Welcome to Plus One, a column by Food Editor Emily Ziemski where small-but-mighty additions—ingredients, sauces, toppings—that instantly upgrade whatever’s on the table are the star of the show. Today, a way to combat Late Summer Erasure™.
Summer—and outdoor grilling—season may technically still be in full swing, but it’s hard to deny the whispers of fall decorations and the less… whispery declarations that pumpkin-spiced everything IS. BACK. (I get it! Please stop yelling at me, Dunkin’ commercials.)
For me, that hard cut off of swapping sunscreen for sweaters every year has always felt a little too abrupt. Though I’ve been quoted as saying silly things such as “I’m tired of my summer wardrobe” and “It’s basically almost Halloween,” don’t be fooled—I’m not quite ready to let go of summer flavors.
Enter my new favorite trick: vanilla salt. I’ve taken a cue from the likes of other versatile spices (think: ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg) that seamlessly make the transition from sweet to savory, and applied it to a spice that gets a very sweet-heavy treatment in our kitchens. (That being said, I rarely trust a cookie recipe that doesn’t have at least a touch of vanilla extract, paste, or a dutifully-scraped bean.) The dulcet aroma of vanilla as it cooks—amplified by the hygroscopic nature of salt (more on this below)—is the perfect accompaniment to hearty grilled meats, a finishing sprinkle on baked goods and chocolates, or even a garnishing rim of a cocktail.
|2||vanilla beans, scraped|
|1/4||cup kosher salt|
|2||vanilla beans, scraped|
|1/4||cup kosher salt|
I’m usually a big proponent of a flavored salt, and salt in general. (Except garlic salt, but that’s mostly because I’d prefer to consume a wholly unrecommended amount of garlic.)
With salt, the application of it does a few things in cooking. It draws out excess moisture, which is why it was used to cure meats before refrigeration was a thing; why you can salt your tomatoes then pat them dry before adding to a sandwich to alleviate soggy bread; why we season our food before, during, and after cooking. That last one feels obvious, but generally, when we’re taught to cook, we learn we must add salt, without ever really knowing why. Basically, when a food item loses moisture, the flavor of it gets concentrated or amplified. That’s essentially what salt is doing every time you season something. So, the more salt, the greater nuance of flavor that’s allowed to be expressed in a dish. And not to worry, it takes a fair amount of salt before things turn “salty.”
Another thing salt does is promote Maillard reaction, or the browning of protein. It’s the golden brown kiss on the top of a chocolate chip cookie, the pronounced char on a grilled steak, or even the crispy edges of a perfectly fried egg. This is in part thanks to the lack of moisture as stated above, as when proteins lack moisture, they can coagulate more easily due to the reduction of sugar and the denaturing of protein when it hits heat. (I love food science!!)
This is all to say: Salt = more flavor, better color, and better texture of your foods.
So how does vanilla play into this all? Vanilla is deeply aromatic, and when it’s heated up, it imbues the air around it with the best smell. You know it. It’s that old real estate trick of baking cookies to lure in buyers for a house. By combining the flavor enhancing power of salt with the sweet-without-being-sugary aspects of vanilla, and you have a multi-purpose seasoning blend that’ll have people saying “WHAT salt?”
Though I’ve provided a loose recipe for the creation and storage of this salt, what you do with it is truly up to you. Below, I’ve compiled a sort-of comprehensive, sort-of aspirational list of everything I’ve tried vanilla salt on, or things I’ve dreamed of trying in the future.
Get this on the grill, ASAP. My first-ever test with this salt was on some juicy sea scallops, and the gentle sweetness of the flesh, partnered with the fruity aromatic nature of the vanilla, was basically designed for the grill. Any white fish (cod, halibut, etc) that you’d consider tossing on the grill probably has the perfect mild profile for a little vanilla salt.
For steaks—especially ones served with a brown butter sauce—vanilla is a sweet beacon in a heavily savory sea. Part of the sear on a steak is basically caramelization—there’s that Maillard reaction again—and vanilla is a well-known pair for anything caramel.
If you’re making your own gravlax as a weekend project, try swapping out half of the salt rub for vanilla salt. This, on a bagel with cream cheese, would be heaven.
My grilled cabbage recipe from earlier this year called for a tangy and bright preserved lemon dressing. The perfect fodder to sunny acidity is grounding sweetness. Sprinkled over the cabbage before grilling allows the salt to draw out some of the excess moisture of the cabbage, allowing the tender leaves to shine with the hint of vanilla.
Last days of summer, meet squash salad. While you’re already melding the best of both seasons (fall-favorite: squash, and summer sensation: salad), why not add this salt to morph your dinner table offerings into a true end-of-summer celebration?
Fruits + Sweets:
Watermelon & Salt… hi! A beautiful way to elevate the sweetness without adding more sweetness to this basically perfect summer fruit. For more tart-leaning fruits, like a bitter melon, or even grapefruit, vanilla lends that baking-spice note that mellows acidity and tempers bolder flavors.
A lot of coffee beans have notes of vanilla already, so a baked treat like these fan-favorite coffee & toffee blondies would be well served swapping the 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt for vanilla salt.
I loudly exclaimed to our Test Kitchen one afternoon that a vanilla salt rim on a mango margarita would be so good, and someone slacked me from across the office asking if I was making them, and if so they wanted one because, “hot damn.” (Their words.)
Harper Fendler calls for saline solution in his espresso martini, but a swap of vanilla salt (just a pinch, added in the dry shake) would also do the trick quite nicely—amplifying the sweeter notes of the cold brew and cinnamon whip.
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