Harvesting sea salt at home

I made sea salt! Well okay, you’re right, Nature made sea salt …but I totally helped, and now I have a plate of perfect, locally wild-harvested, salt in my kitchen. Check it out!

I was reading Harvesting Sea Salt – The Canadian Way, from BC Farms and Food, about nearby small companies that are harvesting and selling sea salt. It made me look at the salt in my kitchen, the packaged salt from all around the world, and wonder, “I live on an island …why the heck am I not making my own salt?”

I could reasonably choose to support those lovely local companies and buy their salt, encouraging localized economies. Alternately, I might feel that having a selection of salts from around the globe is important for my culinary experience: as we read around the internet, the terroir of salt (sometimes called merroir) lends its own flavour and some folks can really taste the difference. For me, though, learning to walk down to the sea and collect my own salt –one of the fundamental necessities of healthy living– is so appealing and common-sensical that I set out to try it.

In this part of the world, the Vancouver Island Health Authority samples seawater at recreational beaches through the summer, specifically for levels of enterococci. Not wanting to sprinkle enterococci all over my food, I was delighted to discover that BOḰOĆEN (Coles Bay), just up the road from my apartment, has had consistently low counts this year. Woohoo! That doesn’t mean that it’s pristine water, though; far from it. People here have seen, in only a few generations, radical loss of reciprocity between humans and non-human beings. W̱SÁNEĆ peoples have lived here for 30,000 years, and only in the last two hundred years has “water stewardship” stopped being a part of daily life for every human and community, and become a political talking-point. Contrary to dominant-culture belief, humans have the proven ability to enhance ecology as participants in a biome: ask any permaculturalist, anyone who has lived closely with nature, or scientists who are finally noticing.

That being said, I was lucky to have fairly-clean water nearby, so I grabbed a jug and headed out. I’ll admit that I also brought a spare pair of trousers just in case I fell in. (I truly love the ocean, but I’m a better swimmer than wader.) (I didn’t fall in, by the way. Win!)

Alright, so how do we “make” sea salt? The best way, in my opinion, is to use passive evaporation. As we see in many parts of the world, sea salt is carried into evaporation pans (like little ponds) and evaporates in the heat. Harvesters rake up the salt to let it dry, and then it’s processed, packaged, and shipped.

I timed my salt-making adventure rather unfortunately. We’re in the cool period between regular-summer and bonus-summer, so my balcony won’t get very warm this week. Oh, and we’re in wildfire season, which means the skies have been full of smoke, with all of the incinerated household contaminants that get carried along with it. It didn’t seem like a good time to leave food outdoors. (Yet again, this is making me think that I should build a solar cooker: that would be so useful!) Anyhow, I went the other route and used a stove and a cookpot to work through most of the evaporation for this first batch.

I started with a large cookpot full of seawater that I had poured through butter muslin to remove any noticeable critters. I know there are microsopic dudes in there, but that’s part of sea salt, right?

Some folks recommend boiling the sea water for 6-10 minutes, to kill any bacteria that can be killed through high heat. That sounded like a good idea. so I kept this at a rolling boil for a while before reducing it to a low boil.

After a couple of hours, the water had reduced most of the way. I kept checking, wondering when salt crystals would start to form. I don’t know much about chemistry, so I can’t tell you with authority whether or not this was useful, but when the water was about 3/4 inch (1.5 cm) deep and I could see teensy little salt crystals forming, I turned off the heat so the water would be calm as it continued to evaporate. My theory was that the crystals would form into more stable shapes if they weren’t disturbed? Before I went to bed, I put the still-warm cookpot into the oven (with no heat on) so that it would stay warmer than my cool apartment overnight.

Anyhow, it seems to have worked. As you can see below, the photo on the left is of the cookpot last thing in the evening; the photo in the middle is the cookpot first thing this morning; and the photo on the right is me boldly lifting out a piece of fleur de sel. The crystals totally grew! They’re beautiful!

Thank goodness for all of the videos of people raking piles of sea salt. I might have been worried about disturbing the salt if I hadn’t watched those. 🙂 This morning, I needed the pot for cooking so I scraped everything into a pile and poured it into a silicone baking dish to continue evaporating in the oven. I turned on the heating elements for a couple of minutes every couple of hours to keep it warm and evaporating nicely.

The first question that people asked me is, “how much salt do you get from a gallon of seawater?” Well, that depends on the salinity of the water. I hear the water hereabouts is less salty than water near the equator, so my yield was on the low side. That being said, how much salt do we use? A pinch for a meal, a teaspoon in a batch of muffins? Seems to me I can harvest regularly enough to keep up with my salt use.

The very last step was probably unnecessary, but it felt nice. When the water had evaporated and all I had left was wet salt, I put it onto a plate and set that out in the sunshine to finish evaporating.

Will I continue to harvest salt for my home? I sure as heck will! It helps to connect me with the waters on which we’re reliant, which in turn helps to connect me to the soil through which our human biological outputs are meant to be filtered. Can I reduce my impact on the lands and waters, and support others in doing so, so that I can keep wild-harvesting (and breathing)?

Yes.

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