Salt: It’s 11 miles away, but is it local?

April 21, 2008 | By | Comments (9)

Attention readers: If you’ve ever made salt, please let us know how you did it! Read on…

By Margo True, Sunset food editor

From the first moment of planning our one-block feast, we knew we had to have salt to season the food. Luckily, Sunset is about 11 miles from a network of giant salt-evaporation ponds owned by Cargill. So newly formed Team Salt set off one chilly morning to explore our local salt and then see about bringing some back for the feast.

What we saw—and walked over—looked like the surface of another planet: giant lakes of syrupy reddish brine and snowy fields of salt, cut by rivers of the same weird-looking brine. (Salt-loving algae in the brine create this color. At a less salty stage, the ponds are orangish from zillions of brine shrimp, which love that exact salinity. Brine shrimp are otherwise known as sea monkeys. Remember them? From when you were a kid?)

It takes five years for San Francisco Bay water, guided into the ponds, to crystallize into salt.


Team Salt, crunching across brand-new salt.

To one side rose a mountain of salt with a tiny-looking funnel on top, pouring on fresh salt. That end still had a tinge of pink. The other end, having dried for months, was pure white. (Rain sheets off the crust that forms on the outside.)


In the main building, we listened to Cargill’s PR person, Pat Ludis, as she described some of the 14,000 uses for salt—yes, that’s 3 zeros behind the 14! Apart from all its food uses, salt pulls dye into clothing, cures leather, de-ices roads, removes wine stains, is a coolant in nuclear power plants, and goes into the manufacture of brass, glass, chlorine, and paper. It helped mummify bodies in ancient Egypt and was salary for soldiers in ancient Rome. (The Romans called it “salarium,” or “salt allowance.”)

Then we got to poke through various forms of Cargill salt—everything from a powder as fine as talcum (for cheesemaking) to tablets portioned out for canning (soup, vegetables, chili, etc.) to 50-pound licks for livestock.

At Cargill, a table full of salts.

My favorite display: a model of a kosher salt crystal (below right), a hollow pyramid with ridges. An ordinary table salt crystal (below left) is cube-shaped.


Kosher salt’s shape makes it very good at sticking to and pulling moisture out of foods. It’s called “kosher” salt because religious Jews have long used it to kosher (draw blood out of) meat.

We each left Cargill with a pretty pink lump of crystallized salt and a box of Diamond Crystal, the fluffiest, crunchiest kosher salt around.

Our search not over

However, we realized we had to keep searching for local salt. The tour was fascinating and the people couldn’t have been nicer or more articulate. But Cargill isn’t a local salt supplier, for us or anyone else. As one of the largest commodity food suppliers in the world, with 80 different companies under its umbrella, its orientation is anything but local.

So we’re still seeking local salt. We’re thinking we might try making it ourselves…but we sure don’t have five years to spare.

Got any tips? We’d love to hear them.


  1. Margo True

    And Bob, thank you for telling us about your company. We’ll look for your tasty-sounding salt…how do you sanitize it, though?

    May 23, 2010 at 10:34 pm
  2. Margo True

    Rob, thank you, belatedly, for the great suggestion. We’ll be buying a Baume hydrometer shortly. I’d imagine it’s configured differently from the hydrometer we use to calculate the specific density of our beer–as in this post from last year (under step 5):

    And–for an update on how we did make the salt–here’s the post:

    We did try sun evaporation, but it wasn’t nearly as effective.

    May 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm
  3. Bob

    My wife and I craft salt fro water we harvest from our boat off the Mendocino Coast. Please visit us at Cheers!

    January 5, 2010 at 3:31 am
  4. Rob M

    I have received my August 2008 copy of Sunset I liked the one-block feast idea. I was prompted to visit the web site and get more information on how all the teams did, and the processes that they used. However I never found the final process that Team Salt used. In the past I have made salt with local Pacific Ocean sea water. On-line, many places can be found about evaporating the salt out of the water and what the yield was. In most cases no one ever mentioned (or did not know) there is more than just Sodium Chloride (NaCl) in sea water. There are of course other minerals which give sea salt is unique qualities, but some are not desirable. Of most importance is that there is also Magnesium Sulfate in sea water. This is not poisonous, but it is very bitter and easily causes diarrhea if very much is consumed. Not really the goal of making salt! Of course salt making is a fun thing to do and even use as a teaching tool for kids of all ages. So if people are interested in making salt you will need a Baume Hydrometer. The sea water should concentrated until the hydrometer reads 25° at this point remove anything that has settled out of the solution. Continue reducing the volume only until the hydrometer reaches 28.5° then stop the process and enjoy the salt. After 28.5° on the Baume Hydrometer Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salts) starts to crystallize in the solution.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:23 am
  5. Rob Z.

    I do like Sheila’s idea – certainly someone must commute across the Dunbarton or something each morning, yes? Not that the marsh seems the best place to find seawater, but… The other concern, I’d think, is chemical contamination of bay water, but I suppose if Cargill has no problems, you shouldn’t either, though I’m sure they go through some kind of chemical purification process. Natural salt is rarely snow white.

    The One-Block idea is extremely ambitious and I totally dig it, but even the Amish have to figure out how to import salt to their community if they want it.

    As for how much you can get… Well, a cursory Google search turned up (ironically) a Yahoo answer ( indicating that you’ll get roughly 32 grams of salt per liter, which seems to jive with a couple of the other results I got Googling “How much salt in sea water”.

    You’d think I have too much time on my hands but, no, I’m just looking for ways to procrastinate. I have no idea how much 32 grams of salt is, so I grabbed my trusty digital scale and a box of kosher salt and started pouring. The answer – just over 6 tsp. Not quite enough to make up 1/4 cup, but plenty for most recipes. FROM ONE LITER! Impressive.

    Do keep us informed of your progress!

    April 24, 2008 at 9:53 pm
  6. Sheila

    This isn’t really very practical, but what if someone were to pick up a bucket of salt water on a drive they’re already making? Like, say, in the middle of a commute (in a hybrid). The salt water itself couldn’t be blamed for as many miles…

    April 24, 2008 at 5:26 pm
  7. Margo True

    Rob Z, thank you for your suggestions. Yep, I’m thinking we’ll just head to the ocean, pail up some seawater, and boil it down. I wonder how long it will take, and how many gallons will yield…how many tablespoons of salt. And we sure hope it tastes good…

    Then the question becomes…Is it local if you have to burn up a lot of gas getting to your brine?

    I think not. But here we are, trying to choose between personally burning up fossil fuels and using the salt of a much, much bigger fossil-fuel-burning entity. Well, lesser of two evils. Off we go.

    –Margo True

    P.S. Your in-laws might like to know that we will be publishing an entire feature story on salt this summer. And that black salt? It might be Hawaiian. We just tasted one the other day, in our test kitchen. Delicious.

    April 24, 2008 at 5:20 am
  8. Rob Z.

    Still pondering this… I’d think taking the salty water from the sea, putting it in shallow pans and placing in the oven at just above boiling would evaporate the water leave behind pure salt crystals.

    Keep in mind that salt is really only “local” for folks living right next to the sea or over salt mines. There’s a reason the Romans used it for payment.

    April 21, 2008 at 7:53 pm
  9. Rob Z.

    I seem to remember fishing with my uncle just offshore of Huntington Beach and coming home practically caked in sea salt. I realize the ocean is not technically one block away from your Menlo Park offices, but it’s pretty darn close. Can you not simply get a bunch of seawater and boil it down? Or am I being totally naive?

    On a different note, my in-laws are salt fiends, in the sense that they have all kinda of fascinating types of salt from all over the world. One type is a black salt whose origin I don’t recall but which comes in large flakes that look an awful lot like the kosher salt crystal model. Tasty stuff, too.

    April 21, 2008 at 5:58 pm

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