Weeds the Ocean Gave Us
Maine celebrates seaweed in the kitchen
You likely consume seaweed every day. But you might not know it.
There are red algae in your toothpaste; brown algae in your ice cream; and green algae in your macaroni and cheese. In fact, seaweed is used in more than 50% of food products. But “seaweed” isn’t in the list of ingredients. Instead, you’ll see carrageenan, which comes from red seaweeds and is used to thicken products, alginate from brown seaweeds that’s used to stabilize dairy products, or beta-carotene, an extract of green seaweeds that’s used to give foods a yellow-orange color.
The seaweed you’ve likely eaten in a more recognizable form is in sushi or seaweed salad. But, how else can seaweed be eaten and celebrated rather than hidden as a mystery ingredient?
Creative ideas for edible seaweed products abound. As Bri Warner, CEO of Saco-based Atlantic Sea Farms (formerly Ocean Approved, LLC) says, “People think, ‘If it has an Asian flavor, I can put seaweed in it,’ but you can do almost anything with it.”
Warner’s is just one of the many Maine companies involved in the seaweed business. Atlantic Sea Farms started growing seaweeds in 2006 and was the first commercial seaweed farm in the United States.
“We literally wrote the handbook on growing seaweeds. You can see it right on our website,” says Warner. They grow two species of seaweeds—sugar kelp and skinny kelp—that they sell fresh in products like kelp slaw and kelp noodles. This differentiates them from many companies that sell dried products.
On Portland’s waterfront, Matt Moretti at Wild Ocean Aquaculture is growing sugar kelp alongside his Bangs Island mussels.
“We’re really excited about the interaction between kelp and mussels and have grown our business in that direction,’ Moretti says. “Skinny kelp only grows in Casco Bay, so we’re growing the most local species we can.”
He’s been working with Boothbay-based Bigelow Labs to study the “halo” effect that seaweeds can have. By removing carbon dioxide from the surrounding seawater, seaweeds make that water less acidic and improve growth conditions for shellfish.
Up in Hancock County, Sarah Redmond, owner of Springtide Seaweed, is also growing sugar and skinny kelps along with Alaria, or winged kelp. These are all fast-growing brown kelps. From seeding in the late fall to harvest in the early spring, she can expect 10 feet of growth in a single growing season. But she’s also experimenting with slower-growing red seaweeds like dulse and nori.
“Seaweed is just sunlight and seawater- it’s like magic,” says Redmond. “We have the ability to provide some of the best seaweeds in the world—Maine could be the next Japan. It’s also a nice fit on the waterfront. It gives fishermen the chance to earn some money in the winter.”
Redmond has a true passion for seaweeds. In 2014, she helped to put on Maine’s first Seaweed Festival, which brought together growers and chefs to share ideas.
“Seaweed is an incredible way to bring the ocean back into our bodies. I want to see seaweed on every table in America. Next to the salt and pepper it should be the third spice. You [can] shake it on your potatoes, on your popcorn, on your eggs. Our diet is too high in sodium. We need to reduce our use of table salt, but we need the iodine. Seaweed is nature's salt. It provides the wide range of minerals we need in balanced ratios.”
Seaweed also contains things you wouldn’t think of like calcium, magnesium and potassium, which help to support healthy muscles and bones. That’s why Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, based in Hancock, puts them into nutritional supplements like their Seaweed Support capsules.
“Most people don’t know that besides most minerals, there’s protein in seaweeds, too,” says founder Shep Erhart. “Nori is up to 30% protein and dulse can be 20%.”
His company provides dried wild seaweeds including dulse, kelp, Alaria, nori (laver), sea lettuce, bladder wrack, rockweed and Irish moss for use in consumer-ready products like Kelp Krunch bars and Sea Seasonings, as well as bags of whole, flaked, and powdered seaweeds.
“Dulse is by far our most popular sea vegetable. You can eat it straight out of the bag. Or pan fry it—it’s salty, crunchy, and oily. People say it tastes like bacon.”
Erhart’s company buys from more than 40 harvesters who collect approximately 100,000 pounds of sea vegetables each season. Wild harvest begins in the spring as soon as the coastal inlets begin to thaw and continues into the fall.
“It’s a different season than farmed kelp,” says Erhart. “The low tides of October bring us our last dulse- if we’re lucky!”
Given the extent of wild seaweeds used in food products today, it is hard to believe that as recently as the 1970s Maine’s seaweed was harvested exclusively for use in fertilizers and animal feed. The stringy rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, was the only commercially harvested species. Now, you can find seaweed in everything from smoothies to bagels, to local cheeses and pizzas.
It’s not always easy to find these products, however. Josh Rogers of Heritage Seaweeds has sought to bring many seaweed products, including his own Cup of Sea teas, together in his Portland store, which opened last July. Josh was working for Google in New York City, but missed the smell of the sea. So, he started making seaweed teas.
“When I was a kid growing up in Auburn, my grandparents sent us dulse from the Canadian Maritimes and I loved to eat it. I was always trying to force it on my friends and get them to eat it. It was something special our family was into but we couldn’t find it anywhere.”
In addition to the retail space, his store has a commercial kitchen where he has hosted a few cooking demonstrations.
“I’d like to get chefs excited about seaweed and find ways to develop new techniques for using them in their cuisine,” says Rogers.
One local chef who is already experimenting with seaweeds is Vinland’s David Levi. He limits his restaurant’s ingredients to those that come from Maine, so seaweed is an obvious choice.
“I’m always particularly excited about wild food. I use nori (laver) first and foremost, but also dulse and Irish moss, and sometimes kombu (kelp) and wakame (Alaria). I often use the Japanese names because people recognize them” Levi says. “Selling dishes with seaweed can be a challenge, though. When seaweed is the main ingredient, it isn’t always popular, but if I cook the Irish moss with cream and maple sugar or lemon verbena and make it into Panna Cotta, people love it. Dulse is another favorite of mine. It has a rich savory flavor I like to toast up and mix into oat flatbreads or put it with breadcrumbs on top of fresh fish. But I try not to sneak seaweed in so much as to celebrate it for what it is.”
While you might expect to see seaweed on the menu at a place like Vinland, you might not expect to see it at a pizza place. But you’ll find it on the menu at all 16 locations of Flatbread Pizza throughout New England. There are two ounces of kelp along with mixed greens, celery, carrots, and toasted sesame seeds all tossed with ginger-tamari vinaigrette in their Organic Salads, one of Flatbread’s most popular items.
“Some customers refer to it as “the Seaweed Salad,” says Tom Cancelliere, manager of Flatbread’s Portland location. “They really like the seaweed and the extra crunch and texture it adds. Others don’t even seem to notice the seaweed, but rarely does anyone omit the seaweed when ordering.”
The number of seaweed products and recipes is already impressive, so what could be next? Rogers says he’d like to see seaweed in chocolates.
“We’ve already got a seaweed fudge we just started selling, and it’s pretty tasty,” he says.
VitaminSea, a small company from Buxton, Maine, recently received a grant to add kelp to bread and other baked products. Other companies are adding new product lines or promoting lesser-used species. Atlantic Sea Farms will be coming out with a retail line this spring.
“We’re really excited about having something that’s easier for people not familiar with kelp to use,” says Warner. At Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, Erhart says he “would like to see more people cook with Alaria. Alaria is the under-sung hero of the seaweeds. I think it is going to be more prevalent than sugar kelp. It’s very mild and its lower sulfur content makes it almost sweet.”
Some ideas are still in the making. Moretti says, “I have an idea, but I can’t tell you because it has commercial potential…and it tastes really good.”
Will Maine seaweed become the third spice on every table? Maybe someday. But, for now, it is certain that the passion and creativity are there to grow this local industry and celebrate the produce of Maine’s clear coastal waters.
Susan Olcott is a freelance writer living in Brunswick with her husband and 8-year-old twin girls. She loves to write about all things coastal including and particularly those that are edible.