Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pacific Rain Saltworks

If you have been following my blog for long, you probably have gathered that my sweetie is actually a bit of a salty… in the kindest of ways of course.  She has been obsessed with eating salt for years and over the last several months, has been cultivating a dream of producing her very own sea salt.  This dream carried us to some of the salted lakes in the Desert SW (see posts Death Valley and Joshua Tree ) over the holidays, through some interesting books about the history and diversity of salt production, and finally, last weekend, to the nearby shores of the Salish Sea to “forage” for our very own.

Our closest access to the sea is in Bellingham Bay, but the industrial history of the bay and large amount of freshwater brought in from the Nooksack River caused us to broaden our scope.  We decided on the Northwest side of Lummi Island because of its deep clear waters and exposure to the Strait of Georgia.  The “Whatcom Chief,” a small ferry, carried us safely from Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island and we found a pleasant landowner that allowed us to cross her property to get to the beach. 

The saltworks
Filling buckets with seawater is certainly the easiest part of the process.  It must then be boiled to evaporate the water away from the salt.  The seawater from Lummi Island is about 27-31 parts per thousand salt.  At this concentration, every gallon of our seawater should contain about ¼ pound (1/2 cup) of salt.

The improved saltworks
We needed a saltworks, so we stopped by Dad’s house and picked up a small rusty wood stove that Christian and Ric salvaged from a shipwrecked boat a few years ago.  We used a 4 gallon enameled steel pot to boil our sea water in.  The stove is a little underpowered for heating up more than a gallon at a time, but thin layers of water evaporate more efficiently (due to the high surface area to volume ratio) so that wasn’t too big an issue.  The alder smoke from the fire infused the saltwater and gave the brine a nice smoky flavor.  The little wood stove wasn’t burning very efficiently without a stovepipe, so I put a couple lengths of pipe on it for our second batch.

Salt crystals precipitating
As soon as salt crystals began to precipitate, we moved the kettle to our kitchen stove top where we could more precisely control the temperature.  Salt crystals began forming more rapidly and coated the bottom in a thick layer that required occasional stirring to keep from being scorched.  Eventually almost all the water was gone.  We scooped out the salt slurry and spread it onto glass panes that we put in a food dehydrator to drive off the last bit of moisture.

We have a number of ideas for improving the efficiency of our saltworks, but all things considered, it wasn’t too laborious a project.  The fire did most of the work and all we had to do was stoke it up every couple hours.  I think we only burned about 3 armloads of wood to boil about 5 gallons of water, and now we have a year’s worth of salt to show for it.  During a cold snap half way through the project, I noticed that ice formed on the top of the salt water and I wonder how effectively we could take advantage of this  phenomenon to increase the salinity of our seawater.

Finished Salt
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  1. interesting post abe, we gave maple tapping a first go this year, and, in trying to figure out how th' natives might've done it, and because of th' weather, a lot of our first runs froze, leaving th' remaining water very sweet, not quite syrup but sweet enough to keep our four year old continuously asking for more.... cheers ~rico

    1. Hi Rico,
      That is neat how freezing weather helped concentrate your sap. I wonder what the disadvantages of this method are. I guess if it gets cold enough, eventually everything will freeze (It is the same for seawater, which will freeze solid at -21 degrees Celsius), but at a slightly higher temperature, only the fresh water will freeze). It seems like in a controlled environment like a freezer, it would take so much less energy to lower the temperature of already cold sap to the freezing point than it does to raise it to the boiling point and keep it there for a long time.

      I have always wanted to tap the native Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) here in the Pacific Northwest but haven't gotten around to it yet. Lately, the weather seems perfect. This April I am going to help a Wisconsin friend make syrup on his sugar bush.

  2. Very cool! How do you know which areas are safe to harvest sea water? It seams that a lot of ocean areas are severely polluted.

  3. According to my math, I would need to eat about 250 gallons of salt per day before it would be a problem.

    Pollution can be a concern with many foods. Persistent environmental toxins like PCBs, lead, cadmium, and mercury--which accumulate over the course of the life of a plant or animal (bio-accumulation), and magnify as they move up the food chain in higher and higher concentrations (bio-magnification)--are of particular concern. When we make salt there is very little bio-accumulation or bio-magnification (just from plankton). We do, however, concentrate the water about 15-25 times and convert water that has about .25 nanograms of methyl mercury/L of seawater (according to this report: to salt that may have about 6.26 nanograms of mercury/L of salt. The EPA recommends consuming no more than 0.1 micrograms of mercury per day per 2.2 kg of body weight. For me that is about 7.7 micrograms of mercury per day. I think that would allow me to "safely" eat about 1000 liters (250 gallons) of salt per day! By the same standards, eating albacore tuna is far riskier to my health; the EPA recommends I only consume 1 serving of albacore a week.

    A lot of commercial sea salts come from San Francisco Bay, which isn't the cleanest place in the world. I am not a fan of any pollution in water, but I don't think pollution is a concern for our sea salt. We do want to have it tested though, just out of curiosity.