Here's some food for thought next time you're salting a wedge of watermelon, a pot of water for boiled peanuts or a thick steak destined for the grill: No other seasoning compares when it comes to upping the "wow" factor of your favorite victuals. But all salt is not equal, as many of the state's finest farm-to-table chefs know. If you want to punctuate your regional dishes with a touch of local flavor, go for salt gleaned from South Carolina waters.
From sea to land
Near the fishing village of McClellanville, a couple of committed homesteaders got an unexpected lesson in "merroir" - the unique flavor profile sea salt derives from its water source. Rustin and Teresa Gooden prepared to smoke a hog for a neighborhood gathering, hauling in a quantity of local seawater to use for brine. As the liquid evaporated, it left behind a pleasant surprise: 4 to 5 pounds of distinctly flavored, smoky salt. It found its way to the table where guests swooned over the condiment, enthusiastically sprinkling it over the roasted meat. By day's end, it was clear that salt stole the potluck show, elevating the main dish to "Some Pig" status.
The hosts conceived a vision, the stars aligned and Bulls Bay Saltworks, the state's first operational salt producer, was born practically on the spot. But there was still a lot of labor to endure, especially starting out. Using 5 gallon buckets, Teresa and Rustin manually collected water, but not just any water. As their source, they chose Bulls Bay in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, home to some of the most pristine waters along the eastern seaboard.
"It was a matter of geography," Rustin said. "We knew the water there was very clean. It was also important to us that we were getting the salt from a sustainable source - the ocean."
The Gooden's back-breaking work eased somewhat when they acquired an engine that pumps water into a 200-gallon tank in the back of their truck. Back at the homestead, their liquid stash is filtered, then divided between multiple holding containers in a greenhouse known as the "Solar Tunnel." The sun and warm temps trigger the evaporation process to transform their harvest from simple sea water to simply divine-tasting salt.
In four weeks or less, depending on the temperatures, the water will have dissipated, leaving behind a crust of salt in the container bottoms. Once it is loosened, the salt crystals are run through additional water baths to remove any lingering impurities. The salt goes back into the holding containers for flaking, accomplished by working it over with a metal scoop, then moved to a smoker where bourbon barrel or oak wood further infuses it with flavor. Larger crystals are designated for individual grinders, while the finer particles are parceled into tins to be sold as margarita salt. Drying and packaging takes place in a small, dedicated production room built just for that purpose.
"As a food producer, we are inspected by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, so it was important to have this space," Teresa said.
Sowing the nation with salt
The saltworks might be in the toddler stage as far as businesses go, but the operation is experiencing rapidly growing appreciation in local circles and beyond. Not only can you find Bulls Bay products at markets and specialty stores, but national distribution is robust with more than half of the US enjoying access to one of the state's tastiest treasures. The salts also can be ordered online directly from the Bulls Bay website.
The rewards of the Goodens' hard work includes racking up accolades. In 2014, O, The Oprah Magazine cited the Bourbon Barrel Flake Salt as a featured find, and the Carolina Flake Salt was a runner-up in Garden & Gun's Made in the South Awards. Charleston Magazine included Bulls Bay salt in its list of 40 Lowcountry Luxuries in 2015. Most recently, Southern Living named the Bulls Bay Red Mash - salt crystals spiked with Fresno pepper mash from Charleston's Red Clay Hot Sauce - Best Seasoning of 2016.
Of course, the broadening popularity of Bulls Bay products began at the local level, with more than 30 Charleston-area restaurants using these artisan salts to enhance haute cuisine with an authentic taste of South Carolina. McCrady's, Cypress, FIG and Obstinate Daughter are just a few of the eateries stocking the brand in their pantries. The salt is also a key ingredient for many bread bakers in South Carolina and other states who wish to distinguish their goods.
"Our sea salt is briny with a hint of sweetness," said Teresa, who recommends using their products as finishing salts to best appreciate the flavor. "The mineral composition of the water gives it a distinctive taste you won't find in any other salt. The flavor reflects our region - it's in the Charleston air."