The Salt King of the Northwest Tells Kids How to Shake Up Big Flavor
The founder of Jacobsen Salt dishes on experimentation, great toast, and how he got started.
Here at Little Sous, lately we’re thinking about spices—how these mystical flavor agents can help kids unlock the next level in the kitchen. And it hit us: The most elementary “spice,” salt, is something we can take for granted, something most people don’t really know much about. (It’s always fun to tell kids that salt is, in fact, a mineral. That’s right, they’re eating rocks.)
Fortunately, we know a guy: Ben Jacobsen, founder of Portland’s Jacobsen Salt, one of the leading artisan salt makers in this country. From humble origins about a decade ago, when he started boiling down Oregon sea water, Ben has built a company with almost 50 employees and a brand that’s nearly ubiquitous in Pacific Northwest food circles.
We caught up with Ben while he was riding his motorcycle through Southern Utah, on his way to a Grand Canyon hike in a group that included Little Sous fave Gabe Rucker. He pulled over to the side of the road, and we talked about how he got started, why good salt is the culinary upgrade everyone needs, and the one thing kids should do in the kitchen.
(If you seek more secrets of flavor, check out “The Spice Hunter,” the spiciest installment yet in our series of Kitchen Academy cooking kits.)
How did you get into salt?
I came back to Portland, and no one in America was making good salt. You didn’t even see it around. I could only find Maldon at Williams Sonoma for, like $15 for a small container. I started to experiment with making my own.
I lived in Denmark and Norway for a while, and it was in Denmark that I learned about good salt. I don’t know that I’d ever really thought about it before. But I soon became sort of obsessed with how much better a little very good salt could make the most ordinary food—I mean, a piece of toast. I soon realized that, hey, this is a necessity.
How did that go at first?
It took two and a half years to figure out. I found a spot in Netarts, on the Oregon Coast, and from there it just took a long time to learn the specific way to evaporate sea water. And it’s not just that—it’s what type of sea water. All these factors determine what minerals are left behind after evaporation. Location and method make all the difference.
The analogy I use is oysters. Every oyster in America is genetically the same. But you instantly recognize the difference between an oyster from Netarts and one from, like, Cape Cod. That flavor comes from the salt water they grow in.
From an outside perspective, once you figured out your process, the company became almost an icon in Northwest food circles fairly rapidly. How did it unfold from your point of view?
We were fortunate in that salt had not gotten much attention in America at all, probably since the Industrial Revolution. It was a blank slate of sorts. And we came along, and meanwhile there was a renaissance of interest in salt—we benefitted from it, and we were a part of it.
In Portland, we had incredible support from the food community. We have a level of exposure in Portland that is somewhat remarkable for a small company—and I would estimate that only about half the people who have heard of Jacobsen Salt have actually tried it, so that gives us a lot of scope for growth just in our home city.
Salt could be seen as a fussy, sort of esoteric thing to spend money on. How has the process of educating consumers evolved?
Let’s say the average household spends, let’s say, $4 a year on regular, industrial salt. If you quadruple that, they’re spending $16 a year, which would buy some good salt. Now, that’s really money for anyone, for any family. We don’t take that for granted. [A four-ounce packet of Jacobsen’s flagship product costs $12.50.] But on the other hand, for that amount of money, your food is going to be so much better.
Great food is a fundamental human right—that’s how we look at it. And getting some good salt might be the most accessible upgrade, the most affordable way to make the biggest difference in the quality of what you eat.
What’s a piece of wisdom you’d impart to kids and families who cook together at home?
Taste while you’re cooking, and season to taste. That’s the thing people don’t do at home, and home-cooked food tends to be undersalted—that’s a major difference between what you make at home and what you get at restaurants. And don’t be afraid to use salt. You hear people say, well, I don’t want too much salt, but the fact is that our bodies need it. If you’re seasoning to taste with good salt, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be doing anything unhealthy.
For kids, I’d say: experiment. Don’t be afraid to screw up. You can figure out how to create some flavors that will blow your mind. Layer flavors. Put some acid in first—lemon juice, a little vinegar—and put salt over the top of the acid. You’d be surprised how much better things can get with a squeeze of lemon.