In The Kitchen Scientist, The Flavor Equation author Nik Sharma breaks down the science of good food, from rinsing rice to salting coffee. Today, he explores a savory super-ingredient to always keep in the pantry.
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If there was one ingredient that I distinctly enjoyed from my parents' kitchen growing up, it would be the salt kala namak. Sprinkling it over fresh fruit with red chile flakes or a bowl of yogurt with sweet tamarind chutney was delightful.
Today, we'll learn the basics of this powerful ingredient — from where to buy to how to use — and clear up some misconceptions along the way.
The real color of black salt
Kala namak ("black salt" in Hindi), also known as Sulemani namak, isn't actually black in color. If you look closely, you'll notice it's a very dark shade of red, and, when ground, the powder takes on a light pink appearance. This color arises due to the presence of iron and sulfur in the form of a substance called greigite, a mineral that is rich in a salt called iron sulfide. (To learn more about the optical and color properties of greigite, head here — you will notice that the amount of red light reflected in the light spectrum is very high.)
What does kala namak smell & taste like?
While the color is special, it's the unique aroma that sets kala namak apart from other varieties and makes it invaluable in the kitchen. When dry, this salt has a mild eggy, sulfurous aroma. When added to water (say, in fruit chaat or in chana masala), that aroma becomes stronger.
Why does kala namak have a distinct aroma when other salt varieties are odorless? It comes down to what is in it and how it's produced. Kala namak is prepared by heating halite, a salt obtained from salt mines in parts of northern India and Pakistan. The salt is heated for several hours, which helps develop its characteristic smell, along with amla (Indian gooseberry) and haritaki: two types of fruit-bearing trees called myrobalans. Both the iron salt and the combustion of the plant material help develop the flavor of this salt.
In contrast, when salt water is evaporated using heat from the sun or a fire, the result is a flaky salt such as Maldon (pyramidal crystals). Like kala namak, kosher salt is also obtained from salt mines, but is extremely pure and contains only sodium chloride and nothing else.
If you don't consume eggs, you can use a pinch of kala namak to re-create the eggy aroma that's missing in a recipe (say, a tofu scramble), but remember to watch how much you're adding or the dish could end up too salty. In addition to sodium chloride, kala namak contains other ingredients (technically anything other than sodium chloride is referred to as an "impurity") such as iron salts; this combination produces a more complex flavor in comparison to the taste of pure salt. Its sulfurous, salty, mineral taste works great in cooking or as a finishing salt. I find that it amplifies sweet, sour, and fiery flavors in recipes.
Where to buy and how to store kala namak
I usually buy kala namak in ground form from my local Indian grocery store Kalyustan's and Oaktown Spice Shop, but if all you find is the rock form of the salt, don't worry — it's easy to use. I first break it into smaller pieces with a hammer, then grind it down to a powder with a blender (a coffee or spice grinder also works).
The powdered salt keeps well for up to a year (or even longer). When storing, keep it in an airtight container, as prolonged exposure to humidity will reduce its potency.
How to put kala namak to good use
Kala namak works wonderfully in savory and sweet preparations, especially in dishes where sweet, sour, and heat are present — it tends to heighten them. Do not use it as a substitute in baking or when salt is just needed to balance the taste of a dish. This salt shines when it can stand on its own and its unique aroma and taste can be fully appreciated.
In Indian cooking, kala namak is the star of many street food dishes that fall into the chaat category, like chana masala and shikanji (a spiced limeade). It is also used to add flavor in various types of raitas, chutneys, and other dishes in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Try it . . .
Stirred into sauces: At home, I will often stir some into a simmering pot of barbecue sauce for its earthy tones that tend to accentuate the sweet, sour, and spicy flavors in the sauce. It would also be lovely in fruit chutneys and does really well with the sweet condiments that are often served with roasted turkey and pork, such as cranberry chutney.
As a finishing salt. Think: chickpea stews like chole, salads (even fruit salads), and on roasted vegetables. Truth be told, I even sprinkle it on top of my hard-boiled eggs for breakfast.
Have you used kala namak at home? How do you use it in your cooking?
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