Before the holiday season set in with pumpkin- and peppermint-flavored everything, there was salted caramel — at least, if Starbucks is any indication. Earlier this fall, the global coffee chain giant announced that it was officially bringing back Salted Caramel — salted caramel mochas, salted caramel mocha frappuccinos, salted caramel hot chocolate, salted caramel cake pops. Sort of like how a fashion designer might announce that cerulean is back in vogue.
Salted caramel, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. For someone like me, who generally prefers savory foods, adding a sprinkle of salt to something I would normally consider off-puttingly saccharine makes it suddenly enticing again*. But over the last few years, I’ve seen a noticeable proliferation of these salty desserts — and more than just my college hall-mate shaking mini M&M’s in a piping hot bag of popcorn. These days, the words “salted,” “sea salt topped” or “salty-sweet” are ubiquitous in magazine dessert recipes, on food blogs, and on restaurant dessert menus.
The salty-sweet concept isn’t exactly new or unfamiliar. We eat Hawaiian Pizza with ham — salty — and pineapple — sweet. Groceries stock chocolate-dipped pretzels and trail mixes (I suggest Clif Mojo Mountain Mix trail mix bars). In places like Italy and Spain, cured meats like prosciutto or serrano ham are often paired with varieties of melon, and it’s very common for folks in the South or Midwest to put salt on watermelon and strawberries.
It’s widely known that salt can enhance desserts by either making them sweeter or adding an extra layer of — or added depth to — flavor. There are several possible reasons for this. Salt can help release certain molecules more easily, intensifying the aroma and our subsequent perception of a food’s taste**. And taste scientists have recently reported that they “found a sugar transporter that likes to transport into the sweet taste cell, sugar, at the same time that it transports the sodium ion part of salt.” They speculate that salt stimulates these sweet taste proteins or the ion channels for the sodium glucose co-transporter, so “that if there’s a little bit of salt around, that can make the sweet taste of sugar all that much sweeter”***.
But not all salty-sweet things are created equally, and depending on your preferences, they may or may not be for you. So rather than bore you with the whys and wherefores of the salty-sweet trend, here is a list of my favorites for you to try:
- Dip fries in your milkshakes. I recommend Wendy’s and In-N-Out for optimal deliciosity.
- Chocolate lovers will especially enjoy Lindt’s Touch of Sea Salt Bar. Not too bitter, not too sweet, and not too salty.
- Macarons are an Instagram favorite, and with a touch of salt may just be the killer food combination. Look for cafe fleur de sel and salted caramel macarons at Merely Sweets in Orange County, Caffe Concerto or La Provence in LA.
- Momofuku Milk Bar’s compost cookie has pretzels and even potato chips.
- Teaism’s Salty Oatmeal Cookies. The DCist staff did their own re-creation of Teaism’s Salty oatmeal cookies. Their recipe is almost as good as the real thing.
- Ambitious Kitchen’s Nutella-Stuffed Brown Butter + Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookies. My friend made them for a baby shower and they were SO. GOOD.
- Slater’s 50/50 is all about the bacon. They serve any number of bacon-themed cocktails, in addition to the mind-bending Maple Bacon Vanilla Milkshake topped with salty bacon bits. You can also make your own Maple Bacon ice cream cookie sandwich at Dripp.
- Cream topped green tea at Tenju Teahouse, the sea salt tea latte at Half & Half, 85 Degree’s sea salt coffee, and the sea foam jasmine milk tea at 7 Leaves.