In New York, pastry chef Sam Mason makes a dessert that involves sprinkling salt on top of chocolate jelly. The restaurant Kyotofu features a chocolate cake with miso and sesame seeds. At Coi in San Francisco, you can find manchego cheesecake with green apple sorbet and rosemary.
Desserts prominently featuring salt have become nearly as common as panna cotta at high-end restaurants, and almost every confectioner has done his or her own take on the classic French fleur de sel caramel. But the very chefs who have embraced the salty-sweet flavor combination are loath to call it a trend.
“Everyone in the world likes sweet, salty, and fatty,” says Will Goldfarb, owner of Room 4 Dessert in New York. One of his signature desserts is an ice cream sandwich made with Époisses cheese. “It’s difficult to credit something that everyone loves.”
Indeed, salt has long been an important component of desserts. The French are believed to have created salted caramel 400 years ago, but the Chinese made salted egg custards more than 4,000 years before that. Typically, pastry recipes call for a quarter to a half teaspoon of salt. It rounds out flavors, whether they are savory or sweet. Salt is a main component of caramel because it balances the nearly overwhelming sweetness, helping bring out the smokiness. It helps brown dough and acts as a preservative.
“We’ve been putting salt in a lot of desserts, but you don’t realize it,” says Nicole Kaplan, executive pastry chef at Del Posto in New York. She makes crostata di cioccolato, a chocolate-salted caramel tart with caramel and peanut popcorn.
Now pastry chefs and confectioners are upping the salt content of their desserts, or adding it to the tops of cakes and chocolates to create a crunchy texture. No longer in the background, salt is used to sell a dish on a menu.
One of the most popular items at Baked in Brooklyn is the Sweet & Salty, a chocolate cake topped with fleur de sel caramel.
“[The customers’] reaction is ‘What? Salt in a cake?’ but when they taste it, then [they] get used to it. It’s nothing to be afraid of,” says co-owner Renato Poliafito. Salt is now cool.
It didn’t used to be.
“Chocolate mousse cakes and variations on carrot cakes were all the rage in the 1980s,” says San Francisco confectioner Michael Recchiuti. He was first introduced to the idea of overt salt in desserts during that era by a chef who had worked in Iran, where salty-sweet combinations aren’t unusual. “He was doing a plate of watermelon with pepper and salt, beautifully carved up, and I said, ‘Why are you putting all that on there?’”
Then came the ’90s, when supersweet desserts like fruit tarts and flourless chocolate cakes reigned supreme. Recchiuti credits the current infatuation with salty sweets to chefs’ interest in artisanal salts like fleur de sel, Himalayan red salt, and Hawaiian pink salt.
“People started seeing all these salts, and started thinking about what to do with them,” he says.
But like the Iranian penchant for salting watermelon, salty desserts are common in other cultures. Ta Ko, for instance, is a traditional layered Thai treat featuring a top layer of salty-sweet coconut milk custard and a bottom of sweet-corn flour pudding. As American diners’ palates become more adventurous, chefs are incorporating combinations from other cultures’ cuisines.
Karen Yoo, pastry chef at Los Angeles restaurant Sona, always adds “a decent amount” of salt to a chocolate tart she makes to balance the bitterness of the dark chocolate. “The last time I was in Spain, I had this petit four tray with a chocolate ganache coated in breadcrumbs floating in a small pool of olive oil with fleur de sel sprinkled on it,” says Yoo. “The combo is actually really nice together. Salt makes things pop. “