What's the secret ingredient for more refreshing summer beverages? Salt

From tangy mango lassis to this summer's trendy tomato water martinis, don't be afraid to get a little salty

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 22, 2021 5:31PM (EDT)

Martini, Mango Lassi and Margarita, with a pinch of salt (Photo illustration by Salon/getty Images)
Martini, Mango Lassi and Margarita, with a pinch of salt (Photo illustration by Salon/getty Images)

During the peak heat of Louisville summers, when the air is so muggy that the hot black pavement practically steams, lines would form outside of Safier, a Middle Eastern and Indian-influenced deli in the heart of downtown. Businessmen in sweat-drenched button-downs, girls with rolled skirts from the nearby Catholic school and I — with a backpack of audio gear slung over my shoulder — were all waiting for one thing: mango lassis

Youness, the deli's head cook, would slide plastic cups of the tangy, golden-orange drink down the laminated counter with the ease of a veteran bartender in a legacy saloon. Customers would pay, take their cups and post up — eager for refreshment — under the black-and-white family photos that lined the walls. 

I worked at the public radio station a couple of blocks down from the deli, so I found myself waiting in line for lassis a lot. During one particularly sweltering week, Youness began teasing that his recipe included a secret ingredient. Each visit, I'd toss out a new guess — buttermilk, lime zest, an extra teaspoon of honey —but he demurred until one day, I approached the counter, and he set a slim box of Morton Kosher salt in front of me with a thud. 

There was my answer. 

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I tasted more carefully, and sure enough, the little hit of salt cut through (and perhaps elevated) the tang of the whole-fat yogurt and the sugary nectar of the mango pulp. Since then, I've realized most of the best summer beverages all have a touch brine. 

There's the classic margarita on the rocks, of course. Though the exact origin of the drink is hazy, competing stories all mention the salt-rimmed glass as a key component. One theory is that hotel manager Daniel "Danny" Negrete created the drink in 1936 as a surprise for his girlfriend, Margarita, who found salted beverages to be refreshing after spending the day in the brutal Pueblo sun; another is that Rosarito bar owner Carlos "Danny" Herrera mixed up the first margarita for Ziegfeld showgirl and actress Marjorie King and used crushed salt to bejewel the glass. 

For a more dressed-down version of the margarita, I've been relying on ranch water, a cocktail that's simple enough for even the most novice home bartender. Combine Topo Chico (yes, it has to be Topo Chico) mineral water, lime juice and tequila in a salt- and Tajin-dusted highball glass

Extra dirty martinis — the kind where the gin is absolutely clouded by olive brine — are a perennial favorite, but in my search for other gently salted beverages, I came across a more seasonally celebratory variety: the tomato water martini. 

Tomato water, which is made by straining puréed tomatoes and a hefty pinch of salt, serves as the cocktail base. From there, add gin, vermouth, a squeeze of lemon and a few drops of Pernod if you're partial to the slightest whisper of anise. In a similar vein, I've been making Kat Kinsman's recipe for tomato lemonade on repeat over the past few weeks. It's got a mellow acidity that pairs perfectly with a garnish of salt-preserved lemon peel. 

These days, I find myself dreaming of traveling again by way of perusing cocktail bar menus for their play on salted drinks. Currently, Miami Beach is high on the list, so I can sample a cocktail at Tanuki made with salted banana purée and a fat-washed butter popcorn Brugal Anejo Rum. San Diego is a close second, so I can try Madison's Jumping Cholla — a potent combination of smoky mezcal, pineapple, jalapeño and a sprinkle of black lava salt. 

In the meantime, though, I'm keeping refreshed with an at least once-a-week curbside order of mango lassi. 

More Salon stories about cocktails: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beverages Mango Lassis Mangoes Martinis Ranch Water Recipe Salt Summer Tomato Water Martini Tomatoes Topo Chico