Worm salt and neat Mezcal

Sal de Gusano - The Agave Worm Salt served with Mezcal

By Timo Torner / Last updated on May 17, 2022 
Sal de Gusano, or worm salt, is traditionally served alongside Mezcal. Sprinkled over fresh slices of oranges, it's the perfect complement to the agave spirit.

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, and 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.

Outside of 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. In Oaxaca, the unofficial home of Mezcal, you'll rarely find a place that serves the Mexican spirit without a bit of this exciting salt.

What is Sal de Gusano?

Sal de Gusano literally translates to "salt made of worms". It is made from dry chiles, sea salt, and dried "worms". Ironically, the Gusano used to make the salt isn't a worm but 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 and sweet agave nectar. You may know from some cheaper Mezcal bottles which put the larva inside bottles as a marketing gag. And the larvae are all over the agave plants. The farmers just need to pick them, 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 also pairs well with certain cocktails. A Mezcal Margarita, for example, is a natural fit for it.

How to make worm salt

Dried and roasted larvae  / maguey worms

The maguey worms are harvested and then sundried by agave farmers. Occasionally, the worms are also dried in ovens before they're ready to be processed. Once they're dried out, you mix them with chili and sea salt. And the chili part is typically a ground mix of dried peppers. Other ingredients can be added for more flavor, such as lime juice or vinegar.

The ground larvae and chili are combined in a ratio of about 3:1. That means three tablespoons of larvae to one tablespoon of chili. This mixture is then ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. The result is a flavorful, earthy, and spicy salt. Before the worm salt is finally ready, it needs to dry a second time for about two to three weeks.

In case you are ambitious and can get all ingredients, you could also make worm salt at home. But buying dried maguey worms is probably even more of a pain than buying worm salt itself. So that's only a recommendable task for those who want to tweak the recipe and produce their own version.

How to serve Sal de Gusano with Mezcal

Serve of Mezcal, worm salt, and fresh fruit

When you see a glass of Mezcal served alongside an orange and worm salt, it resembles the general concept of Tequila drinking rituals. But it's an entirely different thing. With Tequila, the citrus and salt combination should take away from harsh alcohol notes, making it easier to drink.

Worm salt and orange actually 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 top, you often get more salt you can 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 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, pineapples, or apples, too.

The taste of worm salt

The flavor of worm salt itself is unique and hard to describe. It's an experience that can't be replicated with other salts. It's a rich, spicy, earthy, and 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 taste of the final product.

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.

Other things you can use worm salt for

Worm salt is like a secret ingredient not only for drinks but also for your favorite food. A little sprinkle goes a long way with this powerful kind of seasoning. And it's been used by chefs around the world for ages. For instance, you can use it to spice up your salsa, Guacamole, Ceviche, or even some good old scrambled eggs.

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