Sodium Chloride is 60% chlorine and 40% sodium, two volatile elements combined to create a mineral vital to our survival…salt. Salt is an essential part of the chemical make up of our bodies and when combined with potassium and water, allows us to function the way nature intended. It can be found all over the world and has been valued since the beginning of time, a necessity taxed by governments, hailed for its purity and used as compensation for soldiers…their “salary”. Ancient cultures used salt to seal covenants and major roadways developed around trails originally worn for the purpose of moving or finding salt.
When asked for his thoughts on salt, Chef Charles swiftly said “Well, that’s the most important tool and ingredient in the kitchen!” Alton Brown said that a chef’s most important skill is his ability to season or apply salt to food; properly used, salt makes food taste more like itself. Of course, this goes a long way in helping us to enjoy eating our food, but the true magic of salt is in its preservative power.
Before the invention of refrigeration, food would have spoiled very quickly in warm climates if it weren’t for salt. High levels of salt create inhospitable environments for the type of bacteria that make people sick. Different combinations of salt, smoke and dehydration went a long way in making meats and produce last a long time. Pickling and meat curing were born of necessity, not just because the resulting foods taste good!
During the Civil War, salt production in the Confederate States was so important that workers in the industry were immune from the draft. The Union army targeted saltworks in the South as a way of crippling the Confederate army who needed to be able to cure meat in order to feed their soldiers. After destroying operations in Louisiana and along the Chesapeake Bay, they turned their sights to southwest Virginia and eventually won at Saltville, dealing a heavy blow to troops and civilians alike. By 1865, the cost of bacon in the South had increased eighteen times to $3.75/lb.
Today, we are fortunate to have access to newer methods of preservation, but that’s no reason to abandon the methods of the past. At the Babcock House, we still use salt as a tool to cure meats and make pickles and sauerkraut. This allows us to maintain high quality products and control flavors from beginning to end. If you want to learn more, be sure to follow our restaurant page on Facebook as we start a picture series of all our house-cured meats and the dishes they serve.