Without a doubt, salty-crunchy is my favorite food group. When declining another dessert or passing on the chocolate chip cookies, I’ve long explained it by saying that I have the opposite of a sweet tooth. A salty tooth, if there is such a thing. Any time salt and savory flavorings meet something that’s crisp and snackable, I’m happy: tortilla chips, nuts, popcorn, crackers, and the most beloved of all, potato chips.
So I like to think of this book you’re holding as something of a salt-lover’s answer to all the cookie and sweet-treat cookbooks that come out each year. It is a book for everyone who has a salty tooth like me.
As a kid I’d not only snack on potato chips out of the bag but layer some between the peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich for a bit of salty-crunchy je ne sais quoi. It was love at first sight with that amazing invention Jiffy Pop, which enchanted by the sheer drama and magic it brought to the simple task of popping corn.
I even gravitated to what seems an unlikely snack for kids: smoked oysters. Nothing fancy, mind you, just those everyday flat tins of little smoky bivalves crammed into tight quarters. Crackers + smoked oysters = happy, even today. So, I was particularly charmed when attending a dinner in Seattle with New York City chef Gabrielle Hamilton while she was on tour with her book Blood, Bones & Butter. The first course included Triscuits topped with canned sardines and a dab of mustard. It’s a standard on the bar menu at her restaurant, Prune, echoing memories of foods that sustained her in her earlier years.
So I know I’m not the only one with a personal, often nostalgic, attachment to salty treats. What I find interesting, though, is that when it comes to homemade snacks of the savory type, there are far fewer recipe resources at hand than there are for sweets. For whatever reason, we’re not as accustomed to thinking of salty snacks as a made-from-scratch prospect. Among the first culinary adventures we have in the kitchen as kids is to press a cutter into a sheet of sugar cookie dough, or to stir the walnuts into a bowl of brownie batter. I don’t know about you, but I never made rye crackers or savory puff pastry snacks with my mom when I was young. Why is that the case? It’s time to stop relegating the task of cooking all our salty treats to commercial producers. Time to make some at home.
It’s clear the American population has a taste for salty snacks. In a retail context, it is a bold and dynamic category to be sure. Just check out the chips/crackers/snack mix aisle at the grocery store. In most stores I visit, salty selections dwarf those for cookies and sweet snacks. Extensive research done by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in conjunction with Mintel International (a global market research firm) and SPINS (a company that analyzes the retail marketplace) shows dynamic growth in the sector. The resulting “State of the Specialty Food Industry” report cites that snack sales across all sectors, from specialty to mainstream, topped $11 billion in 2010, noting that figure as an 11 percent increase from 2008. As Ron Tanner, vice president of communications and education for NASFT, pointed out to me in January 2012, “Americans have always loved to snack. As people are getting more health conscious, they’re looking to find new options.” Companies are responding with an ever-increasing array of selections. He goes on to note that there are ingredients “you wouldn’t think of—seaweed snacks, a lot of root vegetables, lots of international flavors—going into snacks these days.” In November 2011, the Supermarket News website featured an article called “Whole Health: Different Chips,” which cited some industry observers estimating that sales of salty snacks could hit $24 billion in a few years’ time. That’s a lot of popcorn and chips!
So, we love our salty snacks. We just don’t make them at home all that often. My hope with this book is to inspire more playing around in the kitchen with salty-crunchy treats, the way we so easily gravitate to the kitchen to make a batch of cookies or some other sweet snack. Modern Snack Evolution
Television and modern salty snacks grew up together in some ways. As the television set became the centerpiece of most American homes, food selections evolved to keep us from missing a moment of Arthur Godfrey and Hopalong Cassidy right there in our living rooms. After the TV dinners were finished and those folding metal TV trays tucked away, snack food made it easy to enjoy the show and not miss a beat. In the early 1950s, the Frito Kid was among the first snacky icons to charm TV viewers over the airwaves with the idea of a salty snack.
In Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook released in 1950, a recipe for “Buttered or Cheese Kix” was among the first recipes that bridged breakfast cereal to snack food with little more than Kix tossed with melted butter (and grated Parmesan cheese, if you choose). You can take any vaguely puffy-crunchy cereal, embellish it with kindred ingredients such as pretzel sticks and nuts, toss with a seasoned butter, and bake until toasty. What’s not to love? The cereal brand Chex released its namesake original Chex Mix recipe in the early 1950s; other similar snack blends went by the more general “TV snack mix” or “TV mix,” or sometimes just “Party Mix.” My snackable tribute to that legacy is on page 114.
Over the decades, salty snack selections have evolved demonstrably, from Chex Mix and Fritos to lentil chips and Peruvian potato chips. The diversity of prospects when it comes to salty-crunchy offerings helps fuel that growth: the endless potential chip flavorings (from spicy Thai to malt vinegar), the different grains and flours that can be employed (chickpeas, green peas, black beans), the expansion to other chipable foods (sweet potatoes, taro, kale).
A big driver in recent salty developments is growing consumer interest in snacking without guilt and nibbling something tasty regardless of dietary restrictions or recommendations. Producers new and old, large and small are revisiting, refreshing, reinventing the realm of salty snacks and looking at them from every angle to suit every type of eater. It’s why we see snack companies going all-natural with new products, forgoing lab-created flavoring and artificial coloring for natural flavorings and vegetable juices, touting whole grains, and even going gluten-free. You’ll be ahead of the game when you’re making these snacks from scratch at home. In your own kitchen, you’ve got control over the type and quality of ingredients you use. Whether the recipe you pick is retro-style or new-fangled, indulgent or wholesome, your reward is not only fresh and natural snacks but also snacks that are customized to suit your mood, your personality, and your palate. The Best Crackers
There are a number of other cracker recipes in this book, and I think they’re all great, of course. But I call this one “the best” because it’s one of those recipes that should be in the standard repertoire of any snack-lover. The cracker has a really great texture: firm but not too hard, crisp but not too brittle. It holds up well to anything you may want to top it with, from cheese to chopped chicken livers. And it makes for a perfect blank slate for whatever embellishment suits your mood and what’s on hand in your kitchen, whether you’re adding fresh chopped herbs to the dough or sprinkling the crackers with a few different types of salts. For a seedy version of the crackers, consider topping them with some of the three-seed mixture used on the breadsticks on page 60.
I like to go with a slow rise for the yeast overnight in the refrigerator, rather than just setting the dough in a warm place and rising for an hour or so. The cool temperature slows down the yeast’s activity, resulting in a more flavorful dough and one with a more distinctive texture. If time is of the essence though, you can simply let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk and proceed as noted.
Makes 5 to 6 dozen crackers
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon kosher salt or flaky or coarse
sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 cup warm (105° to 110°F) water
2 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
3 tablespoons olive oil
Finishing salt (see box)
Stir together the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Make a well in the center, pour the warm water into the well, and sprinkle the yeast over, stirring it in gently. Let sit until the yeast is frothy, about 5 minutes. Gently stir to start blending the wet and dry ingredients, drizzle the olive oil over, and continue stirring until a cohesive dough forms. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface for a few minutes until smooth and satiny. Return the dough to the bowl, cover well with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Turn the dough out onto the counter, punch it down, and cut the dough into quarters. Use a pasta machine (see page 12) or rolling pin to roll the dough out into a rectangle about 1/16 inch thick, dusting lightly with flour as needed. Lightly brush the surface of the dough evenly with water, then sprinkle your choice of finishing salt over the surface. Use a dough docker (see page 9) or the tines of a fork to evenly prick the dough all over.
With the rolling blade of a pizza cutter or pastry wheel (plain or fluted), cut the dough into roughly 21/2 by 11/2-inch pieces (or whatever size and shape you would like). Arrange the dough pieces on the baking sheets; they can be snug but should not touch. Continue with the remaining dough portions. When
1 baking sheet is filled, bake until the crackers are lightly but evenly browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Some crackers around the edges of the baking sheet may be done sooner than those in the center; transfer them to a wire rack to cool and continue baking the rest for a minute or two longer.
Repeat until all the crackers have been formed and baked, filling one sheet while another is baking. Ideally the baking sheets should cool off before new crackers are added.
When all the crackers have cooled, arrange them in a basket or bowl for serving, or store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Finishing Salt
If yours is like most kitchens today, you don’t have just a standard box of table salt in the cupboard. Likely there’s some kosher or sea salt somewhere, probably a specialty salt the likes of Murray River pink salt from Australia, alder-smoked salt from the Pacific Northwest, or those cool pyramid-shaped crystals of
Maldon sea salt from England. These are all great candidates for a “finishing salt,” which simply designates a salt that has a bit more prominent role in a dish, often sprinkled over the top just before it’s served. The coarse or flaky grains of these salts will contribute distinct texture on the tongue, their individual flavors more easily highlighted.
This cracker recipe is an ideal means for trying out any and all of the different types of salts you have on hand. You might even consider mixing things up and topping a portion of the crackers with the different types. If, like me, you have some fancy salts that are quite coarsely grained, I recommend crushing them at least a bit before sprinkling over the crackers.
Excerpted from Salty Snacks by Cynthia Nims. Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Nims. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.