Salt Block Cooking-First Impressions
04/17/2016 - 05:34Filed in: Lessons Learned | Accessories
I recently added a new tool to my grilling arsenal: a Himalayan Salt Block. They have been on my radar screen for several years. In the last 2 years I have tried some food cooked on them and frankly I was underwhelmed at best. But I recently decided to pick one up and give it a try. This blog entry will cover how I got to this place, what I have learned about the salt blocks on the market and my first experiences grilling with one. As more time goes by, I will probably write additional entries. In the meantime I have learned there is more to know than first meets the eye. I lucked out and bought the only salt block that I actually would have wanted. At least if I had I known some of the fussy and finicky things you must do with most of the other salt blocks on the market. It is going to seem like I am totally gung ho for the Salt Rox salt block and in a way I am. But my buying the Salt Rox was a happy accident in my case. I am going to stress the HUGE differences so anyone reading this will know what they are getting themselves into before taking out their cash.
BACKGROUND:Himalayan Salt Block are actually quarried in nearby Pakistan and not the Himalayan mountains. To me this typifies my experiences with this product to this date. I looked at it with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. Some of the more esoteric claims for the unseen benefits (invisible ions) of this product remind me of the crazy claims made in the typical “As Seen on TV” infomercial. A big difference between this product and the infomercial crapware is the price. The infomercial crapware will be described as a $129.00 value but if you act now, you can get it for “Only $19.99. And for the additional cost of only Shipping and Handling we will send you a second unit FREE!!” These salt blocks can be VERY expensive at around $1.00 per square inch and the price is the price. Now there are some cheaper blocks, but it turns out there are reasons I will describe below. Unlike crapware you see on TV, some well known chefs are using these and you can buy these in brick and mortar stores too. Mine was purchased from my Big Green Egg dealer. They have been selling them for a while now and I had some samples of food cooked on them at their twice yearly Customer Appreciation Days demo cooks. Frankly I was totally underwhelmed the first time and the second time it wasn’t bad, but nothing special. So what made me change my mind? Two things: First, I started seeing some mainstream chefs using these. Second Eric Mitchell’s new cookbook, MORE BBQ & GRILLING, is mostly to “blame”. He had a recipe in there for salt block grilling. If he saw something in salt blocks, they were definitely worth a second look. He listed a source for the salt block he uses and coincidentally it turned out that was the brand my Big Green Egg dealer sold. When I went to the BGE dealer to buy a couple bags of charcoal, I came home with an Salt Rox brand 8” x 12” x 2” (20 cm x 30 cm x 5 cm) rectangular salt block.
GENERAL INFORMATION:Himalayan salt blocks come in various shapes and sizes from various manufacturers. They come in Circular, Square and Rectangular Shapes. There are also egg shaped versions intended to go inside of poultry and brick shaped ones intended to be used as a grilling brick. Unlike a grilling brick the salt brick flavors the food as well as serving as a grill press. Some people buy and use salt blocks to chill and serve food on. There are also bowl, goblet and glass shaped vessel made of Himalayan salt. I am only going to discuss grilling on a salt block here.
SALT BLOCK INFORMATION:It turns out not all salt blocks are created equal. I didn’t realize this when I bought mine, but I lucked out by following the recommendation of someone I trust and buying it from a source I trust. These differences in various brands are reflected in the price. More importantly it makes a HUGE difference in how you use them, how you clean them and how long they last. The Salt Rox blocks come with instructions for cooking and cleaning that are a whole lot simpler and more user friendly than other block on the market.
- Prior to First Use: The Salt Rox requires no initial procedures be performed on it prior to first use. I have seen other salt block directions where you slowly heat it in the oven set at 150 degrees (66 C) for 15-20 minutes before using it the first time. This is said to drive out moisture absorbed while in storage from the salt block. This procedure is also said to be necessary for people living in humid climates who haven’t used their salt block for a while. Other directions call for you to heat the salt block on the stove before using it in the oven for the first time. OK which is it? Heat it in the oven first or heat it on the stove? Me, I’ll take the Salt Rox, no special procedures required approach. Some folks say it is not good to use a gas oven to preheat a salt block due to the high moisture content present in that environment. Once again you just start using the Salt Rox salt block wherever you’d like.
- Warm Up: The Salt Rox can just be placed on the stove, grill or in the oven and simply be brought up to your cooking temperature. The other salt blocks require you to do a stepped approach where you bring it up to 150-200 degrees (66-93 C) and let it sit there for a few minutes, then you bring it to 300-400 degrees (150-205 C) and rest. Then if you are going to 500 degrees (260 C) you need to do one last temperature rise to get you to 500 degrees (260 C). This whole warmup procedure take 45 minutes or more. I did not know about this stepped warm up required by other salt blocks prior to my purchasing the Salt Rox block. Frankly had I known all of this fussing about was involved, I wouldn’t have even considered buying a salt block. I would have expected them all to behave in a similar fashion. I just happened to luck out and buy the brand that doesn’t require you to baby the block during warm up. Sure this block can cost 3-4X the price of some of the other blocks, but my time and aggravation is worth something too. The Salt Rox block and “lifetime use” are actually mentioned in the same sentence. As for having to do a 2 or 3 step stepped warmup: Can you imagine having to run out to your BiG Green Egg trying to do a stepped warmup for your salt block? I have read where some people use the oven for the stepped warmup and then carry the 500 degree (260 C) screaming hot salt block out to their grill. No thank you. I simply light my grill and when the Stump Chunks fire starters burn down, I place the Salt Rox on the grate and warm up the grill the same way I do every day. It does take an additional 5 or 10 minutes to get the Egg up to temperature, but this is understandable. More mass to heat=longer warmup time.
- Maximum Temperature: The typical cooking temperature range for a salt block is said to be between 400-500 degrees (205-260 C). Other salt blocks mention you can get to up to about 550 degrees (288 C) maximum, whereas the Salt Rox can reach up to 600 degrees (316 C) or a little higher. I like this amount of cushion in case you overshoot your desired temperature a bit. You won’t end up with a cracked block for your troubles.
- Cleanup: Here is another big difference. To clean the Salt Rox salt block, you simply use a spatula with a sharp blade edge to scrape off any food remnants you can. Done. There will still be some food and staining left behind on the cooking surface and over time the surface will develop a smooth black patina like a cast iron pan. A grill makes this cleaning method easy. You simply scrape the burned bits off the salt block and onto the adjacent grill grate. For those of you who might be concerned with food safety RE the food remnants, there are two factors at work. Either of the two are adequate to insure food safety. The salt itself will kill off any bacteria and the 400 plus degree (205 C) cooking temperature will do the same. The other brands of salt blocks have more elaborate cleaning procedures, where you clean the cooking surface off with a sponge or plastic scouring pad using warm water. You must make sure the sponge or scouring pad has no soap on it, or you will ruin your salt block. You must takes steps to let the salt block dry properly, so trapped moisture will not cause problems the next time you use it. For me I like the ease giving my Salt Rox a quick scrape and I am done.
- Thickness: Another thing that can separate the less expensive salt blocks from the pricier ones is their thickness. A thickness of 2” (5 cm) is said to be the ideal thickness for the best heat retention as well as longevity. The thicker block is inherently stronger and less likely to crack. I saw several complaints on online sites such as Amazon, where folks said the salt block they ordered was advertised as 2” thick and what they received was only 1 1/2” (3.75 cm) thick. The only disadvantages to the 2” salt blocks is they take longer to heat up and are heavier. An 8” x 12” (20 cm x 30 cm) salt block weighs 12 pounds (5.4 kg) in 1 1/2” (3.75 cm) thickness and 16 pounds (7.25 kg) in 2” (5 cm) thickness. The extra thickness does mean the block takes longer to heat up, but on the plus side it holds the heat longer too.
- Food Safe: Salt Rox claims their salt blocks are: “The only only salt cooking plate on the market actually safe for cooking.” I take this comment with several grains of salt. I am not sure what to make of this claim quite frankly. Do they mean their salt block are the only ones that are safe, as in food safe, to cook or serve food on? I don’t think so. There are plenty of other salt blocks on the market and I haven’t heard of any incidents related to food poisoning related to their use. Where the Salt Rox mentions all of the testing they do on the blocks I think they mean safe for cooking in the sense their testing weeds out the defective blocks. The blocks they release for people to buy at the store won’t crack or explode under high heat. One of the things that leads me to this conclusion is a disclaimer section in the Salt Block Cooking cookbook where they warn you of the risks associated with cooking on salt blocks. They also warn you to bring them up to temperature slowly to avoid cracking, popping and the risk of injury.
WHAT ELSE DO I NEED?Not a whole lot. If you are already a serious griller, you probably own some or all of the additional gear you will need.
- Spatulas: One or more, preferably thin bladed, spatulas. A long handle is a plus so your hand isn’t over the hot coals when you are turning the food.
- Grill Tongs: Once again a long handle is a plus.
- Infra Red Thermometer: This is not essential but very convenient and the easiest to use. These can be had for around $30.00 or so and allow you to take a remote reading right of the surface of the salt block. When I am heating my Big Green Egg up to 400 to 500 degrees (205-260 C), I usually do this with the top cover completely off or wide open. After checking to insure there aren’t any flames coming out of the chimney, I put on a welders glove and grab the thermometer. I hold my Infra Red Thermometer 6” (15 cm) or so above the chimney and I can shoot straight down the chimney opening onto the top surface of the salt block. This allows you to monitor the progress of the warmup without raising the lid and cooling off the inside of the grill. Do this at your own risk and do wear heavy duty gloves in case some flames do decide to come out of the chimney. The safer way is to open the lid and take a few quick readings with the lid up. There are also “systems” described for salt block cooking where you hold your hand above the surface of the hot salt block. Based on the time and distance your hand can approach the salt block, you arrive at the approximate temperature. These “systems” do work, but as I mentioned the Infrared Thermometers cost around $30.00 and you will find lots of other uses for them in both your indoor and outdoor cooking activities. I wrote a blog on infrared thermometers that you may be interested in reading: LASER SIGHTED GRILL AND OVEN THERMOMETER.
- High Smoke Point Oil: When dealing with temperatures between 400 and 500 degrees (205-260 C) Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Olive Oil will burn off. Creating a smoky flavor and char on your food you don’t want. The Salt Rox folks recommend Avocado Oil for the highest temperature salt block cooks, for up to say 500 degrees (260 C). I purchased a bottle of this for the high temperature cooks I will be doing. The various smoke point charts on the internet listed Canola or Virgin Olive Oil as good up to 400 degrees or so (205 C), Peanut Oil is 450 degrees (232 C), Grape Seed Oil is 425 degrees (218 C) and EVOO is way down the list at 320 degrees (160 C). So you may want to add some Avocado Oil to your pantry. There are exceptions to the rule of which oil to use at what temperature which I will discuss further below.
- Heavy Duty High Temperature Rated Gloves: Regular grilling mitts really won’t cut it here. I am talking heavy duty items like Welder’s Gloves. Even with those you don’t want to have to be carrying the salt block very far. It is massive and hot and even the Welder’s Gloves will allow you to start feeling the burn fairly quickly.
- Carrying Tray: There are various metal carrying trays with frames made of small metal angles and several flat intermediates crossbars. Think of a bed frame before you put the mattress on it. These frames have handles along the two short sides for carrying it. Many of these are made by third party vendors to fit the standard sized salt blocks. Obviously don't order or buy one of these third party models before measuring the actual size of your particular salt block. I haven’t bought one yet because I need to let my Egg cool before removing the salt block. Once the salt block is cool, I can just wear some gloves to carry it into the house. I should also mention these do not appear to be a practical way to get a hot salt block directly off the grill. You would need to pull the salt block off the grill and then land it on the tray.
- Landing Spot: You will need one or more trivets or other similar items to receive the salt block when it comes hot off the grill. Also remember these salt blocks can take 3 or 4 hours to cool off once you turn off their heat source.
LEARNING CURVE THUS FAR:In the week I have owned my Salt Rox salt block I have cooked 4 items on it and I have learned some valuable lessons for the future. All of these cooks I have considered test runs. I made them to test things out before inviting guests to sample some foods cooked on the salt block. I will list some general items I have learned and then some recipe specific items:
- Warm Up Process: I light the Egg using Stump Chunks fire starters as I normally do. I adjust the amount of Stump Chunks to suit the cooking temperature I am going for. Once the Stump Chunks have gone out I place the cold salt block on the stainless steel grill grate, close the lid and allow the grill to come to temperature as normal. It does take longer to warm up because of the cold mass of the salt block, which must be heated as well. This isn’t too much different then when I use the BGE Half Moon Cast Iron Grill Griddle Grates on my Egg.
- Where Do I Take the Temperatures: The conventional wisdom with the Egg is you take your temperatures at the dome level. Well the “School of Hard Knocks” has taught me this is not the way to go. I found that that there can be a large and changing variation between the temperature shown on the dome thermometer vs. your cooking level temps. Right now the air temperature is between 40-60 degrees (4.5-15.5 C) and I find the dome thermometer runs 50 degrees (28 C) colder than the salt blocks surface. This will change over the course of the cook and will become closer over time. But these salt block cooks are usually fairly short, meaning you will have a significant difference in temperatures. The other problem is this variation will change when the weather gets warmer or colder. Plus when you open the lid the dome thermometer is cooled off and may need 5 minutes or so to recover. I could go on, but it is quick and easy to just use an infrared thermometer. I use the dome thermometer as a rough guide for when I need to start thinking about getting the dampers into their final position to achieve my desired cooking temp. When I get to within about 75 degrees of my desired temperature I take a reference reading from the salt block.
- Lid Up Cooking Similar but Different Than With a Wok: When you are cooking on a wok you raise the lid of the Egg from that point on. This can cause a problem where the additional combustion air you are letting in can fan the flames and send the temperatures soaring. When I open the lid to cook on a wok, I close the lower damper to 50-33% of it’s current position. A wok has thin walls which react quickly to rapid changes in temperature. When the coals start burning hotter, the wok reacts almost instantly. The same type thing happens if you need to keep the lid open to cook on the salt block. The difference is the extra mass of the salt block keeps the surface temperature from reacting as quickly. You still need to close the damper, but your surface temperature is not going to go soaring up anywhere near as fast.
- Do NOT Overshoot Your Temperatures: The salt block is similar to the Big Green Egg or any other ceramic grill in that you do NOT want to overshoot your desired cooking temperature. The salt blocks are even harder to get to drop temps because they are double the thickness of the walls of the Egg. So don’t take your attention away from the task at hand when you are trying to stabilize your grill and salt block to hit your desired cooking temperature. Essentially whatever temperature you end up with, you are stuck with for a good long time.
- Exceptions to the High Smoke Point Rule: There seems to be times when the recipes for a salt block cook do have you use EVOO or another low smoke point oil. I have yet to see an explanation, but I have come up with one based on the pattern I’ve noticed. It would seem that when you are told to brush the entire cooking surface of the salt block with oil, they typically have you use a high smoke point oil. When you are adding the oil to the food by brushing it on or tossing the items in the oil you, are often told to use low smoke point oil like EVOO. Here is my theory: When you brush the oil directly on the salt block, it is going to cover the entire surface and sit there for a little while before the food goes on. The high smoke point oil is not going to burn up and leave black bits all over the salt block to ruin the taste of your food. Also the oil will still be there to lubricate the block and help prevent the food from sticking. The times when the recipes call for EVOO is when the food is brushed directly with the oil or tossed with it. I am thinking that the oil going on to cold or room temperature food is the difference. When this food hits the salt block it initially cools the adjacent surface of the salt block down to below the smoke point of the oil. By the time the salt block has recovered and the oil has served it’s purpose.
When Done Right the Item is NOT Too Salty: I have made 4 different items on the salt block. One had borderline too much salt and another had too little. I think I know the reasons for that and will explain below. The other two were just right. When done correctly, the way you taste the salt is a totally different experience and a bit hard to explain. The salt does not seem to be pockets of varying amounts of saltiness on the surface of the meat. Instead the salty flavor seems to come from deep inside the food and is more subtle at the same time. The salt tastes different than regular table salt or kosher salt. It has a sharper more biting flavor like sea salt. But as I mentioned it is a more subtle and uniform experience at the same time.
It is All About the Surface Prep on the Food and the Salt Block: You must have just the right amount of oil and other liquids on the food and the salt block. The other item you need to watch out for is putting too many seasonings on the surface of the food itself. Let me use the examples of the recipes I have made so far:
- Salt Block Cheesesteaks: This was the first item I made on my new salt block. The grilled veggies which were tossed in olive oil before going on were perfect. They had great flavor and the right amount of saltiness. The thin shaved cheesesteak was a different story. The shaved steak was brushed with olive oil and came out borderline too salty for me. One of two things may have caused this. The first is the salt block was brand new and who knows whether this caused it. The second possibility (and my leading suspect) was the large amount of fat that oozed out of the shaved steak. You are warned that too much liquid on the salt block can draw more saltiness out. This makes sense because shaved steak is fatty by nature and this liquid fat may have helped draw more salt out of the salt block. I will need to try this recipe again. The salt block will be used at this point and this may show whether the new block had anything to do with the extra saltiness.
- Salt Grilled Johnnycakes: These came out perfect with a subtle but pleasant background saltiness. The salt block was brushed lightly with oil. So not too much liquid and nothing between the batter and the salt block.
- Salt Block Rosemary Potato Chips: These too came out perfect with an edge to edge subtle saltiness that was perfect for these chips. In this case the chips were tossed in a bowl with a small amount of Olive Oil. There was nothing between the potato and the salt block except for the small amount of oil.
- Salt Block Rib-Eyes 1: My original intent was to simply use some black pepper and olive oil. Since I had some left overs for 3 fresh herbs, I decided to do an herb crust. I also seasoned the steak with black pepper and brushed it with EVOO. Based on previous experience grilling this type of steak recipe, I expected a nicely seared and almost charred outer crust. While I did get this I also had zero salt flavor. In retrospect, I am sure the chopped up herbs I added formed a barrier. This prevented the salt block from transferring the salt to the meat. The salt probably made it as far as the layer of herbs. Not being able to penetrate any further, the salt probably burned off as the herbs charred. I plan to do another Rib-Eye where I just use black pepper and olive oil. I would bet money that when done this was I will get that deep down subtle salt flavor again.
CONCLUSIONS (To Date):I am glad I got the salt block, I do think it does show great promise for certain types of foods and recipes. I am VERY glad I got the Salt Rox brand model. As I explained, it was a happy accident. Yes it was more money. But for me the low aggravation factor, ease of use and potential greater longevity trump the extra cost over time. This is particularly true if you end up buying and replacing several of the cheaper models. I am eager to continue my experimentation. As you can see from my experiences, using a salt block is not as simple as throwing on a light switch. I am sure I will write one or more additional blogs on this subject as I learn more in the future.
SOME RELATED LINKS:
SALT ROX WEBSITE: SALT ROX Developers website.
BLOG ENTRY: LASER SIGHTED GRILL AND OVEN THERMOMETER 2014 Blog Entry about Infrared Thermometers.
PICTURE ENTRIES:Picture Entries for the 4 items I have made to date on my new salt block.
SALT BLOCK CHEESESTEAKS Photo Entry.
SALT GRILLED JOHNNYCAKES Photo Entry.
SALT BLOCK ROSEMARY POTATO CHIPS Photo Entry.
SALT BLOCK RIB-EYE 1 Photo Entry.
BACK TO BBQ BLOG 2016
ARCHIVE OF BLOGS: 2016
INDEX OF BLOGS: ALL YEARS