Edible Monterey Bay

Out to Sea: Cooking with Ocean Water

Why don’t we cook with seawater? Chefs and food lovers adore the briny taste of a fresh-shucked oyster and don’t think twice about sprinkling food generously with flaky sea salt, but many seem shocked by the idea of cooking with ocean water.

While cooking with seawater may not be common here in California, it is more accepted in kitchens around the world. In fact, companies in both Greece and Scotland have recently introduced filtered and sanitized seawater for cooking. In Maine, corn and lobsters are frequently boiled in seawater. The Japanese reduce seawater down to collect nigari, the coagulant used in making tofu. Olives originated in the Greek Islands where they were leached of their tannins through submersion in the sea—a practice still common in some parts of Greece. Many bakers swear by seawater as a primary ingredient in bread; cheesemakers in New Zealand are using seawater to curdle their milk. Koreans used to store wilted vegetables in seawater, a precursor to kimchi.

In the Canary Islands, cooks simmer small potatoes in seawater and then dry them in the oven until the outsides shrivel and the sea salt blooms into a white crust. This local delicacy, called papas arrugadas or “wrinkled potatoes,” is served with a mojo sauce or salsa verde. The traditional dish has spread around the world, including to the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The Ancient Romans prepared a dish called “Quarter of Wild Boar à la Thébaine,” which called for cooking the meat in seawater flavored with bay leaves. When very tender, it was served with salt, mustard and vinegar.

Of course we can’t forget the iconic American East Coast treat, salt water taffy! Actually, despite its name, salt water taffy does not contain seawater. In fact, it usually doesn’t even contain salt. Urban legend speculates that a candy shop in New Jersey was flooded, and the owner made the most out of the situation with some clever marketing.

Potential reasons why using seawater in cooking has not taken off here in America include health concerns, the foremost being excessive sodium consumption. Doctors have argued that adding seawater to dishes is reckless and promotes an unhealthy diet. However, seawater actually averages around 3.5% salinity, making it less concentrated in salt than many brines and pickles, which often range from 5–7%.

Although seawater may not seem like much more than salty water, it has a depth and complexity that is hard to describe, and which can only be attributed to the various minerals and trace elements found in a particular location. To understand this concept you can put each of two peeled potatoes in a separate pot. In one pot put 1,000 grams of seawater, and in the other put 965 grams of water and 35 grams of kosher salt. You will likely find that the potato cooked in the seawater tastes like it is better seasoned even though the amount of sodium is the same. Of course, just like sea salt, ocean water can vary in its intensity and flavor. In addition to mineral nuances, seawater has a savory-umami quality.

It is always best to source seawater far from shore and avoid collecting water after a heavy rainfall. The water you collect should be brought to a boil and then passed through a coffee filter before use.

Since seawater is not as salty as you might expect, when used as a brine for meats or pickles it is often necessary to add additional salt to reach the desired salinity. While seawater’s average of 3.5% salinity is a good base level for brines and pickles, that doesn’t account for any additional ingredients like sugar or vinegar that will ultimately reduce a recipe’s salinity.

I was curious to see what some of Monterey’s most creative chefs would do with seawater, so I went to the Monterey Abalone Co. and got a few gallons of filtered water to share with my friends. Here are the recipes they came up with along with some thoughts along the way.

The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is now pursuing a number of projects, including serving as a partner and consulting chef at Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel and chef-partner at The Bear and Star at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos. For more, go to www.chefjohncox.com or follow him on Instagram and Facebook.

RECIPES: See p. 42–47 for Kyle Odell’s Mezcal and Seawater Martini, James Anderson’s Seawater Kimchi, Michelle Estigoy’s Seawater Pickled Prawns and Yulanda Santos’ Seawater Caramels. See www.ediblemontereybay.com for John Cox’s Simple Seawater Brine