Be a Home Superstar Chef (Part 11 – Low Sodium Cooking)

This is part 11 of our on-going Home Superstar Chef series. The previous posts in this series were Part 1 – Good PansPart 2 – ShallotsPart 3 – Pine NutsPart 4 – Knives,  Part 5 – High Heat CookingPart 6 – Restaurant Supply HousesPart 7 – Pork Chops,  Part 8 – Garlic,  Part 9 – Pizza and Part 10 – Duck Fat. This entry will deal with reducing sodium.

Salt. It’s responsible for one of four (or five, depending on which camp you’re in) basic tastes. It is essential to human health. Salt preserves and and seasons our food. We need it to maintain proper fluid balance in our bodies, and it also is required for a healthy nervous system. Not enough salt in our diet can cause dizziness, nausea, and even death. Salt is even an important component in many religions, to the point that Jesus referred to his followers as “the salt of the earth.” Most of us crave salty snacks now and then, in fact some food is almost tasteless without some salt added to it. Salt is a flavor enhancer, properly used it can make bitter foods taste much more palatable, even sweet.

Salty Truths

Why then does salt have such a bad reputation? It causes hypertension and heart disease, right? It’s the “silent killer,” isn’t it? Well, not likely. But an imbalance of sodium and potassium levels is definitely thought to exacerbate certain health issues. Some studies have also shown that reducing salt intake can help reduce high blood pressure a small amount, but other studies show that adding potassium does the same thing. Salt’s bad rap is mostly undeserved, in my opinion, however there are definitely conditions and illnesses that require restricted salt intake. And despite the controversy surrounding salt and hypertension, most doctors still recommend cutting down on salt as the first step in reducing high blood pressure.

So, while salt is probably not the villain it has been made to be by certain studies and in media reports, most of our diets contain ridiculously high levels of it. If you cook for someone you love who may benefit from reducing sodium levels all of the opposing views in the world probably aren’t going to stop you from doing something that might be beneficial.

5 Tips and Tricks To Keep the Flavor with Less Salt

The problem is that food without salt can be tasteless, and salt substitutes can taste strange. So how do we make tasty food for our loved ones with salt restrictions? Keeping in mind that I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutritionist, merely a blogger who cooks for someone who is sensitive to salt. Here are some tips and tricks that I use.

1 – Check Your Labels

The first step is to make sure that you check labels. Next time you are at the supermarket look at the labels on all of the different containers of sliced turkey breast. That’s a healthy choice, everyone knows that, right? Not if you are trying to lower salt intake. Turkey breast is basically a dry and tasteless meat so home cooks will brine it to add both flavor and moisture. The makers of processed foods tend to just inject the food with salty water. It’s cheaper and faster but it adds so much sodium that the little experiment of reading sliced turkey packaging can be very eye-opening.

2 – Avoid Highly Processed Foods

There are many reasons to avoid highly processed foods, and excessive sodium is a pretty good one. There are also a lot of reasons that manufacturers add so much salt. It keeps mold from growing. How fresh is your food if you need to retard mold? It helps make dry food taste less dry. Do you really like dry food? Basically all that salt is added to hide something from you that you probably don’t want.

So read the labels. Eliminating processed foods from your diet may sound like a good idea, but it isn’t likely to happen. That means we need to be smarter about it. Buy the lowest sodium versions of products, and don’t cook with things like canned cream of mushroom soup. It is ridiculously easy to replace it with fresh mushrooms, low sodium stock, some cream and maybe a splash of sherry. Plus it tastes so much better.

There are many ways like that to replace an item that many of us grew up reaching for as a staple in cooking. Some of the things our mothers taught us to cook with are just canned shortcuts that we would all be better off replacing with the real thing. A quick Internet search is usually all it takes to learn how to make your own version of the canned product.

3 – Enhance Existing Flavors

While the primary goal may be to reduce sodium in your diet, if the food isn’t tasty or appealing then like any diet, it will eventually fail. The idea is to replace all of that excess salt with flavor. Almost everything I cook is an attempt to do at least one of these two things: enhancing and intensifying existing flavors.

For example, a little soy sauce can enhance beef’s flavor. Something about it makes beef taste beefier. Yes, soy has a lot of sodium but if you avoid the well known American brands and head over to the Asian aisle (or an Asian market) you will find brands that have quite a bit less sodium than even the “low sodium” versions of the brands most people use.  A splash or two in place of salt adds flavor and reduces the sodium in a beef dish. Many times when I make a pan sauce to go with steak it starts by adding mushrooms to the pan while the meat rests. Once the mushrooms are nice and browned I give them a quick splash of soy sauce before adding wine, stock or both. That is all the sodium that gets added, but when everything is reduced it is delicious and even tastes like I seasoned it with just the right amount of salt at the end despite using none at all.

4 – Make it Intense!

Reducing wine or other cooking liquids is probably my number one method for intensifying existing flavors. While I always keep boxes of stock on hand, the kind with no added sodium, I also make my own. Recently I spent nearly a week, removing and adding new bones and aromatics daily, making a very powerful beef stock and then slowly reducing it until it was nearly thick. When used to deglaze a pan it takes less than a minute to get demi-glace consistency. It is a beautiful shiny mahogany color with a seriously intense beef flavor. It also gives sauce a salty taste, despite none having been added.

5 – Add Spices and Herbs

One last way is to add flavors with spices and herbs. Beware of premixed spice blends and rubs as they tend to be mainly salt. When using herbs the general rule is to use dried herbs for dishes that will cook for a long time, adding them early in the cooking process. Fresh herbs are best added near the end of a process with just enough time to release their flavors. By combining both types of herbs and techniques when possible to add more intense flavors you’ll find that no one will miss the flavor that extra salt provided. In fact, both Amy and I have found that instead of missing out on flavor, we actually dislike when we go to a restaurant and the chef uses extra salt instead of using the techniques mentioned above…and it’s surprising how many do.

Salt has its place, and I don’t have anything against its use. In fact, I can’t imagine not using it to cook. However, whether it actually does have negative effects on health or not, using less of it and adding flavor other ways will actually make your cooking better and take you one step closer to being a Home Superstar Chef.

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