for a decent lifespan. Added bonus, the flip side of each name tag tells the cashier the tare weight of the bag, so you’re not paying for stuff you ain’t buying.

Colony bags are perfect for produce, and even show tare weight

More and more stores are offering reusable cloth bags for bulk foods too – They’re light and rugged, and just right for stuff like nuts or coffee beans that we buy regularly.

lots of Store snow offer reusable bags of their own

In house, we’ve replaced plastic bags with glass containers with air tight nylon lids – Here again, we’ve tried all glass and found the breakage rates excessive for our needs. We continue to employ canning jars as well, for freezing broth, soup, stock and such. As long as you don’t fill past the tapered neck, you’re generally good to go, (albeit you must be more careful, because they will indeed break with rough handling.)

And finally, there’s plastic wrap – Super useful, but super wasteful, so it’s house made waxed cloth wraps to the rescue. There are a bunch of these offered for sale these days, but the prices sure gave us pause, so we decided after some research to make our own. 

House made food wraps - Pretty and practical

There are a bunch of recipes out there, some that use everything we did and some that don’t. The bottom line is this – you can make wraps with just beeswax, but what you won’t have with that formula is much of a tacky quality to them – they won’t stick to themselves very well. For that, you need to add pine rosin, and since cling wrap is what everyone is trying to replace, using it made sense to us. The third ingredient we went with is jojoba oil. It helps to keep the wraps supple over time, and also imparts some antimicrobial properties to the mix – Not a bad thing in our book.

There are a ton of step by step recipes out there, so rather than repeat that, we’ll show y’all some pics of the basic process, and add some caveats that we did not see very often covered in the stuff we researched – Here are our bullet points.

1. Use new, 100% cotton fabric of a fairly lightweight weave. A lot of sites talk about something about like a bed sheet,but to be honest, we found that too far too light – We went with 100% cotton duck, and washed it first to get the sizing out, (which is important, says M.)

2. Think about the kinds of things you cover commonly, and size things to achieve that. We made a set of small, medium, and large in square, rectangular, and circular shapes, and that seems to cover most of what we ask of them – Too many sites talked about very specific sizes, and that may not be what you typically use, so measure your stuff and go with that.

DIY food wraps - Fun and pretty easy too

3. Contrary to what almost everybody says, it’s damn near impossible to get this stuff out 100% of a nice cooking vessel, so don’t use your nice Calphalon set, (right, Babe?). Go find a cheap double boiler insert and dedicate that to this process – It’ll be well worth the eight bucks it costs you.

Pelletized beeswax is super easy to work with

4. These things do NOT wear out when they start to show lines and creases – They can be reheated and recoated easily, and should be! You will get many, many moons of service from them.

The waxing is is first painted on, then baked in to fully impregnate the fabric

5. Use parchment when you bake the wraps to avoid contaminating a baking sheet.

The production process was easy and fun – In essence, you’re going to cut fabric to size, melt the ingredients, paint that onto the fabric, and then bake them for a spell to fully impregnant the sheets, and that’s pretty much it. Just be careful with it – Hot wax, rosin, and oil can and will get everywhere if you’re not paying attention. As stated, the end results are very satisfactory, and a joy to use – You might even call them the bees knees.

NOTE: As with everything we test and report on, the times described here in we’re not received in any kind of a deal with the maker. We buy them, test them, and use them, just as you would, with our very own money – Guaranteed!

Time to explore some salt-free seasonings

For most of us, Salt is a must in the kitchen. When the term ‘season lightly’ is bandied about, it almost always means add salt and ground pepper to taste. As I’ve noted here in many, many times, one of the major differences between home cooks and Pros is the judicious use of salt and pepper throughout the cooking process – Seasoning lightly in layers. If you often read electronically as I do, take any of your cookbooks and do a word search for salt – Guaranteed it’ll come up more than any other term in most, if not all of them you own and use. In other words, the influence of salt in cooking is felt damn near everywhere – So what to do when you simply can’t have that mineral any more? Time to explore some salt-free seasonings. 

Salt’s ubiquity in cooking isn’t a mistake. In addition to being used as a preservative for thousands of years, salt does yeoman’s duty in waking up or suppressing certain flavors. Ever wonder why something like a cake recipe often calls for a pinch of salt? Its presence rounds out how we taste, smell, and feel food in our mouths – Even sweet stuff. Taste a fresh batch of soup or stew without salt in it, and the vast majority of us will note something to the effect of, it tastes bland, off, flat, no backbone, and so on. A dish that we expect to note the presence of salt within, and doesn’t have it, will seem incomplete or out of balance. As oft noted in the food world, we eat through our sense of smell as much as we do taste, and here again, salt plays a pivotal role – It enhances the volatility of many aromatic components, making their presence much more notable to our schnozes – It does this by freeing aromatic scents from the foods in question, thereby making them more intense to our perception. It wouldn’t be out of line to state that our brains have salt receptors – When it senses salt where we think it should be, it’s a happy brain, and vice verse when it’s not there – That’s powerful stuff.

Sodium chloride is a mineral, which is fairly unique, food-wise. Given its broad power in the kitchen, salt becomes an imposing thing to do without, or to adequately compensate for the absence thereof. An old friend contacted me yesterday, asking for salt free seasoning blends. Her Hubby recently suffered a serious medical setback, and as such, his Docs say no mas with salt. Medical and dietary restrictions are the primary reasons folks are forced to give the stuff up. When it’s medical, it’s serious – a guy really can’t cheat and expect to recover fully or quickly. The current trend in medical thinks says too much salt isn’t good for your blood pressure, heart, liver, or kidneys, and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. But absolutely no salt isn’t that great for you either – The indication being that moderate salt intake affords some protection from those ills, while an absolutely zero salt diet probably does not. It has some critical functions, acting as an electrolyte to balance fluid, as well as aiding nerve and muscle function. But again, that’s moderate use. 

The WHO calls moderate less than 5 grams daily intake, but that’s for sodium as a whole, not just salt. If one’s diet includes regular doses of fast food, and/or highly processed foods in general, chances are good you’re taking in far, far more than that – Often two or more times that RDA, in fact – The FDA claims that roughly 11% of our sodium intake in this country comes from an actual salt shaker, while over 75% of it is derived from packaged, processed food. Let that sink in for a sec…

In other words, it’s not at all out of line to say that most American’s problems with sodium doesn’t come from seasoning, but from eating shitty food. That’s easily remedied, in a way – Get rid of the junk, and you’re mostly good – Or as I used to teach in first aid classes, just go around the outer ring of the grocery store. That way, you’ll get produce, protein, dairy, and beer – And most of what’s in the inside probably ain’t all that great for you, anyway… Of course, just stopping eating a high sodium diet, and still enjoying what you eat, isn’t as easily said as done – Doing that takes some help – and that’s where low or no salt spice blends come in.

If you’ve poked around here, then you know most of the blends I’ve offered do contain a fair amount of salt. Many commercial seasoning blends contain salt first and foremost, for the reasons detailed herein, so how should we compensate? Salt free or damn near is an obvious step, but not a fulfilling one necessarily – Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, how do we compensate with something that will adequately fill the taste and flavor enhancing qualities of salt? The quick answer is acid and umami.

When reviewing the ingredients in commercial no salt seasoning blends, (and how many of us actually do that, by the way?), it becomes readily apparent that the most popular contain at least an acidic constituent, usually powdered citrus or vinegar. Yet quite a few have no viable salt substitute at all. To me, this is a no brainer – If we’re out to successfully replace salt, there must be something effective in its place. Flavor balance among the primary tastes, (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, and possibly kokumi, described as mouthfulness or heartiness), is a key to great overall taste, and a key to many cuisines, especially Asian. Simply removing salt without compensating for and considering the other primary taste factors is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. Again, acidity and umami are the primary candidates to fix that.

Umami is often regarded as being closely associated with MSG, monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamate. Contrary to a lot of common myth, MSG is not unnatural – It occurs in many foods, (It’s why we dig Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, among others), and it’s found in our bodies as an amino acid. Granted, there are some folks who don’t tolerate it well, but there are also, to my knowledge, no viable studies that tie MSG to nerve damage, as has been broadly claimed in the past, and many of the studies that found it deleterious to health involved people ingesting quantities far above anything us relatively sane folk would do. MSG contains appreciably less sodium per weight than regular salt, and as such certainly can be considered as a viable constituent of a low salt seasoning blend. Pure MSG is available readily, as are MSG powered seasonings like Maggi. The latter is a good candidate for a spice blend, (it comes in cube form as well as liquid), as a very little bit added to an herb blend packs a big umami/salt punch. Maggi has a bunch of other things in it, herbs, aromatic bases, and the like, depending on where it’s made – Swiss in origin, there are variants made all over the world, and they’re all unique. All that said, if MSG just isn’t on your list, then consider acids.

When it comes to salt free home made spice blends, citrus or vinegar are excellent salt substitutes. Both can be bought powdered, as can lime, lemon, and orange, and all of those in very pure form – These are spray dried, and contain nothing but dried citrus juice. You can also buy, or dry at home, citrus and citrus peel, albeit they won’t have nearly the punch, weight per weight, that dried juice will. As stand alones, or perhaps with the tiniest touch of MSG or regular salt, acids can be effective and satisfying salt replacements.

Next, let us consider the best herbs and spices to employ. This is where things get fun, because replacing or reducing salt calls for the use of what may be considered somewhat exotic ingredients. While there really aren’t any spices, herbs, or aromatic bases that taste salty, there are quite a few that can add their own unique punch to a blend – Something that can contribute to that sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami balance and fill in the missing pieces. Alliums, like garlic, onion, and fennel can do a lot in this regard. So can chiles, throughout their range of heat and smokiness – everything from cayenne to Piment d’Espelette, urfa biber to pepperoncino, or Szechuan to Thai, and any of a hundred other regional gems in this vein. Then consider some of the warmer spices that may not usually make it into your thinking for every day spice blends – Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg come to mind. No, these won’t replace salt, but they can provide a balanced flavor profile that intrigues a tongue dismayed by the lack of a favorite thing – This stuff is all about receptors – in our tongues, eyes, noses, and brains – Whatever we need to do to adequately fill the void is the ticket. Add to this the heady, heavier notes of traditional constituents like basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and you’re in the wheelhouse.

The final consideration is proportion. This really will depend on what you’re building. Let’s say we go for something you’d like to use as an every day blend, something that could go on a wide variety of dishes as a salt based blend might. If it’s me, I’m going allium heavy, with onion and garlic leading the way. How about a Mexican based blend? Chiles are the obvious lead, with pepper as a close second. Speaking of pepper, how about that as a lead? I’d follow it with alliums and sweet pepper notes. Something for poultry? How about paprika, onion, chiles, lemon and some floral herbs? 

I think, and trust, that y’all get the idea. I’ll put a few of my ideas up, but here as always – and especially here, where it may be really important to y’all – I need you to take this and run with it. There are no truly bad choices. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, make a tiny batch and see what you think. Tweak that and get where you want to be, and then, guaranteed, one day you’ll use it and think, ‘this is good, but I should…’ and the answer to that is damn near always, ‘yes, do!’

With all of these blends, combine and mix thoroughly. If you’re starting with whole spices, grind them fine. I transfer blends to a shaker topped glass jar, stored away from direct sunlight. Depending on the gauge of your shaker top, you may need to run the finished blend through a single mesh strainer to make sure it’ll flow well. Caking can be an issue, especially in humid environments. Calcium Phosphate is yet another edible rock that does yeoman’s duty as an anti-caking agent. It’s readily available online, and yes, it’s perfectly fine to use and consume – A teaspoon or two in any of these blends should do the trick.

 

Urban’s Every Day Lo Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

1 teaspoon dried Mustard

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Urb’s Low Salt Pepper Blend

2 Tablespoons ground Black Pepper.

1 Tablespoon ground Red Pepper

1 teaspoon ground Green Pepper

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Celery Seed

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Garlicky No Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Garlic

2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

2 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

1 teaspoon Urfa Biber

1 teaspoon Vinegar powder

 

Urb’s No Salt Mex Blend

1 Tablespoon ground Ancho chile 

1 Tablespoon ground Pasilla chile 

1 teaspoon ground Chipotle chile

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Urb’s No Salt Poultry Blend

1 Tablespoon sweet Paprika

1 Tablespoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

1/2 teaspoon granulated Honey

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

 

Urb’s No Salt Italian Blend

1 Tablespoon Basil

1 Tablespoon Oregano

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

 

Urban Chinese Five Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns

3 whole Star Anise

1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)

2 teaspoons whole Cloves

2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

The Sad Truth About Microplastics in Sea Salt

It’s more than a sad day. It’s a genuine wake up call, to boot. Today is the day I’m resigned to going without some of my various sea salts. Why? Well, to quote Mr. McGuire from The Graduate, “One word – Plastics.” Yes, you heard me right – Pretty much all the sea salt out there is infested with the shit. 

Analysis of plastic contaminants by location
Analysis of plastic contaminants by location

We started to hear rumblings about this last summer, when a bunch of articles came out in popular media. I decided to look to source material, and I gotta say, I’m not at all thrilled with what I found. It’s rather interesting that the majority of news pieces I looked into quoted one study, ‘The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries,’ from the journal Scientific Reports. That vehicle is owned by the Nature Publishing Group, who “highlights its editorial policy as one that is focused on scientific rigour and validity, rather than perceived impact.” Scientific Reports, in their FAQs, states further, “Scientific Reports publishes original articles on the basis that they are technically sound and scientifically valid, and papers are peer reviewed on these criteria. The importance of an article is determined by its readership after publication.” Of course, how you feel about the validity of that process and philosophy has obvious bearing on the perceived validity of the works published therein. 

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

I looked at several studies from various academic sources, to achieve what I felt was a good balance of findings. Across the board, the news was indeed rather dire – sea salts from all over the globe are contaminated with microplastic fragments, fibers, filaments, and films. Studies from the U.S., Europe, Asia, China, and South America all reported the same thing, with remarkably similar findings of the volume, nature, and origin of the contaminants. Dr. Sherri Mason of the University of Minnesota lead one such study – Her synopsis was simple and to the point – “All sea salt—because it’s all coming from the same origins—is going to have a consistent problem. I think that is what we’re seeing.”

Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.
Breakdown of microplastics in sea salt.

So what, exactly, is this stuff? Naturally it varies somewhat, but not as much as one might think – The ubiquity of it is alarming. Microplastics are micrometer sized pieces, (A micrometer is 3.937 × 10-5 of 1” – meaning it takes 25,400 of those to equal an inch – The symbol for a micrometer is μm.) These are very tiny shards, fragments, and fibers, which speaks volumes about just how much plastic has broken down to pieces this small, all around the world. Sobering, isn’t it? It’s not just the giant trash island in the Pacific, it’s that microscopic shards infest every ocean, coast, and to some degree, lakes, rivers, and even wells. Polymers, pigments, amorphous carbons – Polypropylene was the biggest contaminant, followed by polyethylene and cellophane – No big surprise there, huh?

What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.
What’s in your sea salt? Plastics.

Study samples averaged roughly 500 – 700 particles of microplastics per kilogram of salt. The Scientific Reports piece was bold enough to state that, “According to our results, the low level of anthropogenic particles intake from the salts warrants negligible health impacts,” while adding the caveat, “However, to better understand the health risks associated with salt consumption, further development in extraction protocols are needed to isolate anthropogenic particles smaller than 149 μm.” AKA, we can’t measure stuff smaller than that accurately with our current test methods, and we got no idea how much or how harmful smaller stuff might be. For my mind, their statement sidestepped the well established fact that plastics are excellent absorbers and carriers of all kinds of hazardous substances. I had to switch a daily medication recently, because the stuff I was taking, (which is made in China), had a highly carcinogenic industrial solvent in it – A substance not allowed in the US or EU, and that shouldn’t be anywhere near a pharmaceutical manufacturer. If that happens, how much of a stretch is it that tiny shards of plastic could harbor things that are absolutely not good for us? Not much, far as I’m concerned.

General size of microplastics in sea salt
General size of microplastics in sea salt

We all know how out of hand plastics are on this earth. Plastics infest every facet of the planet at this point – Land, sea, inland waters – Everything – affecting humans and wildlife every bit as much as our environments. Leachate from plastics has been tied to cancers, birth defects, inhibited immune systems, and disrupted endocrine systems, for starters.

And how well do we handle the stuff? A recent study published in the journal Science Advances, lays claim to being, “the first global analysis of all plastics ever made.” And the verdict? How about this, “Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled.” Ouch – And we’re not getting better at that, by the way. As former second and third world countries ‘advance’, they not only aren’t interested in dealing with first world trash any more, they’re generating epic volumes of their own. So 90% of over 8 billion tons of plastic, (and counting!), goes where? Landfills, and all too often, the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams, and so on. Plastic in landfills can take a thousand years to decompose – Hell, those plastic bags we use for veggies from the store last at least a decade, and as long as a century depending on where and how they’re disposed of. And water bottles? How’s five hundred years grab ya? Like I said – It’s sobering, when we’re staring at real world numbers.

So now we come to sea salt, and why it’s so susceptible to microplastic contamination. The answer may seem obvious to some, not so much to others. Most sea salts, including the legendary stuff like Fleur de Sel, San Francisco, Malden, Trapani, or Sal de Anana, to name but a few, are produced in shallow impoundments, where sun and wind gradually evaporate the sea water, leaving behind salt and their signature minerals and elements – And microplastics. It is these long produced, famous named varieties that are most impacted, and at greatest risk. For me, as much as I love the distinct flavor profiles of great sea salt, it’s all just too much – I’m not willing to use it any more, or put it in blends, or recommend it to y’all.

Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants
Mined salt is generally free of plastic contaminants

Are there salts relatively free of plastics? Yes, thankfully, there are. The difficulty, in many instances, is knowing exactly where the salt you buy comes from. Take a famous name, like Morton – They’ll divulge that they produce salt from the three primary methods – Natural Evaporation, Mining, and Vacuum Evaporation. Most salt producers do the same, but getting more specific than that can be a bit more difficult. Morton produces sea salt “from the sparkling waters of the Pacific,” and from “the Mediterranean,” (Both of these are sun evaporated salts, so guess what…) Mined salts are relatively plastic free, as the ancient beds they derive from haven’t been exposed to plastic contamination. The same should be true for most vacuum evaporated salts, depending, of course, upon the salt source, but again, that’s not always easy to discern. Many of the latter are well-based processes, and while there is evidence of plastic contamination in wells around the world, it’s at a much lower rate than sea water. The bottom line is that, currently at least, the vast majority of non specific-origin salts divulge exactly where they come from or how they’re produced.

Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.
Vacuum evaporated salt can be made with little or no plastic contamination, depending on its source.

So, how does one know one is buying mined salts, which would be the most plastic free option? Cargill Corporation, which produces and supplies bulk salt to many brands, mines from Avery Island, Louisiana, among other sources – so product from that source would be quite safe. I think that the bottom line is that us end users will need to do some research, including contacting the consumer affairs departments for a given brand or brands, if we want to be assured as to the source of their salt – And they may or may not tell us what we want to know.

Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt
Real Salt is genuinely plastic-free sea salt

Must we then be resigned to giving up the unique flavors we’ve come to know and love from great sea salts? The answer is – thankfully – no. There are known source, mined sea salts that are plastic free. Here in the States, Real Salt comes from Utah, where it is mined from an ancient seabed that existed through the Midwest in the Jurassic period. Buried under many layers of rock, soil, and volcanic ash, this is about as pure as you can get, and it tastes great to boot – They produce coarse, kosher, fine, and powdered versions, in everything from a small shaker to 25 pound bags.

Hope springs eternal – May we wake up and start addressing the problem whole cloth – If it’s not already too late.

NOTE: As always, I give reviews or recommendations because I like what I write about. I don’t receive anything free, discounted, or in exchange for a favorable review here.