- Author: Elissa Brown
- Updated: September 28, 2016
- Published July 19, 2015
This is a story about salt. It’s a humble mineral for one that has served as ancient currency and shaped historic trade routes.
But this is also a story about Alaska oceans, a love of place and a passion for creating an unparalleled product to share with the world.
Darcy and Jim Michener, founders of Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co., have quietly pioneered North America’s salt renaissance from their homegrown operation in Sitka.
After years of lugging jugs of seawater up the dock, they perfected the methodology to produce a unique flake-style salt. Those flakes are spreading throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, finding a place in the go-to arsenal of top chefs and in the pantries of home cooks.
In May 1999, Jim Michener woke during his honeymoon with a troublesome thought. He and his wife, Darcy, were staying in a remote Southeast island cabin, and they’d left a pot of saltwater on the stovetop overnight. Jim worried it had gone dry and ruined the pan; instead, he found some remaining water with a few odd floaters.
At first, he thought it was dust, and he brought over a flashlight for a closer look. “It was actually beautiful salt crystals forming on the surface,” he said. “I remember thinking, this is like French Fleur de Sal, only it’s from Alaskan water — how cool is that?”
In retrospect, it seemed obvious: Evaporated seawater makes salt. “It was just by chance that it happened this way and we noticed it and thought it was kind of fun,” Jim said.
The Micheners decided to evaporate the rest of the pot into salt and take it home. “The first batch wasn’t very good,” Darcy said. “It tasted salty, but it had the texture of sand.” But still, it was a nice memory of their honeymoon trip. Each following year, Jim and Darcy returned to the same cabin for their anniversary, bringing back a small batch of homemade salt each time.
In search of the perfect flake
Before long, the Micheners grew curious about how to make truly great salt. They sampled high-quality brands from around the world and learned of an English company, Maldon, the world’s leader in flake-style salt. “It had a nice crunch and a good, clean flavor,” Jim recalled. “It was spectacular. We realized we wanted to make that, and make it from pure Alaskan seawater.”
At the time, the world’s flake salt operations were sparse: England, Cyprus, Australia. Nothing in North America, but the Micheners had a vision. After all, there’s no supply problem — scientists estimate the world’s oceans contain 50 million billion tons of salt.
It began with a large lasagna pan. Jim, who worked as a fishing guide, would come home each day with 5 gallons of seawater, ready to tinker. “We would basically run the experiment over and over,” he said. “Changing one variable at a time, we were trying to achieve a good flake.”
It was a summer of evaporating water on the kitchen stove, a summer the Micheners refer to now as the “Lasagna Pan Summer.”
They ordered a custom 50-gallon pan. Jim trucked home 50 gallons of water in the morning and 50 in the evening, relentlessly experimenting while keeping the whole operation secret.
Years went by. The Micheners saved money, wrote business plans and fine-tuned their product. “We’re using this Alaskan water that is so amazing, and we really wanted to make sure we honored our community, ourselves and the product,” Jim said. “We wanted to be able to look people in the eye and say this is as good as any flake salt in the world and it’s made from beautiful, pristine Alaskan water.”
By 2011, the Micheners had constructed a small factory and were ready for their first large-scale trial. “We basically made a big leap of faith,” Darcy said. “All of our equipment was custom-made because nothing existed for salt-making. We had tried so many times and we thought it would work, but we just didn’t know.”
The first batch was set to take 12 hours to create. But after 12 hours, no salt had formed.
“It was utter panic,” Jim said. “I knew I’d been thorough with this and there was no reason it shouldn’t work. But if it didn’t work, we’d be homeless and broke.”
He reviewed his calculations, only to discover he’d made a small error, and the process would take 48 hours longer than expected. The Micheners were sleeping and eating at the factory, setting an alarm to check on the salt every hour. After three days, the salt finally formed: white flakes, exquisite and bright. The Micheners popped a bottle of Champagne at 10 a.m.
At the heart of it, salt-making is the easiest recipe in the world. Just go to any body of saltwater. Scoop some out, and evaporate it. The challenge is in making consistent crystals because water that evaporates out of a vessel has various concentrations of salt brine, and constant adjustments are needed to keep the flakes uniform.
Alaska Pure Sea Salt is considered a flake salt, a finishing salt for sprinkling on food in the final stages. The flakes are slightly smaller than some of the world’s other flake salts, deliberately so.
“Our flake size is a little more approachable for everybody, including the average home cook,” Darcy said.
The whole process requires three to four days, and each batch starts with more than 1,000 gallons of water. It takes around 10 gallons of seawater to yield a pound of salt. The factory runs 24 hours a day, and one of the Micheners must be around to tend to the product every six hours.
With about 1,500 pounds of salt produced monthly, the operation is quite small in the world of salt manufacturing. Jim and Darcy run all aspects of the business themselves and last summer opened their first retail store.
Anchored in Sitka
The Micheners hope to build their name upon their basic, classic salt, but they’ve also begun to play around with new, seasonal flavors.
“We started thinking, let’s just make sure we’re really true to our sense of place, where we live and where we’ve lived for decades: in Sitka, in Southeast Alaska,” Jim said. “Let’s make salts that are indicative of who we are and where we are.”
They started with a smoked alder flavor in honor of the tree’s local abundance and cultural significance. Then came a vibrant purple blueberry salt — the first in the world. Last in the collection was a spruce tip flavor, a recipe that took the Micheners two years to perfect.
Colette Nelson, chef and owner of Ludvig’s Bistro in Sitka, has been one of the culinary forces who recognizes the value of salt grounded in place.
“The thing that I really like about serving their salt at the restaurant is that we pride ourselves in serving Alaskan seafood, and then when we add their salt — that’s what ocean to plate really is,” Nelson said. “Alaskan seafood served with salt from the water that the seafood is swimming in — it’s a full ocean-to-plate experience.”
Nelson uses the salt on grilled asparagus and salmon, as well as atop a chocolate torte. “It’s still a relatively new concept for people to have a finishing salt,” Nelson said. “But they’re really getting the flavor of Sitka with it.”
For the Micheners, Sitka has been a source of inspiration and abundance, but their success comes with challenges. They work hard to market their salt to larger audiences and to attend out-of-town trade shows. Despite the limitations, they hope to grow and provide jobs for locals, all while remaining true to their location and product.
One grain in the big picture
Alaska Pure Sea Salt is more than just salt. The Micheners are a part of Alaska’s local food movement, cultivating a sense of pride in the state’s landscape and resources. They’re also on a unique mission to spread salt awareness, putting Alaskan sea salt on the map with the help of enthusiastic chefs in the 49th state.
Rob Kinneen is one such chef and the founder of FORK Catering in Anchorage. He prioritizes using local ingredients, using the Sitka flake salt to finish plates as well as in desserts: alder smoked sea salt paired with chocolate, and a parsnip cake with spruce tip whipped cream and spruce tip sea salt.
“When you start talking about what Alaskan cuisine is, you look at our area and start thinking of the ingredients we have on hand, instead of ones we need to import,” Kinneen said. “We’re never going to be making a staple product and selling a billion pieces for 99 cents each. We’re going to be making higher-end products — sea salts, syrups, jams, botanicals and products that use those ingredients.”
Alaska Pure Sea Salt may be an artisanal product, but it’s also inherently fundamental. “Salt is the most natural flavor enhancer there is,” Darcy said. “It makes a big difference in flavoring your food, so if you’re going to use salt, might as well use a good one.”
The Micheners’ Alaskan sea salt is free of anti-caking agents or bleaching — its character shines through in the flavor, texture and structure. It’s caught the attention of local chefs and national restaurants, and its reach continues to spread.
“But for us, No. 1 is honoring the source and the place where we live,” Jim said.
It happens one flake at a time.
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage freelance writer.
About this Author
Robles, a world champion barbecue cook based out of Weslaco, is the type of guy who constantly tinkers with his recipes, cooking devices, and meat preparations. He’s so precise with his demanding command of temperature, he counts the number of charcoal briquettes that are used to grill up his chicken.
“The magic number is 47,” Robles said. “That will usually get my grill to about 350 degrees, which is the temperature that will cook and finish the chicken the way I like it in about an hour.”
If you don’t want to spend hours experimenting briquette by briquette, here is a simplified formula: Take the diameter of your grill and multiply that number by two. That’s how many briquettes are needed to ballpark 350 degrees with the cover applied and your meat placed away from the hot coals.
There are other ways to take command of your outdoor fire, making the cooking process as simple and consistent as anything that could be done in a conventional kitchen oven. Here are some ways to do it:
The charcoal: You can go either the hardwood lump or the conventional briquette route. Both have key strengths and weaknesses.
The lump charcoal will burn about 5 to 10 degrees hotter than the briquettes, provides a cleaner wood flavor and won’t cook down into pure flaky ash. That makes it perfect for the caveman style of cooking directly on the coals. However, since the charcoal pieces are randomly sized (some chunks as big as a human fist), it can be a bit unpredictable.
Briquettes are of uniform size and will hold the heat a little longer, with a signature flavor that reminds everybody of the backyard cookouts they grew up with. Kingsford charcoal, the industry leader in briquette charcoal by a wide margin, is a staple on the competition barbecue circuit because of its ability to win over judges that score with a nostalgic palate.
Wood: Manny Olivo, owner of the Schertz-based Cow Tippin BBQ food truck, keeps his fire pure with pecan wood by taking the scraps, starting the fire small, and building it up into a blaze. “It take a little more time, but it’s worth it for the flavor,” he said.
Remove the bark from the logs and accumulate the shavings and scraps that can be pulled off the wood. As it burns, add larger pieces until you are burning chunks that are about the size of a rolling pin. One or two logs on a bed of coals will get a traditional off-set steel pit into that magic temperature window between 225 and 250 degrees. Avoid large logs, which have a tendency to smolder and can add a funky taste to the meat.
Lighter fluid: It can make life easier in a pinch, but I avoid it at all costs, including the charcoal that comes coated with it. The fuel never completely burns off, and the flavor will transfer into the meat like a seasoning.
On ExpressNews.com: 1 smoker, 10 store-bought sauces. Which got smoked?
Chimney starter: The metal contraption that’s shaped like a German beer stein is the perfect vehicle for getting a good fire going. Stuff a few sheets of newspaper or a couple paper towels coated in cooking oil underneath your briquettes, light it up, and you should have a perfect blend of hot charcoal that glows like lava in about 20 minutes. A full starter will hold about 70 briquettes.
Flamethrower: Don’t laugh. This is a thing, and it’s legal. They sell open-flame devices, often marketed as a weed-killer in the garden section of your local hardware store, that hook up to a propane tank and will light the charcoal or wood in seconds.
The full spread: Unfortunately, too many outdoor cooks think that the proper way to set up a grill is to blanket the bottom with coals. That’s a disaster recipe for burgers that end up looking like charred hockey pucks because of out-of-control flames that erupt when the meat grease hits the coals. The heat above the coals is usually about 550 to 600 degrees, making it impossible to cook with precision outside the realm of a quick steak cook.
Two-zone setup: Stack all of the charcoal to one side of the grill for a hot and a cold zone that provides tremendous flexibility with anything put on the grates. This is the Robles method, and it should be yours, too. Put the meat on the hot zone to finish or establish blackened grill marks, but most of the cooking time should be spent on the cool side. If your cook lasts more than an hour, add eight to 10 new coals to the hot side after an hour.
Other two-zone setups promote putting the coals on the outside with a metal pan filled with water in the middle. Eh. The water does little to moisten the meat, and the end result is mostly a wasted pan.
Vent control: All nongas grills and smokers come with vents that are located below and on top of the device. They can help control the temperature, but I’ve always found it best to keep them open all the way from start to finish. Airflow gives every fire life, and it delivers a better flavor. If the fire is burning too hot or too cold, it’s probably because an error was made in the original setup.
It shouldn’t take very long for these tips to become second-nature in your outdoor grilling process. When fanning the flames, it’s always best to maintain control.
Chuck Blount is a food writer and columnist covering all things grilled and smoked in the San Antonio area. Find his Chuck's Food Shack columns on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com, or read his other coverage on our free site, mySA.com. | email@example.com | Twitter: @chuck_blount | Instagram: @bbqdiver
Through our series The Science of Barbecue, we’ve explored the processes of grilling, Caramelization, and Smoking; discussed how to make any meat into a succulent meal, and even the intricacies of marinating. All of these things make a feast full of flavor, but what IS flavor? Let us explore The Science of Barbecue – Why Grilled Food Tastes Good.
YOU’VE GOT GOOD TASTE
Taste is experienced through the use of both your tongue and nose. Your tongue is coated in about 10,000 papillae (pah-pill-ah), which are the little bumps that contain your taste buds. When you place something into your mouth it instantly comes into contact with them. Taste buds are a type of nerve cell that is activated by the chemical makeup of food. These chemicals change the specific proteins in the cell walls, sending message signals to similar sensory cells, who then pass this information to your brain as the perception of taste like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
The mechanics of taste are interesting in and of themselves. However, most of what we perceive as flavor, the taste of whatever you are eating, is actually coming from the aroma. The way a food smells. When you fire up the grill and toss food onto the red-hot grids, the Maillard Reaction occurs. The browning of whatever you’re cooking smells divine, activating the saliva ducts in your mouth, which will facilitate the transference of the chemicals that activate your taste buds. Smoking and Caramelization have a similar effect on your olfactory sense.
The taste map of the tongue that you are familiar with, illustrating that the tongue tastes specific flavors in specific places has been disproven. Taste can be experienced over any region of the tongue that has the presence of taste buds, although some spots may be more sensitive than others to specific tastes.
SO WHY DOES GRILLED FOOD TASTE GOOD?
Raw fruits and vegetables are edible, and even taste good, but for most food, it just tastes better when it’s been cooked. Flavor on food is developed and deepened when heat is applied. Caramelization, causes roasted vegetables to get sweeter, and meat becomes more savory thanks to the Maillard Reaction or Smoking. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which then react with the carbohydrates present producing the scent and satisfying taste we crave. That is just the beginning. These processes, and other preparation methods, like seasoning, marinating, and injecting, accentuate the flavor profiles that you experience when eating.
IT’S A FLAVOR EXPLOSION
There are the four flavors that you already know, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty; but did you know that there are two others that you may not have a name for, but are very familiar with?
Umami (oo-mah-mee) is a Japanese word that translates to deliciousness or yumminess. It is widely considered the fifth taste, although just being accepted in the international scientific food community. Umami can indicate protein in food. Coupled with the Maillard Reaction when we grill, it would signify, on a primal level, that food is fully cooked and safe to eat.
Umami flavor comes from one of three elements:
- Glutamate: think saltiness like soy sauce and parmesan cheese. It naturally occurs in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and seaweed, but has been artificially recreated in the form of MSG. It is an amino acid that is used by the body for the conversion of proteins into needed compounds in the body.
- Inosinate: tastes like the hearty taste found in meat and fish. It is found in muscle fibers of animals mostly but can be artificially created from tapioca starch. This expensive flavor enhancer is known as kisodium salt or inosinic acid.
- Guanylate: similar to the earthy taste of dried mushrooms. It is only ever used in conjunction with Inosinate or Glutamate. Another flavor enhancer that is produced from fish, seaweed, and yeast.
Umami is great, but when two umami compounds come together it is known as an umami-bomb or u-bomb; a complex flavor explosion. It is part of the reason certain foods taste so amazing, like grilled steak with mushrooms, chocolate covered pretzels, or **Sesame Chicken**. Add umami to your next barbecue, with a little feast, and you have a recipe for insane flavor that goes beyond just good. Try one of these umami leaden recipes.
Fat plays a huge role in how food tastes when it’s cooked. It’s the amount of fat that is in meat that influences the flavor; that is why we look for something well-marbled. Those striations of fat melt when heated. Amino acids and carbohydrates that are reacting to one and other through the Maillard Reaction are repelled by the water that makes up meat’s muscle fibers. Instead, those particles are being absorbed by the fat, which is what creates the aroma and taste in meat. This fat is also oxidizing during the grilling process, which brings out even more delicious aroma. Fat also feels good in the mouth. It melts and feels silky and smooth – think butter, cream, cheese sauces, and chocolate; or produces a satisfying crunch when used in conjunction with high heat – think French fries or the crust on a perfectly grilled steak. Finally, fat in food affects the way your taste buds react to food. Some flavors stick to the fat molecules prolonging the release of flavor on the tongue, giving you more complex layers of flavor and even aiding in the aftertaste.
Next time you put something delicious in your mouth, think about how flavors develop on your tongue. Can you taste the separate components that make up the delicious whole? There is more to the Science of Barbecue than just how grilling works. Why grilled food tastes good involves preparation, cooking methods, and even the chemical components of the food itself. For more inspiration on making your own flavor bombs, check out our Recipe Blog for more inspiration and some great grilling flavors. Whatever you grill, now you know the science behind why grilled food tastes good.