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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 653
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Himalayan Salt Block vs. Swiss Raclette Grill
Thursday 4 May 2017   —   Category: Cooking & Food
Between September 2015 and January 2016 I cooked food on Himalayan salt blocks a few times. During those ex­per­i­ments I learned quite a bit about the ins and outs and the pros and cons of salt block cooking. In the three articles I wrote about my experiences, I gushed about how awesome it was to cook food on them.

However, I have not used the salt blocks since then, well over a year later. If cooking on them was so wonderful, why have I been neglecting them? To un­der­stand the reasons, I first need to explain a few things.

During the eight years I lived in Switzerland after marrying a Swiss woman, I enjoyed meals where some or all of the food was cooked at the table rather than in the kitchen. Using a variety of appliances, we cooked various cheeses, meats, vegetables and crêpes right at the table we were all sitting around. Those were fun, unique and memorable experiences.

In the U.S., even at a large meal like Thanksgiving, it is common for everyone to gobble down their food so that in 15 to 30 minutes the entire meal is over. But when cooking at the table, one of the best parts, besides the food, is that such a meal can last for two or three hours. This makes the meal much more of a social event. And you eat slowly, because the food is cooked in small batches. Probably the most well-​known dish in the U.S. that is cooked at the dining table is fondue. Variations include cheese fon­due, Chinese fondue (meat and veggies cooked in broth), fondue bourguignonne (meat cooked in oil), and chocolate fondue for dessert. What these fondues all have in common is a common pot in the center of the table for everyone to cook the food in.

One of the most versatile devices for cooking at the table is a Swiss raclette grill. This rectangular or oval electric appliance has a heating element under a metal tray or stone slab, with small trays in which to cook food under the heating element. Food can also be cooked on the metal or stone top.

I have already written a couple of ar­ti­cles about cooking with a raclette grill, so rather than repeating myself here, I urge you to click through and read them for all the delicious details. A cheese and veggie meal is covered in A New Year’s Day Swiss Raclette, while a meatier re­past is explored in A Ten-Meat Christ­mas Grillade.

I do want to bring your attention to one thing that I mentioned in both of those articles. We like making mini pizzas in the small raclette trays. The raw dough and all of the toppings are in bowls on the table, and each person can build as many custom little pizzas as their stom­achs can hold. It is a truly scrumptious and fun way to enjoy an extended meal together.

I am sorry to report that for all these fondue and raclette dishes I don’t have nearly enough photos to document them. I guess I get so distracted by interacting with my dining companions, and by the awesome food, that I totally forget to take pictures. I really need to improve in this area. OK ... now that we have finished our detour through the realm of cooking food at the dining table, let’s get back to salt blocks. If it was possible to get them hot enough at the table, they would be a wonderful way to have an experience similar to what I have described above with a raclette grill.

Unfortunately, I discovered during my second try that a 1500-​watt hot plate — the most powerful I could find — did not have nearly enough wattage to heat the salt blocks to the recommended 450° to 500°F temperature.

Thus the dream of cooking food on salt blocks at the table was completely shat­tered. If you have an alternative strategy, I would love for you to share it in the feedback section below. So now us salt-​block chefs realize that we are stuck in the kitchen (or maybe the barbeque, but I have’t tried that) cooking the food for our guests, while they are having fun socializing and eating around the dining room table. The next major problem with salt-​block cooking is the small surface area of the block(s).

The 2,700-​watt burner on my glass-​top electric stove is 10.5 inches in diameter. As I explained in a previously ref­er­enced article, a salt block cannot sit directly on an electric stove burner, but must be placed on some sort of metal to allow a small air gap between the heat­ing el­e­ment and the block. So I got a 10.5-​inch square cast-​iron grill to set the blocks on.

I had bought two 8x​4x​2” Himalayan salt blocks which cost $18 each and together provide 62 square inches of cooking space. If I really wanted to take ad­van­tage of the size of the cast-​iron grill, I could have gotten a single 10x​10x​2“ salt block for $78 with a total of 100 square inches of cooking space. In comparison, the 15x​9.5x​⅝” granite stone slab on our raclette grill has an area of 142 square inches.

With any of these cooking surfaces it is certain that you will have to cook food in batches in order to serve six to eight guests, and maybe even for four. The big difference is that with the raclette grill you are all at the table cooking batches of food together, while with the salt block you as the chef are cooking the food in batches by yourself, apart from the guests, while they wait for you to bring them their food, again and again in small batches.

Another advantage of the raclette grill is that you can cook food on the lower level in trays while cooking food up top. This greatly increases the amount of food you can cook at one time. Even if your guests are at a table in the kitchen, or you have an open kitchen as I do, cooking at the stove is not the same as being all together at the table while cooking, which is a much better experience. The quantity of salt that is imparted to the food cooked on a salt block is de­pend­ent mostly on two factors: the cook­ing time and the water content of the food. The larger either of these factors are, the more danger there is that the food will end up too salty.

To minimize the cooking time, the salt block should be preheated to 450° to 500°F, as I mentioned above. Cooking on a salt block that hasn’t been heated high enough will not only over-​salt your food, but it will also degrade your block much faster.

Another way to reduce the cooking time is to slice thicker food into thinner piec­es. For foods that have high water con­tent, like tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and others, you can try putting a bit of oil on either the salt block or the food or both. From the little bit of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion I have done, I don’t think it made much difference.

When cooking on a stone or metal rac­lette grill top you don’t face any of these issues or difficulties. And I highly doubt that you can cook mini pizzas on a salt block like you can with a raclette grill. What else is there to say? For all of the reasons listed above, it seems better to spend your money on a versatile raclette grill than on a salt block. Sure, a good, large grill will cost you over $100, but a smaller, less adapt­a­ble salt block with a cast-iron grill to support it could reach $100 as well. And because salt blocks crack and degrade over time, I think a raclette grill will give you many more years of service.

Without a doubt I think a raclette grill facilitates a much nicer dining ex­pe­ri­ence with your friends and family than a salt block. For this reason, as well as the others discussed in this article, my salt blocks have been sitting in the cup­board, untouched and unused, for over a year. And I have absolutely no plans to use them in the future.

I just got a brilliant idea! Maybe I can break the blocks into small pieces and put them in my salt grinder. Well, that will be another story for another day.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 653
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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 653
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