Salt of the earth, Salt of the sea.

JohnD's picture




As far as food goes, there is nothing as elemental as salt. It is the great transformer, magically turning the insipid to the savoury.

We have always used it and so do many animals as well, in short it has a key role in health and nutrition. My first real awareness of the power of salt came when a friends mother, who had been on a no/low salt diet for over a year started becoming progressively ill. The usual visits to the GP`s were predictably useless until a elder doctor of some repute and of course experience was consulted. In the way of those steeped in experience, he questioned her thoroughly and soon elicited that she had been eating virtually no salt at all. He recognised the problem immediately and recommended the cessation of the saltless regime. Of course in the next week she regained her health and began to feel like her “old self” again.

This really caught my attention, and as it was at the very beginning of the demonisation of salt which has now been rolling out for some years, it engendered an awareness of the power of salt to heal as well as to harm.

The historical record of salt is one of healing and power which afforded it a central place in cooking, food, medicine and alchemy. That it was the new enemy amused me as much as alarmed. The power of fashion is never to be underestimated and it rarely contains wisdom, so I became even more interested as to how a commodity , once the root of culture really, was within the space of a few years, supposedly the cause of illness. This is largely high blood pressure and resultant stroke or cardiovascular disease.

Of course my central interest here is in the role of salt in bread making, and the calls to reduce the amount used in bread baking.

But this is within a larger context of food and diet, bread is food after-all, not just a commodity.

In bread baking, the Japanese macrobiotic teachers I had in the 1960-70`s, insisted that salt was the vital alkalinizing force in nature, and that used in bread in the correct proportion, alkalinized the inherent acidity of cereal grains. Historically this is where salt does play a major role. That is in the conversion of the staple of humans, whole cereals, into assimilable and wholesome food. On the purely personal level of experience, how many of you have attempted to eat cereals without salt? The experience doesn’t last long, as the cereals become stodgy and in fact indigestible. This is an inherent experience of humans with cereals. What enabled humans to become more dependant on cereals as a central food, was the role of salt in what was called “alkalinisation” or simply digestibility.

 Historically, and this is a major point missed by many archaeologists, the first roads or major tracks were to and  from salt deposits, and much of Roman trading activity seemed to be around the supply of salt. The “via salarium”(salt roads) of the Romans linked the empire. Similar patterns are evident among other ancient cultures notably the Harrapan of the Indus. It appears the rise of the sea level, culminating about 400ACE caused chaos in the Roman empire and the rapid relocation of salt industries and ports, and the military acquisition of new areas because of their salt production. The rise in sea level, which was considerable, caused the flooding of the extensive coastal salt making pans  from Britain to the East, suddenly cutting salt supplies.


Technically in bread baking, salt is the “brake” on yeast, preventing it from being overactive and consuming the dough. It performs the function of astringing (tightening/strengthening) the proteins gluten and gliadin which form the lacy network of structures enabling bread to rise and not collapse. The few times ive been making dough and forgot the salt brings on this awareness. The dough was sticky and much less handleable, and my immediate fear was that id been delivered bad flour, until I realised, corrected the salt and instantly the dough was silky and handleable.


Here im talking about natural bread baking, not industrial.. This is more elemental and of course the element salt has a key role. Bread baking has been taken out of this context and as an industrial artefact the parameters have been altered. Also different is that im talking about making sourdough bread, the actual “natural” process. Traditional yeast bread baking actually employs quite a bit more salt as the yeasts are much more active, not being restrained by acidity, and need the “brake” to manage the fermentation, and again to create an edible or digestible product. Older bakers would say that employing salt in the early stages of the yeasted sponge and dough process keeps the dough “clean” and less liable to contamination.  If you have made yeast bread without salt you will understand…it is  insipid and less edible, although liked by some and is common in Italy. The notorious Chorleywood process by which most industrial bread is made, necessitated an increase in salt levels to toughen the proteins so as to withstand the high speed mixing required by the process.

 Elizabeth David`s recipes for yeast bread are initially alarming from this perspective as she uses what is now regarded as an inordinate amount of salt. I bravely followed her instructions and was pleased with the flavour of the bread. Salty it was, but it had a digestibility and balance which I appreciated, and reflected her “salty” take on bread making, flavour, and most things!  She advises 20g salt for 550g flour. This is an addition of salt at 3.6% of the flour quantity this being  2.1% of the dough amount, which being 2g per 100g bread, is well in excess of the target of the reformers (consensus action on salt and health), 1.1g/100g bread.

 Generally I would use salt at 2% of the flour in sourdough bread making, which is 1% of the finished dough and within the guidelines. But I also vary this as the fermentation becomes more lengthy, and for the production of more crusty items such as baguette. Interestingly some surveys of salt in bread have reported that craft bakeries use higher amounts of salt than factory bakeries, and higher amounts of salt than recommended by the reformers is common in traditional bread-making practice.


As Elizabeth David says “to the majority in England, bread is a substance to spread butter on and the butter traditional to the majority is salted”. The English indeed like salt… salty bread with salty butter, as opposed to the French who don’t mind salty bread, but with unsalted butter. Butter can contain between 1.7-3% salt depending on the manufacturers, and is not targeted by reformers, why is not clear.


It seems that the salt reformers have not taken the old custom of “ a pinch of salt” with their wisdom to heart. Undoubtedly any measure which may reduce the rate of hypertension and stroke leading to cardio-vascular disease is desireable, however some wonder whether the salt reformers may be too zealous in their choice of villain status for salt, taking it out of context, as much “scientific” research seems to do, focusing on singular events in isolation. There are even those who argue that the present level of salt consumption is too low.


The first level of debate about the salt question in relation to health asks, “but is it salt?”. This addresses the fact that salt today is very refined and is largely sodium chloride, causing high levels of sodium without the buffering affect of the many minerals which are contained in actual sea salt. Salt has become synonymous with sodium. That these sea salts such as the famous grey salt of the traditional coastal salt pans of the world, today notably in France, actually contain minerals besides sodium is largely denied by scientific/medical commentators on the salt question. This would appear to be a blind spot as an analysis of seawater reveals approximately 82 minerals besides sodium. Researchers claim that the miniscule amounts of these minerals renders them non bioactive within human health which isnt really a scientific stand as it is clear that trace elements are vital for proper human metabolism and that these trace elements are just that…traces of the amounts of more well known and needed elements. Besides that, a population which always eats mineral rich salt will clearly not be deficient in trace elements as these are continually refreshed. The role of selenium for example as a trace element in very small amounts in human health is well researched and verified. It is not clear why this blind spot is maintained by some scientific/medical commentators on salt.

 The other macro amounts of elements in sea salt are exactly those elements which some researchers claim are the real culprits in high pressure pathology. These are Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium. In fact it is claimed by some researchers that the lack of Potassium is the key, and that epidemiology shows that those who have a higher Potassium intake are much less at risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

Other researchers claim that these results are inconsistent, with what one wonders…probably with the singular results favoured by modern scientific research. Potassium actually reverses the effect of sodium, decreasing blood pressure. This is again exactly what the macrobiotic teachers claimed about the interaction of minerals, that the sodium/potassium balance must be maintained. Interestingly, Potassium supplementation doesn’t appear to be corrective, the Potassium must be ingested as food, mirroring the paradoxical effect of beta-carotene as a food and as a supplement.


But it is problematic that the largest sources of these minerals in human diet, apart from the balanced amounts in unrefined  sea salt, is through the consumption of vegetables, fruit and legumes, precisely those items of diet which have been removed by the industrialists from the diet they have forced upon moderns. Apart from the stripping of these nutrients by the extensive refining of foods, the nutrient bottle-neck of  food choices also foisted on us by corporate/industrial dictates means we just don’t eat these foods. Bread is a classic example here, virtually devoid of the nutrients contained in wholemeal even traditional brown breads, with a higher sodium level than ever before. While bread has the lowest amounts of salt of all the refined proto-foods of the industrial diet, it is argued to be the source of too much sodium simply due to its use as a staple.


 The actual issue would appear to be that because of the lack of other minerals in the diet, which buffer the effect of salt, that salt, as sodium chloride is causing pathologies such as stroke and cardio-vascular disease, again which the epidemiology shows, does not exist in societies which consume plenty of vegetables fruit and legumes. It is clear when eating in countries which consume a lot of vegetables fruit and legumes, that the food is salty….yet they don’t have cardio-vascular/stroke events as we do? To simply reduce salt intake is obviously simplistic and the result of research which is far too narrow in its focus, and of the lack of correspondence between the various fields of research. Nutritional science is not an integral study and this does not benefit us. Greater efforts to increase the consumption of vegetables fruits and legumes is needed, but this is clearly too visceral a step and one not favoured by the type of research which attempts to isolate factors, when in the actual world they are not isolated at all. It is also not a step which would favour the nutritional-industrial complex who would like to see us continuing to eat erzatz food from their factories, not actual food.


Also relevant and strangely no longer a target of the reformers ,is the strong correlation between sugar sweetened beverages and blood pressure. There is as direct an association as with salt, but also interesting in the report I read from the School of Public Health, London, are the correlations between high sugar-sweetened-beverage consumption and the lack of vegetables, fruit and legumes in the diet. Put all the correlations together and we have the modern industrial diet….devoid of nutrients. This makes the reformers pogrom on salt even more out of context and singular, like the industrial diet itself. Wonder if there is a correlation there?

 There`s  little doubt really that it is the whole \industrial diet, dare I say paradigm, which is the problem coupled with the inability of  researchers to see this is the rest of the problem….which is clearly not the mineral rich salt of tradition, and only partly the sodium chloride “salt” of the satanic mills.


To demand that salt be reduced in bread production is problematic for craft bakers, who perhaps should be excepted from this dictum, which would appear to be pathological only in factory bread. Similarly to demand salt reduction in some traditional food crafts would appear too dogmatic. Salt is vital in bread-making, and here I mean non-factory bread, to ensure its proper digestibility, and to ensure traditional methods survive.

Also vital is the recognition of the quality of proper salt and its reinstatement as a valuable nutritional aspect of food and diet.

The isolation of factors in food and diet without acknowledging the context is a damaging way to examine food and trivialises the notion of inherent quality which is possibly more important than examining mineral content. Pink Himalayan or grey Gironde salt for example, are aesthetically pleasing and nutritionally valuable, both hallmarks of quality. Ghandi`s way of overcoming the unjust tax on salt was to lead a group to boil the water off sea water and make salt in the traditional manner. Worth giving consideration.  





Diana Jenkins 2012 June 4

Is iodized salt good or bad to our health? I've read that iodized salt are not really good, need more facts about it. Some site say iodized contain both normal and processed salt. Some say iodized salts are processed, thus adding more harmful chemicals. Will regular sea salt be naturally healthier than iodized?

Diana Jenkins
Tampa injury lawyer

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 June 13

Thanks LeadDog, I used to buy that salt in Australia. They used to have a salt from Mauritius which i favoured as it would appear to be the cleanest seawater from which to harvest salt. Unfortunately they dont sell it anymore.

Here in UK, I use the French salt, its very good,but have to admit im not convinced the water from the area where they harvest the salt is as clean as we would like to think. Several people have told me that they would start to harvest salt in the traditional way in OZ, but I havent seen any? I was getting some in SA from a fellow who went to the far west coast of SA to collect salt. It was really good, but not like the grey French salt. That grey salt is also harvested in Portugal, but hard to get. Problem is, its not very profitable to do in OZ, which is probably why it hasnt eventuated. There are other rock and sedimentary salts now being harvested in OZ, such as the pink murray basin salt, but these salts appear to have more sodium and chloride than seawater salt, and also varying amounts of the trace elements. Seawater salt appears to have more magnesium for example than the Murray river salt, and there are no figures for trace elements published with the Murray pink salt. But such salts are better than refined white salt.

It seems like a "no brainer" doesnt obvious...the taste of real salt (organoleptic evaluation) is the most obvious way to experience the difference....refined salt "burns" your palate, whereas real sea salt is almost "sweet".

One interesting fact is the Lithium content, which is tiny, but it is a trace element and we only require tiny amounts of it. Lithium is mainly used in modern medicine to prevent psychosis and psychotic episodes...some may well be prone to these because there s no Lithium in modern refined food, and so it works as a preventative if regularly ingested as in real sea salt.

With regard to bread-making, it would seem reasonable that the microorganisms in a sourdough  will be more robust and vigorous with these nutrients in the final stage of dough formation, when the salt is added, giving the final stage a "lift"....yeasts are used as the delivery vehicle for trace elements such as Selinium in medicine for example, as they ingest the trace elements and make them more bio-available, so this idea is not at all far fetched. Further, the increased minerals may well astringe the gluten more thoroughly giving the dough more stability. 

LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2011 June 14

 John I remember my reaction the first time I tasted unrefined salt.  I said to myself now that is SALT!  It was just as my body knew the real thing when I tasted it for the first time.  I use pink Himalayan salt to make my bread as I do want all the extra minerals that are included with it.  I hadn't really thought about the yeast needing the minerals to make sure they stay robust and finish their job.  Now if I had been thinking what we do at work for the yeast I would have known that yes the minerals in the salt are important to the fermentation.  We add trace minerals to every wine fermentation at work for this very reason.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 June 14 continually amazed that there is so little correspondence of information in this supposedly high-tech-viral-info world...thats exactly right...but the thinking about bread has also been so antedeluvian!...your wine making sounds very informed? Then for "government authorities"/nutritionists to ignore the obviously dynamising effects of trace elements in salt for all living beings is really an ignorance...its as though theyve taken a counter-position /reactive stance simply because the "pop-science" is actually ahead of the scientists most of the time, and they resent that , but later claim it as their own..

Thanks for that piece of shows there is practical sense and "applied" science in the idea.

TimmyB 2011 June 14


Thankyou JohnD for another great informative and thought provoking article.


You prompted me to look into the composition of my current salt of choice, Murray River Salt.  I was shocked to find that this salt has a very very high 99.4% Sodium and Chloride.  This is much higher that the celtic sea salt that Lead dog has shared with us.  This salt is only 83% Sodium and Chloride, and even if you subtract the water the sea salt is still only 88.6% Sodium and Chloride.


I love this stuff, I have been baking fabulous home baked sourdough for sometime, playing with different flours, methods etc. and I have always approached baking bread like making coffee, a past life a barista taught me that the simplest foods with the fewest ingredients are the most rewarding and difficult to perfect, great bread like coffee comes from three essentials 


1) The best possible ingredients

2) Method and execution

3) Heart and Soul (bread and coffee are great example where a machine cannot replace the hands of the baker or barista)


So now I have a new find my new favorite salt.  We are very lucky in Melbourne to have a  great little shop that specialises in spices and salts.


I am looking forward to trying the Alaea Hawaiin Sea Salt which has some clay mixed in providing iron-oxide.



Murray River 

Chloride Cl 60.3 %

Sodium Na 39.1 %

Magnesium Mg 860 ppm

Sulphate SO4 3440 ppm

Calcium Ca 515 ppm

Potassium K 128 ppm

Iron Fe 23 ppm

Iodine I 5 ppm

Lead Pb <1 ppm

  Celtic Sea Salt Chloride 52%  Sodium 31%  Water 5.6% Sulphur 0.36%  Calcium 0.12%  Magnesium 0.45% Potassium 0.13%  Boron 11.8mg/kg  Iron 150mg/kg Manganese 100mg/kg  Phosphorus 13mg/kg  


JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 June 14

Thanks Tim, you know what drove me crazy in OZ was that i couldnt get real salt, except from the fellow i quoted. There is salt as you document from the mountains of the moon, but no decent Australian mineral-rich sea salt...and "we are girth by sea"......i didnt want to use salt from the French salt pans as its so outside the idea of "local" and for such an elemental ingredient to come from the other hemisphere! wierd, and i checked the Murray river salt and rejected it as i said because of its lack of minerals, but did play with it when it first appeared on the market (and was a better price!). In all my bread making years in Melbourne I always sourced the rawest salts I could find, which was sometimes difficut as more and more culinary suppliers simply had "free-flowing" (chemicalised)salt. In the end, i paid a lot for NZ salt!

Wonder what the ingredients are in the "Bavarian chicken salt" from the supplier you quoted?

I agree about bread and coffee, two of my favourite easy to make them less than desireable! One good thing about living in the UK is the variety of superb coffee available to purchase, especially the Ethiopian...wish I could say the same about the bread!

davo 2011 June 16

This looks convincing, and I don't doubt that the Celtic sea salt is higher in trace elements, but I'm not sure it can be reliable as  to how low the sodium and chloride is, as the total only adds up to about 90% of anything???

davo 2011 June 15

If you want to use sea salt, and you are moderately proximal to the sea (as many are) why not just use some settled-out sea water in your bread dough? If you were worried about bugs, you could boil it...

TimmyB 2011 June 15

Davo.  I like your pragmatism.  The fasinating thing about sea salt is a lot of the trace minerals come from the clay in the ponds the sea water is evaporated.  Sticking with a pragmatic approach we could start adding a pinch of clay from the back yard into our doughs :) Perhaps this is the new secret ingredient to perfect artisan bead.


In all seriousness I LOVE wild crafting my ingredients.  One of my favorite things to do is go mushroom up into the pine forest near Mt Macedon, light a little fire and cook the fabulous Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks (in to much butter ) and tear of a piece of home baked sourdough......hmmm....add in a nice bottle of Bindi chardy and I am in heaven. 

davo 2011 June 16

Not sure it's the clay - paper I have read suggested that >90% of trace elements in seawater were dissolved - mineral ions. Either way it's one reason why seaweed is such a good soil amendment, and has  been used for a very long time for same. Incidentally, I'm sure I read that seweed collection was  how potatoes became such a big crop in Ireland - women collecting seaweed to put on the fields came across a crate of potatoes from a shipwreck or lost overboard - having been destined eslewhere, and it was from these spuds that they first became grown as crops.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 June 15

I agree Davo, and its an interesting synergy.Takes me back...I used to source sea salt from sea water in the 70`s...even make tofu with it....but not from Pt Phillip bay! Sometimes in summer you can collect quite a bit of raw salt from rock crevices, along with the delicious "sea lettuce" seaweed (porphyra).

The saffron milk caps are just fantastic Tim, I agree, and so plentiful....seemingly introduced with the pines or by some eastern europeans ....pity about the once plentiful agaricus lowland (regular) mushrooms, devistated by the widespread use of fungicides in agriculture.

Clay was once widely used worldwide and has a tradition in European herbalism  for internal and external use, so thats not too-far-out an idea Tim.


Panevino 2011 June 17

My mother, who was Italian and lived near the sea, used to use sea water to cook the pasta in.  There is a Neapolitan song that mentions dunking a savory type bread stick in sea water.

JohnD's picture
JohnD 2011 June 17

Thanks man, thats the pasta in seawater! from Naples eh? Spaghetti marinara!! was it full seawater or diluted?

Panevino 2011 June 18

Hey John, not sure if it was diluted or not.  I'll ask my sisters and see if they know.  Love the marinara, too.

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