Move over, salt and pepper! A new flavor is in town, which will bring your meals up a notch: agave worm salt. And don't let the name scare you off; it tastes good. Sal de gusano is made with dried and ground agave worms, rock salt, and dried Chile peppers. It has a delicious smoky, earthy flavor that will enhance any drink. The salty, earthy taste of the worms pairs perfectly with Mezcal and enhances the flavor of the smoky agave spirit.
Consumption of insects as a snack isn't a new thing in Mexico. In fact, bugs have been a staple in Aztec and Mayan cuisine for ages. Especially the Aztecs loved these critters as these bugs were said to contain curative properties, providing strength and virility.
Today, If you're in Oaxaca, Mexico City, or any decent Mezcal or Tequila bar: a serving of neat agave spirit rarely comes without sal de guano sprinkled over orange slices or worm salt-dusted grasshoppers on the side. Outside Mexico, the condiment is quite hard to get. But lately, more and more specialty stores have started selling this flavored salt. If you want to imbibe your Mezcal like you're supposed to, there's no way of missing out on worm salt.
What is Sal de Gusano?
Sal de Gusano translates to "salt made of worms" and is a traditional Oaxacan spice. It is made from dry chiles, sea salt or rock salt, and dried "worms". Ironically, the Gusano used to make the salt isn't a worm but a moth larvae. But those larvas are also known as maguey worms, so somehow, it all makes sense.
The maguey worm lives inside the agave plants and feeds on rich, sweet agave nectar. You may know from some cheaper Mezcal bottles that put the larva inside bottles as a marketing gag. And the larvae are all over the agave plants. The farmers pick them up, dry them, and turn them into salt.
And the fact that they only feed on agave nectar makes them a perfect match for agave spirits. They bring a savory, umami-rich flavor to the salt that pairs well with cocktails. A Mezcal Margarita, for example, is a natural fit for it.
Making Sal de gusano - The spicy salt from maguey worms
Sal de Gusano consists of three ingredients: maguey worms, sea salt, and dried chiles. You can make authentic sal de gusano at home using the right ingredients. The maguey worms are harvested and then sundried by agave farmers. Occasionally, the worms are dried in ovens before they're ready to be processed. Don't worry, you need to harvest them. Instead, you can buy dried worms online.
Once you have dried worms, the process of making the actual worm salt begins:
- Mix the dried maguey worms with chili and sea salt. The chili part is typically a ground mix of dried peppers. You may use additional ingredients like lime juice or vinegar to add more flavor. The ground larvae and chili are combined in a ratio of about 3:1, e.g. three tablespoons of larvae to one tablespoon of chili.
- This mixture is then ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
- The result is a flavorful, earthy, and spicy salt.
- Before the worm salt is finally ready, you need to dry it a second time for about two to three weeks.
As you can see, if you are ambitious and can get all the ingredients, you could also make sal de gusano at home. But buying dried maguey worms is probably even more of a pain than buying actual worm salt itself.
So, the guide above is probably only recommendable for those who want to tweak the recipe and produce their version.
How to use Sal de Gusano
A popular way to use sal de gusano is in side dishes like sprinkled on orange slices or grasshoppers coated in worm salt. It's also a great way to spice up traditional Mexican dishes, fruits, veggies, and salads. You can also use sal de gusano for rimming spicy Mexican cocktails like a Michelada or spicy Margarita.
Worm salt and orange complement the smoky flavor of Mezcal and enhance the flavors, making it even better. For that, you will get a side of orange slices or wedges and worm salt sprinkled on it. On a separate plate, you often get more salt you can use to upgrade to taste.
The right way to enjoy the serving is to take a sip of Mezcal, eat a bit of orange with worm salt, and then sip Mezcal again. This procedure helps to reset the palate and bring out new flavors in the Mezcal. And some places also serve other fruit instead of or in addition to oranges. So, don't be surprised if you should get grapefruit, pineapple, or apple, too.
How does worm salt taste?
The flavor of worm salt itself is unique and hard to describe. It's a rich, spicy, earthy, salty umami flavor bomb. Of course, the taste can vary depending on the producer and what kind of ingredients they used to make the salt. For example, one can use different peppers, toast the larvae differently, or incorporate a specialty salt. All these things can affect the final taste of the product, yet always result in a distinct Oaxacan flavor that goes excellent with agave spirits like Mezcal.
The taste of insects is a surprisingly overlooked culinary experience that has been enjoyed for centuries by the natives of Central and South America. In Mexico, you can find fried crickets in markets or on restaurant menus - and not only are they tasty, but they provide an environmentally responsible alternative to other meat! But in many Western countries, the idea of eating insects still seems adventurous or even alien.
Anyway, insects are a core part of many Mexican cuisines. Yet, Sal de Gusano is primarily an Oaxacan specialty. One reason for this is possibly the massive love for Mezcal in the state. Because even though Mezcal can be produced in many different states, Oaxaca is its undisputed home. Nowhere else in Mexico can you find so many Mezcal producers and bars.
Where to get the best sal de gusano
Authentic worm salts are readily available at bars specializing in Mexican spirits, and you can also occasionally discover them in liquor outlets, specialty cocktail shops, and online. Consider trying one of these sal du gusano options alongside your next copita of Mezcal.
1. Don Buguito
Based in San Francisco, Don Bugito draws inspiration from the culinary heritage of pre-Colombian Mexico and proudly labels itself a "pre-hispanic snackeria." This innovative company specializes in a variety of edible insect snacks. Among their offerings, the sal de gusano stands out. Crafted from red chinicuil worms sourced directly from Northern Mexican mountain farmers, this fine-grain worm salt delivers an extra fiery kick, courtesy of the addition of ground chile powder.
Priced at $6.50, you can find this unique product on donbugito.com.
2. Gran Mitla
Gran Mitla offers a whole collection of specialty salts with a delightful texture and taste. Their salts are available in a range of flavors including gusano, chapulín, jamaica (hibiscus), and habanero. The bug-infused varieties are skillfully enhanced with a distinctive blend of four dried Oaxacan chile peppers. This combination adds depth to the flavor without an overpowering chile pepper spiciness, catering to individuals seeking a savory taste experience.
Prices vary for these offerings, and you can explore the selection at granmitla.us.
3. Compania de Sales
Hailing from Mexico, Compania de Sales specializes in products made according to authentic tradition. They sell a variety of herb-infused salts alongside their trio of Pre-Hispanic blends: chapulín and ginger, agave worm and yerba santa herb, and hormiga (chicatana ants) and cardamom. These distinctive combinations of flavors set their salts apart. Notably, the Hierba Santa offers a mildly smoky and savory essence, with substantial salt chunks intermingled with dried herbs, all gently accented by a delicate sprinkle of chili pepper.
These remarkable salts are priced at $10 and you can explore them at tienda.companiadesales.com.