Salt of the Earth: Out of the Ashes

By / Photography By Randazzo Blau | March 21, 2018
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Laura Silverman, local Hudson Valley forager, makes vegetable salt ash.

The miracle of spring is watching new life emerge where it doesn’t seem possible. The first delicate snowdrop that bursts through the icy crust is affirmation, optimism and celebration in one perfect package. In nature, death is not finite but a segue into something else: The burnt remains of a wildfire teem with morels; the decayed slump of the compost pile births vibrant greens. 

And so, it comes as no surprise that ash is brimming with promise and potential. 

For centuries, in the Loire Valley, grapevine clippings have been burned to grey ash and used as a coating to preserve fresh goat cheese. The alkaline ash neutralizes the acidic surface of the cheese and encourages protective molds to grow; it also soaks up moisture, which discourages insects and microbes. The thin layer of ash that runs through Morbier cheese serves the same purpose. 

Beyond these practical applications, ash is used to impart flavor. It carries notes of smoke and char, but also conveys hints of its origins, whether that’s aromatic herbs, seaweed, vegetables or bread. At Noma in Copenhagen, hay ash is rubbed into root vegetables before they are wrapped in salt-crust pastry and baked. Ash’s intensity of flavor—including some bitterness—means it pairs particularly well with the strong taste of red meat and onions or the dense richness of cream and cheese. Try it sprinkled over finished dishes as a striking garnish. 

I mixed a finely pulverized blend of charred onions and leeks with smoked Maldon sea salt to create a finishing salt that adds potent umami notes. This fragrant black dust adds delicious complexity to fresh ricotta, seared mackerel and chocolate ice cream. Like the proverbial phoenix, its subtle flavors arise from the ash and come to life on the palate.

Get Laura's recipe for vegetable salt ash.

Laura Silverman | @theoutsideinsitute

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