Icelandic Smoked Sea Salt Ended My Pandemic Cooking Rut

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Whether you’re a restaurant cook, like I once was, or just someone who occasionally likes to grill at home, there’s a good chance you have a box of Maldon sea salt in your cabinet. As you should — the century-old British brand is booming for good reason: The flakes have the perfect light-as-air texture that lends a somehow-never-too-salty finish to pretty much any food. But that’s no reason you shouldn’t cheat on your Maldon every once in a while, too.

That’s what I did, though I hesitate to call it cheating, when I recently picked up a squat little jar of Saltverk Birch Smoked Salt at Whole Foods. Smoked sea salt is something quite different from the unadulterated version, as the taste is, of course, smoky; it dates back to the Vikings, who apparently infused sea-salt crystals with the smoke from their fires. Although I never before harbored a need to keep smoked sea salt around, after a long pandemic winter with an infant daughter, cooking the same simple dishes over and over again, it suddenly felt seductive to me: the idea of adding a dark, dangerous campfire depth to anything from scrambled eggs to cumin roast pork chops. The price was splurgy, even by Status Salt standards, but I decided I deserved this indulgence.

The story behind Saltverk is that in 2011, the company’s Icelandic founder, an engineer named Björn Steinar Jónsson, saw an opportunity to bring back a salt-making technique that was used by the Danish king in the 18th century, employing geothermal energy from hot springs in Iceland’s remote Westfjords. The production method had gone on hiatus for hundreds of years (the country imported its salt, instead), but Jónsson turned it into a successful business — after the product took off in Europe, it launched in the U.S. in 2019.

Saltverk comes in six different varieties, but as I mentioned, I reached for the smoked one first. For my gateway experimentation, I added it to the same little roast potatoes I make whenever I can’t think of another side dish, with lots of garlic and whatever herbs I have in the fridge. The new element had a noticeable impact: My husband remarked that the potatoes were especially awesome that night, and even had seconds. And for me, I’d never before experienced a smoked sea salt that was quite so satisfying. (It’s worth mentioning Saltverk’s smoking process here: While some brands smoke their salt over hickory, and Maldon makes a salt smoked over oak, and some lesser producers just add liquid smoke flavor, Saltverk is dried over birch smoke according to an ancient tradition that is specific to Iceland.) As for the texture, it’s crunchy and slightly chunkier than Maldon’s paper-thin flakes, which was also a nice departure.

I’ve gone on to sample the full spectrum of Saltverk offerings, and I get a little jolt of excitement every time I open a different one of its cute jars. (It makes a classic flaky sea salt, too, but I think the flavored options are where it really stands out from Maldon, which has no such range.) Arctic thyme is a plant that grows in Iceland’s gravel soils and dry heathlands, and Saltverk’s Arctic thyme salt is floral, fresh, and perfect for seasoning lamb chops, short ribs, or chicken stew. Its lava salt is sea salt blended with activated charcoal, which is supposed to have detoxifying health benefits, but is gorgeous and striking anyway, plus a great idea on steak. The seaweed salt has this tang that’s awesome on fish or popcorn, and the subtly sweet licorice salt has transformed my morning oats. In each case, the flavor is pronounced, but it’s never overkill.

The smoked variety is still my favorite, though. It’s the secret ingredient on my meat, my salads, my chocolate chip cookies; it makes everything taste better and fancier — and maybe even like I haven’t cooked the same things 79 times and counting this year.

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Icelandic Smoked Sea Salt Ended My Pandemic Cooking Rut