Today, I’m sharing 8 Easy Ways to Add Flavor with Less Salt, all in the name of better health.
If you watch cooking shows as much as I do, you know that good food requires just the right amount of seasoning. The judges almost always comment on a dish being under seasoned, too salty or not salty enough (aside from being undercooked or overcooked).
Like most people, I love salty foods, but I’ve been trying over the years to be more careful about the amount of salt I use in my cooking due to health reasons. There are several reasons why reducing salt in the daily diet might be important. Although our bodies need sodium to function properly, too much sodium can be bad for you.
Eating too much sodium can increase blood pressure and put added stress on our kidneys. High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease, and more. The recommended sodium intake is no more than 2,300 mg a day for most people (about 1 teaspoon of table salt), although for some people who are at high risk (those with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure), no more than 1,500 mg a day is recommended. Children also have lower sodium needs and should stick to the 1,500 mg a day maximum.
Today, the average American consumes 3,400 mg sodium a day. More than 75% of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant food. That means, the more we cook at home, the better the chances that our sodium intake will be substantially reduced.
Sodium is especially high in processed foods, including fast food, frozen dinners/pizzas/potpies, canned/packaged soups, condiments (e.g., some BBQ sauces, soy sauce, salad dressing), canned beans, canned tomato products, snacks, bread/rolls/biscuits, processed/cured meats (bacon, hot dogs, sausages, deli meats), cookies and snack foods. Even seemingly healthy products like tuna fish and low-fat cottage cheese can be high in sodium.
Basically, any food that has been changed from its original, raw form is considered to be processed. There are varying degrees of processing, however. Canned, frozen, dehydrated, and milled products (flours) are all considered processed foods, but there’s a big difference between a can of spaghettiOs or frozen pizza, and whole wheat flour or frozen peas. Often, the more processed a food is, the higher the sodium content.
The key is to read the labels as sodium content varies from brand to brand. In low-fat and non-fat products, sodium levels are often much higher than the full-fat versions.
Fortunately, there are more low-sodium products available these days (low sodium broths, low sodium soy sauce, low sodium miso), so opt for these whenever possible, and when eating out, check the menu for nutrition information.
The best way to manage sodium intake is to cook at home since you control exactly what goes into your food. You can read product labels as you’re cooking. Often, when I’m cooking, I check the nutrition label of any sauces I use and decide how much to use based on the number of people that are eating to keep sodium levels in check.
As I’ve discovered, there are lots of easy ways to enhance flavor in cooking while reducing the amount of sodium. Here are 8 easy ways to reduce salt when cooking while adding flavor:
- Squeeze some fresh lemon or lime juice on food just before serving; lemon zest is also a great flavor enhancer
- Add a splash of vinegar (balsamic, fruit vinegars, rice vinegar, sherry vinegar)
- Add onions, garlic and/or ginger (e.g., saute vegetables with these aromatics)
- Use fresh herbs (basil, mint, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, oregano) or dried herbs and no-salt spice blends (Italian, Fines herbs, Herbs de Provence)
- Use sweet spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), ethnic spices (cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, curry powder) and no-salt spice blends
- Add a little chili for heat (aleppo pepper, ancho chili, chipotle, cayenne) or add a dash of hot sauce
- Add mushrooms for extra umami
- Roast vegetables for deeper and sweeter flavors
A few more tricks I use are to:
- Toast spices in a dry pan before using them to bring out the aroma
- Choose your salty additions wisely when cooking. I like to use umami rich flavorings such as soy sauce, miso, and fish sauce. Although soy sauce, miso and fish sauce are high in sodium, they are rich in umami and a little goes a long way. Fortunately, low-sodium versions of soy sauce and miso are now available.
- Add contrasting textures to the finished dish, e.g., crunchy topping of toasted almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, or pumpkin seeds
- When using cheese, choose high quality sharp flavored cheeses (extra aged cheeses tend to have more flavor). Yes, cheese can be high in sodium, but a little goes a long way when you use strong flavored cheese
Center of Disease Control – Get the Facts: Sodium’s Role in Processed Foods
Harvard Health Publications – Sodium still high in fast food and processed foods
David @ CookingChat says
Good tips! And definitely starting with eating mostly home cooked field is key. You don’t know what they are putting in at restaurants but usually involves a lot of added salt and fat.
Thanks David and thanks for sharing! Cooking at home is definitely a huge part of eating healthier. You know exactly what goes into your food when you cook from scratch.
This makes me very happy that I almost exclusively eat the food I make at home! Great tips for adding more flavor without having to reach for that salt!
Joanne – cooking is such an important skill to have these days. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated and tastes so much better.
Christine from Cook the Story says
Fabulous tips! Especially important to read labels… there’s so much hidden “junk” in the foods we buy!
Thanks Christine – yes I’ve often surprised by what’s actually in the food we buy. What sounds like something healthy from the front label isn’t always so.
Georgia @ The Comfort of Cooking says
Love these tips, Jeanette! With summertime grilling especially, there’s a lot of added salt in my meals and these are fantastic reminders to flavor with other methods. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks Georgia – yes grilling time is almost here, so it’s a great time to try some of these tips.
It’s funny how things have changed not to many years ago it was a status symbol not to make your own food, now it is. clearly having control over the ingredients is the best, great tips Jeanette.
Anne Kim says
Thank you, Jeanette, for your great tips. I’ve lowered my salt intake over the past few years and from your post, I have great ideas now about how to “jazz” up my food. This weekend we were traveling and I discovered again how careful I need to be when I order. The otherwise delicious bowl of soup I had was beyond “too salty.” I look forward to a day when chefs/cooks salt moderately and allow customers to increase saltiness after they are served. It’s wonderful for us to realize that we enjoy our own cooking immensely, so we’re with you there, and eat out a rare occasions. Anne