Ben Jacobsen had his first taste of artisan sea salt while studying in Denmark, and he’s never looked back. In 2009, after moving back to the Pacific Northwest, he began experimenting with producing salt straight from Oregon’s coast. Two years later, he founded Jacobsen Salt Co., a company that creates a variety of hand-harvested salts — including one inspired by a favorite herb seasoning of our founder, Chuck Williams. Read on for Ben’s story, and shop his salts here!
How was food a part of your life growing up? What did you learn from watching your mom in the kitchen?
My mom was a great cook growing up, and I think the thing I learned most from her was simplicity. She was a home cook — not fancy, but very tasty. I guess simplicity and using the best ingredients possible were what I most learned from her. That, and really just the enjoyment of being in the kitchen. My mom used to bake and sell 100+ dozen cinnamon rolls, loaves of bread, etc., to cafes in Vermont when I was growing up, and I used to help her. For me, that was fun.
Tell us about your background and your time in Denmark. How did you become interested in salt?
I went to Denmark for graduate school. I became interested in salt when my girlfriend at the time brought home a package of “good” salt. I was mesmerized, and never went without good salt from then on. It elevated each bite of food, and I truly believe that it’s the single most effective and affordable way one can do to elevate food.
What struck you about the finishing salts you tasted? Was it the unique flavor?
I was struck by how much taste they actually had! It wasn’t just sodium. It was brininess, combined with a delicate crunch. The crunch would contrast with food, texturally, and then wash my mouth with flavor. I was hooked.
When I moved back to Oregon, I was so impressed by how much the region, and really America at large, had evolved from a culinary standpoint. I was curious why salt wasn’t being harvested from our own shores. I started by bringing back 5 gallon buckets of water in my Subaru. Then, that evolved to a borrowed pick-up truck. Then that evolved to a rented U-Haul truck. I would bring water back to Portland to process and figure out how to make the best salt possible. It was easy to make bad salt. Just like it’s easy to make bad beer at home. I was struck by how tricky it was, and I wanted to figure it out. Once I figured out the process, I then tested more than 25 spots in Oregon and Washington state to source the best water possible, much as a winemaker sources the best grapes possible.
Tell us about your trial and error process. What were some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges for me were logistically. It was difficult to move salt water. And it was expensive and inefficient! Fortunately, we found a home in our production facility right on the Oregon coast. It was also difficult to figure out what equipment to use, once I had a process. All of our equipment is custom made, because it had to be.
Describe a typical day in your life.
Run in the morning with my dog, whether on the coast or in Portland. Make a simple breakfast — fried egg, toast, salt, and a cup of coffee. Then, a bit of email, and then problem solving, usually. Everything we do is new, so there’s a constant stream of things to fix or figure out! I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
I LOVE the people I work with. Our employees, who make it possible, and our customers, whom I respect so much (from home cooks to celebrated chefs, everyone has an appreciation for simple quality). The people make what we do possible.
What’s your favorite way to use your salts and why?
Simple things. Stumptown flake salt on a roasted squash with butter and brown sugar. Eggs and toast. I love roasting a chicken on Sundays in the oven and finishing it with lemon zest salt.
Our Stumptown salt on ice cream. Chef April Bloomfield was at our facility and made ice cream and topped it with our Stumptown flake salt. It was amazing. People also top their oatmeal with our salt to make it a bit more savory.
What’s unique about the products you sell?
We are the first to harvest salt in the northwest USA since Lewis & Clark. Americans have bought salt for years from around the world, and we’ve skipped our own shores doing so. Now, we have an incredible product, and it happens to be made here in the USA. Chefs around the country are actively choosing to use our salt over other salts from around the world.
Tell us about the different flavors you sell. Any favorites?
Stumptown Flake Salt, Smoked Ghost Chili Pepper and our White Truffle Salt are my favorite infused salts. Our pure flake salt, though, cannot be beat.
Tell us about your partnership with Williams-Sonoma. How did it come about, and what products have come out of it? Can you describe them?
We had been talking to Williams-Sonoma for more than a year. The Williams-Sonoma stores are iconic on the American landscape, and we were flattered to even have a discussion. I met buyers in both San Francisco and New York. You all jumped after we met in NYC, and everyone truly has been so great to work with. We are tiny, yet we get a lot of attention from you all, and that means a whole lot.
What inspires you about living and working in Oregon?
The geography — it’s so varied and beautiful.
If you weren’t producing sea salt, what would you be doing?
Hmm…I really don’t know. I’m quite sure I would not be as happy as I am now, and I would probably be a bit lost. I hope that everyone can find and pursue their passions.