Questions for cooks: Tips for reducing salt

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My doctor told me to cut back on my salt. This inspired me to start cooking more, and now I have a couple questions.

I see a lot of recipes call for salt. Initially I thought I would just leave the salt out and add in a dash at the end if I think it needs the flavor. But, I see it so often in recipes and in such quantities that I’m wondering if it does something more than just add flavor. And does it really matter if I add it at the end of a recipe or at the beginning?

Are there situations where I should not leave out the salt? (One recipe I’m specially concerned about is home-made bread.)

The easiest way to cut a large amount of salt out of your diet at home is to stop eating foods with complex ingredient lists on their packaging. Aim to eat foods that don’t come in packaging (fresh fruits and vegetables) or foods with only one or two ingredients (milk, salt-free frozen vegetables). Consider switching to kosher or dry-processed chicken and turkey that haven’t had salt water pumped into their skin at the meat processing plant.

Also, stay away from bitter foods that require a lot of salt to taste better — foods like brussels sprouts and mustard greens. Salt chemically reacts with the molecules in bitter foods to make them more palatable. Actually, salt makes almost all foods taste better, which is why humans use it.

Invest in some wonderful fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a finishing salt that is only used immediately before eating. It has large crystals that give off a strong “salty” flavor, so you use less of it (barely any at all) and it can reduce or eliminate the need for using salt during the cooking process. If your doctor recommended you consume less than 1/2 a teaspoon or a teaspoon of salt a day, you can measure out the fleur de sel each morning and then limit yourself to only using that specific amount.

According to food scientist Harold McGee, adding salt to boiling water helps vegetables retain their flavors and nutritious substances. As a result, you may want to saute or roast your vegetables instead of boiling them. And, you can completely eliminate the salt when boiling water for grains and pastas. You can replace any lost flavor from these foods with herb-intense sauces and seasonings.

Addressing your question about bread, McGee also answers this question:

Salt contributes to a balanced taste and intensifies aroma in bread, but it also affects structure and texture. Salt makes a dough less sticky, the gluten more stretchy, and the finished loaf lighter. In sourdoughs, salt helps control the growth of acid-producing, gluten-weakening bacteria.

In short, you can probably reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of salt in homemade bread as long as you’re using a high gluten bread flour. Make some test loafs, adjusting the amount of salt in each one, and see where your lower limit lies. My bread recipe only requires 1-1/2 teaspoons for the entire loaf, containing only trace amounts of sodium chloride in each slice.

Substitute canola or olive oil as much as possible for butter, make your own salad dressings and soup stocks, and start using fresh herbs for alternate seasonings. Fresh herbs pack a greater punch than their dried brethren, so the stronger flavors won’t make you miss the salt. Oh, and avoid seasoning mixes unless they specifically say they are salt free (like Mrs. Dash). I’m not fond of fake salts because I think they have a bitter aftertaste.

Good luck on your new reduced salt adventure. Your eating experience doesn’t have to be bland from this point forward as long as you make good decisions about when to use salt. Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

3 comments posted

  1. Posted by Karen - 02/25/2011

    You can also find unsalted butter easily. I use it exclusively for baking, and even on our toast and bread.

  2. Posted by gypsy packer - 03/06/2011

    Lemon juice will substitute for salt in brussels sprouts; use orange zest with steamed broccoli. As a Southern cook taught to use any part of the hog as seasoning, I’ve graduated from bacon and ham (most of the time) to Goya Savor de Jamon, a ham bouillon which comes in single-servings or pouches. It contains salt, but the additional ham flavoring substitutes for any other added salt.
    Garlic, chopped green onions or chives, and cumin go far in amping up flavor so that salt is superfluous.

  3. Posted by Jim - 03/29/2011

    You can also lower sodium intake by switching to chicken that is not “enhanced with up to X% chicken broth.” It’s generally just salt water and usually triples or quadruples the sodium content vs minimally processed chicken.

Subscribe to this entry's comments

Comments are closed for this entry.