November 21, 2012 10:05:05 AM
It seemed like a tall order. I wanted an edible gift that was fast and easy to make, inexpensive, wouldn't spoil or need to be refrigerated, and that kids could be involved in.
With so many caveats, the field is pretty narrow. I'm not a fan of baking mixes, such as muffins or pancakes. Too much measuring and printing of recipes so recipients know how to use them. Spice rubs are a good choice. Trail mix is another. But I've done those before and this year I wanted something different, something a little less expected.
The solution I came up with -- seasoned salts. The concept is simple. Blend salt with various seasonings, then package them nicely. The kids can even get in on decorating the jars.
There are just a few things to remember as you do this. Most important is that seasoned salts -- whether prepared or purchased -- are intended as finishing salts. That means they should be used to season finished dishes, not during cooking. Most of the nuanced flavor of a seasoned salt would be lost if used for cooking.
For gift purposes, I suggest planning for two kinds of salt -- powdered salt, which is intended for use on popcorn, and flaked salt, which is for sprinkling over finished savory foods.
First, the powdered salt. The powdered part of this is key. Movie theater popcorn tends to be perfectly salted because vendors use powdered salt; this adheres to the corn kernels far better than even fine grain salt does. This is why your homemade popcorn usually is unevenly salted, and why you end up with a sea of salt on the bottom of the bowl.
Making powdered salt is simple. Use inexpensive kosher salt (usually about $1.50 for a 3-pound box), then run it through either a food processor or blender (you also can use a mortar and pestle for smaller batches) until it reaches the consistency of powdered sugar. Seasonings can be mixed in by hand after the salt is ground, or simply added to the processor or blender at the same time.
When selecting seasonings for popcorn salt, don't hesitate to get creative, even mixing sweet and savory flavors. But always aim to use seasonings with a similar texture as the powdered salt (in other words, finely ground seasonings such as cinnamon, paprika, garlic powder, etc.).
For flake salts intended to use on savory foods, you'll need to start with pricier flaked sea salt. You usually can find bargains on this variety at places such as Trader Joe's and similar retailers. With these salts, you simply mix them with the seasonings you want, then bottle them. Even easier than powdered salts.
You also have more choice when it comes to seasonings. No need to worry about matching the texture of the salt, which in this case tends to be large and coarse. Finely ground seasonings or more robust dried herbs, or a blend of the two, all work well.
I've outlined a few suggestions for each variety, but this is a creative effort, so just explore your spice cabinet. Be sure to label your salts and include hints on what to use them on.
Popcorn salt combos
Each of these makes enough for four to six gifts, depending on jar size.
n 1 pound kosher salt, six 3-inch cinnamon sticks, 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (grind everything together)
n 1 pound kosher salt, 2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice blend (mix the spice blend into the salt after it is ground)
n 1 pound kosher salt, 4 teaspoons garlic powder, 4 teaspoons smoked paprika (mix the spice blend into the salt after it is ground)
n 1 pound kosher salt, 2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan pepper (grind everything together)
Savory salt combos
Each makes one to two gifts, depending on jar size.
n 1/2 cup flaked salt, 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 2 teaspoons dried basil, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
n 1/2 cup flaked salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seed, 2 teaspoons cumin seed, 2 teaspoons mustard powder
n 1/2 cup flakes salt, 2 teaspoons curry powder