It is hard to get much more basic than salt. It’s cheap, but it’s vital. And I’m curious. Of all the DIY projects and frugal endeavours, making my own salt seems silly. Why make something that is so cheap some cities throw it on roads to melt ice (and corrode their cars and taint their downstream neighbors’ water supply)? Frugality is an appreciation of the resources like time, money, and materials. Logically, if I want more salt, even fancy flavored sea salt, I can get it quicker and cheaper and cleaner at the store. Life doesn’t have to have every moment justified. The old saying goes “the unexamined life is not worth living”, but I think the corollary is that “the life that is examined too much is not being lived.” I made sea salt, and had a weird sort of fun doing it.
Preppers wonder about how to make the vital ingredients for living. I do some preparation, mostly because I live beside a tsunami zone, over an earthquake fault, and in the neighborhood of several volcanoes. (My Incomplete Emergency Kit) One of the advantages of living on Whidbey Island is that, for some of the worst case scenarios, I’d have to fend off the land and sea. In the right season that means having to get by on crab, clams, and salmon. Not something to complain about. That got me thinking about what else was around. Around is the key word. I live on an island. It has saltwater all around it. Granted much of it has various types of agricultural, residential, and industrial runoffs, but that didn’t stifle my curiosity. How hard would it be to make a mineral that is vital for life?
Easy and hard was the answer.
Yes, I could’ve watched dozens of videos of how others did it, but that wouldn’t be as much fun. Besides, the few I saw emphasized complicated rigs using lots of energy. Keep it simple. Take saltwater. Subtract the water. The remainder is salt. Simple enough.
My deck gets hot. It faces west, out across Cultus Bay, the southern end of Admiralty Inlet, with a backdrop of the Olympic Mountains. Whoever built this house was wise enough to include a wall of windows. The architectural choices are great for the views, but can turn the deck into an oven. Sounds like a perfect location for drying things out. But, how to evaporate the water best?
Some cookie sheets are wide, long, and shallow thanks to a small lip around the edge. Maximize the surface area and maximize the evaporation. I suspected I should keep the bugs out, so I placed a cooling rack over the cookie sheet and covered it with cheese cloth. Don’t bump it because such a shallow pan sloshes easily. Also find a way to keep the wind from flipping it. It worked. The evaporation was quick and gratifying – and the salt was spread out so thin that it was harder to harvest, and the salt air rusted the cooling rack. Rust, not a good flavor, even for someone from Pittsburgh.
One experimental technique is to investigate the extremes, then work to the middle. Instead of a cookie sheet that is vulnerable to wind, I tried a mason jar with cheese cloth for a lid. It was stable, could pull in light from all sides, and minimized the area for bugs and birds to cause problems. It worked, slowly, very slowly. Months later I had a jar with a salt-encrusted bottom that didn’t want to give up the product.
Head to the thrift shop for something in the middle, a large pie pan. It is deeper than the cookie sheet, but still has a lot of surface area. Instead of a cooling rack supporting cheese cloth, I stretched plastic screen door mesh over the top, wrapped it around the bottom, taped it tight, and poured the water through the mesh. Ta da! In a few weeks, I had about a half cup of sea salt. And, I couldn’t use it. Within two days of putting it on the deck in the sunshine, a bird pooped on the mesh. I may be willing to deal with runoff, but runoff is diluted. Concentrated bird poop is too concentrated for me.
Get silly. I set up the pie pan again, but this time I found an old window pane to act as a roof over the setup, and bracketed both sides with wire mesh to dissuade and critters from dropping in. My poor little pie pan looked like it was in prison. And, it worked. Two weeks in August was all it took to make salt that had a bit of a slurry to it as the last water evaporated away. I find it easier to harvest while it is still somewhat moist. I transfer it to a window sill for finishing.
Of course there will be more tries. Nothing much happens at the start, but after enough water has evaporated a relatively quick crystallization happens. Instead of the tiny crystals in slat shaker, big squares start floating around in the brine. Cool. I’ve seen some simple rigs that use greenhouses and such. I may play a bit with those. There’s always a better way. I’d also like to get more scientific about it. As I understand it, seawater is about 5% salt. Can a pound of water create 0.05 pounds of salt? If a 5 gallon bucket holds about 30 pounds of saltwater, that could produce 1.5 pounds of salt. Impressive. After the process is improved, I may find the right rate for production to meet consumption, and also what additives like iodine are necessary. I don’t make margaritas, so my needs aren’t great.
It is a silly exercise. When I showed it to my neighbors I felt like it was the grown-up version of the high school science fair. And, I grinned like the kid whose baking soda volcano finally worked right.
It is a silly exercise, except that it isn’t. We take many things for granted. Too few folks know how their food and energy are created and delivered, or how their waste is disposed. For the price of a 5 gallon bucket, a walk to the beach (actually out to the channel to catch the cleaner incoming tide), a pie pan, and some reusable mesh, I learned a lot about something simple. I can’t justify making sea salt using frugal criteria, and I thought I was doing it just for the fun of it, but it turned out to be valuable, and fun, and yes, maybe a little silly. If I get good at this, maybe I should start making those margaritas.