Bamboo salt, which is called jugyeom (죽염) in Korean, is a special and exceptionally high valued salt that comes straight from Korea. The manufacturing process for it is also a fascinating story. We'll cover this in the next section.
For hundred of years, Koreans have used bamboo salt for cooking and in traditional medicine for its health benefits. You'll typically see bamboo salt come in either granular crystal form or powder form. The former is better used in cooking while the latter is better used as a topping.
You might be asking now, what does bamboo salt taste like? Aside from obviously being salty, it comes with a complex flavor that incorporates hints of earthly and plant like aromas. There's often also bits of sulfur tones as well which help impart a distinctly unique complexion to its taste profile. Some may consider this an acquired taste.
With its prestige also comes a high price tag. One variety called the 9 times roasted purple bamboo salt may be considered as the most expensive salt in the world with prices ranging between $160 and $220 per kilogram within Korea.
For locations outside Korea, prices can run even higher after factoring in export and customs. For example, an eight and a half ounce jar runs around $100 in the US (which is almost $400 per kilogram). This ends up being even more expensive than pink himalayan salt.
Its value is derived from the particularly lengthly and labor intensive multi step process that is used to produce it. At its essence, bamboo salt is sea salt placed within bamboo which is then baked and roasted multiple times inside ovens heated by fragrant pine wood. Traditionally, this baking process is repeated 2 to 3 times, but starting from the 20th century, many now perform the baking process up to 9 times.
Depending on how many times the salt is baked, the color will range from white to grey and finally to an intensely dark purple for salt that is baked 9 times. In fact, bamboo salt that is baked 9 times is simply called purple bamboo salt. The color is reminiscent of purple amethyst crystals.
We usually keep a small batch of bamboo salt within our artisinal salt collection at home. The kind we buy is often the 3 times roasted variety from our local Asian supermarket but we also buy the 9 times roasted variety from time to time. If you don't want to search through your local Asian supermarket, we would highly recommend buying online as it's the most convenient.
One brand that we really like and is more easily accessible in the US is the Insan Healing brand (they also just go by Insan). All of their products are made directly in Korea so they're truly authentic. They're got a great selection of bamboo salt products that we've tried in the past and the quality has been exceptionally high every time. Adding to their accessibility, you can easily buy them online as well. We've included a few links below. When you have a chance, feel free to check them out!
While the 9X baked purple bamboo salt is the best, if you want to try some but still stay on a budget, we recommend trying out the 3 times baked bamboo salt.
The minerals within bamboo salt vary based on the manufacturer and differences in baking processes, but studies have confirmed that bamboo salt that was been baked 9 times have been found to contain slightly elevated levels of iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and manganese. Unless specifically added in and specified, bamboo salt generally does not contain iodine.
Bamboo salt also typically has a higher pH of around 10 to 11, making it slightly more alkaline when compared to normal table salt with a typical pH of around 7. As a result, it can act as a slight neutralizer when cooked with acidic food.
As far as health benefits go, scientific evidence is sparse, but fans say bamboo salt can help with digestion, oral health, skincare, and inflammation.
Similar to another special type of salt called pink himalayan salt, bamboo salt doesn't only come in edible salt form for cooking, it also comes in many other forms and products including toothpaste, soap, body scrubs, etc.
Let's now go through the fascinating story that is the manufacturing process and see how bamboo salt is produced! We'll be looking at the most interesting variety which is the kind that is roasted 9 times.
Many companies maintain their traditional methods in order to produce the best results. So there's a lot of manual labor involved. As far as timing goes, it usually takes around 30 to 50 days to complete the entire process and end up with beautiful dark purple bamboo salt.
First up, truckloads of bamboo are brought in as the multiple bake cycles will require a lot of raw bamboo. The bamboo used is a kind that usually grows between 3 to 5 feet per year and is often harvested after 3 years.
The sea salt used comes directly from the west coast of Korea. Most companies will purchase their sea salt from other local companies, but some take control of the entire process from beginning to end and harvest their own sea salt by evaporating sea water to obtain the salt.
After the bamboo is brought in, they need to be cut down into manageable sizes so that they're easy to handle and can fit into the oven. Workers cut the bamboo semi-manually with powered table saws.
In addition to the bamboo, lots of pine wood need to be cut as well in order to heat the ovens.
The pine tree has a special place within Korean culture with historic symbolism. Throughout history, Korean scholars and artists have admired pine trees for their fortitude and integrity. Nowadays, Koreans still sometimes use pine needles as ingredients in various teas and holiday dishes like rice cakes for the autumn Chuseok 추석 (Full Moon) holiday. When babies are born, family members sometimes leave pine branches on doors as a way to congratulate the couple. This branch might be tied to a straw rope (known as GeumJul, 금줄) with charcoal for several weeks to keep evil spirits away.
With the bamboo cut, workers then scoop and fill the bamboo with sea salt. The bamboo is then closed off by applying clay over the openings.
After this initial preparation, the baking process begins. Workers push huge carts of the salt containing bamboo into huge ovens that are powered solely by burning fragrant pine wood.
The primary goal is to infuse the sea salt with minerals from the bamboo while the secondary goal is to remove impurities. For example, germs and any micro plastics in the sea salt will burn up into smoke which then evaporates away.
For each of the first 8 cycles of the baking and roasting process, the ovens reach over 801 degrees celsius (1474 degrees fahrenheit), which is just at or above the melting point of salt (sodium chloride). As a result, the salt melts slightly and all of the inspanidual pieces flow and adhere to each other. The bamboo itself obviously burns up but leaves behind the minerals within it which the slightly melted salt adheres to as well. The final form after each bake cycle are large cylindrical salt crystals.
With these large blocks of salt, workers then hammer and grind them back down to smaller particles so that they can repeat the process of bringing in new bamboo, filling them with salt, and baking again. Each successive bake may be slightly hotter than the last. As the bake cycles progress, the salt gets progressively darker.
The final and 9th bake is a little different and uses a differently setup oven that can sometimes reach over 1000 degrees celsius (1832 degrees fahrenheit). At this temperature, the salt completely melts down so that everything is evenly mixed together. Since the salt is now in complete liquid form, buckets are used to collect and mold the salt as the oven burns.
Once the molten salt cools back down to room temperature, what's left are huge blocks of intensely dark purple salt.
This is then hammered and grounded down into the final product which may come in larger granular crystal like pieces or into fine powder form which is more similar to the texture of regular table salt.
Ultimately, bamboo salt is a special treat that we highly recommend trying out. You can find supplies online, which we've included a few links to for convenience, or you can try finding them in your local Korean or Asian supermarket.