Herbal Finishing Salts and White Sage
Text and Photographs by Juliet Blankespoor
Herb-infused finishing salts are a delightful alchemy between earth and sea, plant and mineral. Surprisingly easy to conjure up, and beautiful to behold, herbal salts provide an easy way to preserve excess fresh culinary herbs. They are called finishing salts because they are added to a dish after it is prepared. However, many of these salt blends are perfect for adding to marinades and dressings. Or they can be rubbed on meats and seafood before roasting or pan-frying. I enjoy finishing salts on popcorn, eggs, and to flavor goat cheese spreads.
Preparing herbal finishing salts involves blending fresh herbs with coarse salt in a food processor or spice blender until fine. If you haven’t such an apparatus, mince your fresh herbs with an old-fashioned knife, and then blend with the salt. A good general proportion is an equal part fresh herb(s) to salt, by volume. For instance, if you are making a rosemary/thyme salt, add one cup of de-stemmed rosemary and thyme leaves to one cup of coarse sea salt. If your blend is heavy on herbs, and light on the salt, it might take a little longer to dry.
After blending, spread the herb/salt mixture onto a serving tray or baking sheet and place in an area with good airflow. I like to place them on a table or counter under a ceiling fan. Depending on the ambient humidity, they may take two to four days to dry. The salt speeds up the drying process, simultaneously absorbing the flavor of the fresh herbs, along with the moisture. If you need your salt blend right away, place it on a cookie sheet in the oven on the lowest setting with the oven door slightly ajar. Stir frequently and crumble up any clumps. Depending on the herbs used, it may take a few hours. Let cool and jar. This method will evaporate off some of the essential oils of the herbs, thus decreasing the aroma and flavor. Therefore, I prefer the slow drying method if you have the time. If you are using dried herbs, you will skip the drying step, and use less of the herbs than a recipe calls for, as dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh.
The sky’s the limit with blending! Feel free to experiment with your favorite culinary herbs. There are so many pretty varieties of salt available now, which add a whole new dimension to the flavor and color palette of these brilliant mixtures. I will outline some of my favorite sea salts, which all vary slightly in texture, flavor and hue.
- Himalayan pink salt is hand-mined from ancient marine fossil deposits. The pink hue is derived from its high mineral and trace element content, including calcium, magnesium, copper, and iron.
- Smoked sea salt is prepared by slow roasting salt over flavorful wood smoke from various species of trees. I like to include smoked sea salt in BBQ herb blends.
- Red Alaea sea salt, or Red Hawaiian sea salt, is formed from seawater slowly evaporating in tidal pools, that are naturally infused with iron-rich, red volcanic clay. Talk about elemental alchemy! Fire, water, mineral, and air are all embodied in this crimson maritime sacrament.
- Volcanic Hawaiian sea salt is truly jet black, but it is colored by activated charcoal made from coconut shells, and not lava rock as one might imagine from its name. The black will “wash” off if used in cooking, so preparing it as a finishing salt is the best way to preserve the evocative ebony hue.
- Kala Namak is mined from several areas in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Also called Himalayan black salt, it has a pungent aroma and unique eggy flavor, due to its high sulfur content. It comes from the earth in inky crystals, but it is pink or light purple in color after it is ground.
- Celtic sea salt is a coarse sea salt, gray in hue, due to the harvesting technique, which includes the bottom mineral layer of the salt harvesting area. It is hand-harvested and sun dried.
Here are a few of my favorite herb-infused finishing salt recipes:
Dusky Desert Finishing Salt
This pungent blend is especially good on poultry, but also adds interest to herbed goat cheese blends, roasted roots and stuffing. You can also add it to olive oil and vinegar to create a flavorful salad dressing. Yet another way to enjoy this finishing salt is on sweet potato and black bean casseroles and burritos. The pungent flavor nicely accompanies the sweetness of winter squash—try it as a bright garnish on squash bisque. Makes about 1 1/4 cup.
- 1/3 cup tightly packed rosemary leaves (de-stemmed)
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- 1/4 cup of tightly packed whole sage leaves
- 15 juniper berries (mashed with a mortar and pestle or the back of a knife, prior to blending)
- 1 cup coarse salt (I used a mixture of pink Himalayan salt, black volcanic sea salt, and smoked sea salt)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- ¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Blend and dry on sheets, as described above.
Lemon- White Sage Finishing Salt
This is one of my favorite herb-infused finishing salts, and delightful to prepare as the aroma is so uplifting. If you haven’t tried white sage (Salvia apiana, Lamiaceae) as a culinary herb, you are in for a real treat. It is similar to its kissing cousin, garden sage, but more intense in flavor. If you don’t have white sage on-hand, try freaking out. Alternately, you can substitute garden sage. Like garden sage, white sage’s pungent, resinous flavor complements fatty foods. Indeed, our taste buds may be speaking for our stomachs in this department, as sage is one of the best culinary herbs for enhancing the digestion of fats through stimulating bile. Try this finishing salt in stuffing, along with black pepper and anise seeds. Meatloaf, poultry and baked roots are all enhanced by this blend. Makes about 1 cup.
- 15 grams (1 handful) white sage leaves, whole
- 1 cup coarse pink Himalayan salt
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
Blend and dry on sheets, as described above.
Pictured at the beginning of this post are a wider array of herb-infused finishing sea salts, which will be featured in my forthcoming book on growing and enjoying medicinal herbs.
White sage is endemic to southern California and northern Baja, Mexico. That means it only grows in those locations. It has been overharvested for smudge sticks, and additionally suffers from habitat loss from development and agriculture. Here’s the good news: you can grow you own white sage in the garden or as a potted plant. One of the best parts of growing your own medicine is that it takes the pressure off wild populations of herbs. Additionally, it removes the environmental costs of transporting herbs across continents, and even the sea!
Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Cultivating Medicinal Herbs, on growing and enjoying white sage:
Salvia apiana, Lamiaceae
The gray-green, felty leaves of white sage mirror the pigmenting of its native habitat—coastal foothills, desert washes and canyons of the southwest. The refreshing scent of this arid mint-family member is familiar to anyone who has burned a sage smudge stick. The aroma of the fresh leaf is intoxicating and enlivening, and brings me right back to fond memories of hiking in the scrubby, aromatic coastal lands that white sage calls home.
Evergreen shrubby perennial: Endemic to the southern California and Baja California
Zones: 8—11 as a perennial; grown as an annual, or a potted indoor plant in colder climates; full sun
Soil: pH 6-8; well-drained soil
Size: 4’ to 5’ tall, and 3’ to 4’ wide as a perennial; 2’ tall and 1’ to 2’ wide as an annual
Propagation: The seeds germinate after 1 to 3 weeks at 75 to 85 °F. Low germination rates are common; sow heavily and take care to not overwater the seedlings. Lightly cover the seed. Fire enhances germination, but it is not necessary. If you wish to try fire treatment, make a small pile of dry kindling over the planted seeds, letting the ash fall onto the soil or planting medium. Take softwood cuttings in the spring from vegetative shoots, 3 to 4” long, and remove the lower leaves. The cuttings will root better with warm soil temperatures.
Cultivation: White sage is somewhat adaptable to a variety of climates, and can even be grown in the southeastern United States, where humidity reins supreme. It is hardy to 15 °F, but doesn’t appreciate the combination of wet and cold, and thus frequently succumbs during the winter in milder, temperate climates with ample rainfall. Richo Cech, of Horizon Herbs, recommends mulching the crowns heavily with sand to keep the plant warmer and drier during cold weather. Consider planting white sage in a greenhouse, or in a pot overwintered in a south-facing window. In humid climates, white sage will sometimes develop fungal diseases or rot. I cut off the afflicted area, and it will often make a comeback, but sometimes the whole plant up and dies. Subsequently, I plant more white sage than I ultimately need, knowing I will have some attrition (usually ¼ of the plants, or less, depending on the weather that season). White sage is especially alluring in a terra cotta or a glazed blue ceramic pot. Add extra drainage material to the soil mix, such as coarse sand, perlite or pine bark fines, and take care to not overwater. Try placing potted white sage in a covered spot that receives ample sunshine, but excludes rainfall (like the overhang of a roof).
Problem Insects and Diseases: Aphids can sometimes infest the fresh growth of white sage, especially in the greenhouse.
Part used: Leaves and stems
Preparation: Tea, tincture, smudge, honey, gargle, herb-infused salt, and steam inhalation
Actions: Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, astringent, carminative, and anti-inflammatory
White sage’s medicinal uses are very similar to its Mediterranean cousin, garden sage (Salvia officinalis), although the former is more anti-microbial and stimulating than its domestic brethren. I find that a steam inhalation of the leaves helps to break up respiratory congestion in both the lungs and the sinuses. Try combining it with thyme and wild bergamot in the steam pot with a few drops of Eucalyptus essential oil. Sage leaves were burned after sickness to fumigate the home, and the fragrant smoke was a remedy for colds in the sweathouse. The practice of burning white sage as an aromatic cleansing and purifying agent has been widely adapted by westerners, to the demise of wild populations, which have been overharvested, primarily for smudge sticks. These are bundles of aromatic plants, assembled when fresh, and tied together with string and dried. The “sticks” hold their form and slowly smoke when lit on fire. Pictured below are smudge sticks made from one white sage plant grown in regular garden soil, amended with extra pine bark fines, in western North Carolina.
Here are some photos from the book and online course on cultivating medicinal herbs!
Horizon Herbs – Largest collection of organically grown medicinal herb seeds and plants. Catalog is also a growers manual and contains many of the germination specifics listed below.
Richters – Huge selection of herb seeds and plants. Rare or hard-to-find herbs.
Prairie Moon Nursery – Seeds and plants of natives to the prairie and eastern states. Loads of germination information in their seed section.
United Plant Savers – Nursery and Bulk Herb Directory (available free to members)
Fedco Seeds and Organic Garden Supply – Cooperative seeds, trees, and gardens supply, located in Maine (207) 873-7333 or (207) 430-1106
Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Large selection of garden/farm supply
Mountain Rose Herbs – Sea salts, medicinal and culinary herbs