Tips For Getting More Flavour With Less Salt

Nov 29, 2019 | Cooking Tips

I am a big fan of salt. I would go so far as to say that I love salt. For someone in my profession, it is one of the most valuable tools we have at our disposal. Despite my love of the edible mineral, there are some people out there that for many different reasons must eat a reduced-sodium diet. That raises the question of how does one maximize flavour while using less salt? That is the question that I hope to answer today.

I want to be very clear that I am obviously not a medical professional, nor am I an expert in low sodium cooking. The information I provide below is simply meant to demonstrate how certain cooking techniques and ingredients can help to increase the flavour of food while using less salt or no salt at all. As I am not an expert in this I would welcome any information that any of you may be able to add in the comments.

Let’s get to it….


The purpose of salt.

Before we can really understand cooking without salt we should first understand cooking with it. Why is salt used in cooking and what does it do?

Salt has many purposes and uses in food from preservation to enhancing flavour. Today, we are going to skip over preservation and things like that because if you are on a low-salt diet I feel like you probably aren’t going to be munching down on a leg of prosciutto or a crock of sauerkraut any time soon. What we are going to focus on mainly is the ability of salt to enhance flavour.

Salt is used in cooking primarily as a way to enhance the flavours around it. I always like to equate it to tuning an instrument. An out of tune guitar or violin sounds off, even if it is only slightly out of tune. But, with just a little tuning that same instrument can sound amazing. That is the role salt plays in most cooking. It tunes the food. It brings all the separate flavours together so that they play in perfect harmony.

Is there a way to get that harmony with less salt?

In all honesty, to the best of my knowledge, there is no way to get that perfect balance without salt. But, we can come very close using other elements of flavour. Okay, what are the other main elements of flavour and how do we add them into our food?

The elements of flavour.

As we all probably know there are five commonly recognized tastes. (I believe that there are a lot more but we will keep this simple) They are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Because we want to avoid the salty element, we have to adjust and maximize the other elements. Let’s take a look at each one and see how we can add it to our cooking, and how we can balance it with the other flavours.

Sweet

The sweet flavour likely isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking about how to make food taste good without salt. But, it is an important element to a perfectly balanced flavour harmony.

One interesting thing about salt is that it makes sweet things taste sweeter. Think of salted caramel. But this also works in reverse. Sweet things make salty things taste saltier. So, the goal is to find a way to get more sweetness out of our sweet ingredients.

Most commonly in savoury dishes, a sweet element comes in the form of vegetables like carrots, peas, parsnips, corn, squash, and more. The first step in getting the most sweetness we can out of these ingredients is to not overcook them. Boil peas and carrots only until they are tender, not mushy. A second thing we can do, this works really well with root vegetables and squash is to roast them on high heat (375-425°F). This roasting will actually caramelize some of the sugar naturally present in the foods making them sweeter. This, as we know, will make a natural salt in the dish taste a little saltier.

This same caramelization concept works with tomato or tomato ingredients. Tomatoes are actually a perfect food in terms of flavour because they are naturally sweet, sour, and umami. Having said that we can maximize their sweetness no matter what form they come in. Imagine you are making a curry. You sauté the onions, ginger, and garlic, then add in a few tablespoons of tomato paste. If you slowly cook that tomato paste for 10-12 minutes or until it starts to darken (the sugars are caramelizing) the flavour will become sweeter. This allows you to bump up the sweetness of the dish, and get more balance of flavour without adding sugar or salt.

Sour

A little sour can go a long way. In most dishes, a sour element comes from the addition of citrus, vinegar or wine. Using one or two of these ingredients in tandem can have a big impact on flavour. Imagine for example that you are making a cream sauce for pasta. You use a bit of white wine in the beginning and then you finish the sauce with a splash of fresh lemon juice (adding a bit of the zest will help too). You will have this mild baseline acidity from the wine, but then this really bright upfront pop of flavour from the lemon. This will balance really well with the natural sweetness of the cream.

As I mentioned above, tomatoes are naturally acidic as well, so adding a few tomatoes, or some tomato paste to a stew or soup can up the acidity (or sweetness depending on how you cook them) and thus creating more balance in the dish.

Bitter

Bitter is a flavour that we North Americans generally shy away from. However, a little bitterness can add a lot to a dish. Having said that, this element should be used sparingly. Some foods that we commonly eat that are bitter include kale and other dark leafy greens, olive oil, coffee, cocoa, broccoli, and more. Bitterness can also come from char. I know that this may seem odd but a little burnt can actually make foods taste better. Emphasis on the little there.

Bitter flavours make us salivate and stimulate our appetite. This salvation opens our palate and allows us to taste more clearly. So, where a little bitter may not necessarily make food taste better (though it can), it makes our ability to taste better.

Let’s take a look back at the roasted vegetables we talked about in the sweetness section for a second. If we use olive oil on those vegetables when roasting we can add a small amount of bitter flavour. We can also slightly overcook or burn the vegetables (again very slightly) and that will help balance the sweetness. What we should also realize is that if we squeeze a little lemon over those vegetables when they come out of the oven, and maybe even a little lemon zest, they will really pop. All this without a touch of salt.

Umami

The final flavour is umami. There are a lot of people who are confused as to what exactly umami is, but really all it is is savoury. It’s that flavour you get when you bite into a piece of cheese, a steak, a mushroom, or a pickle. It’s the flavour that keeps you going back for more. Adding this element into a dish is the final and probably most important way to balance flavour without using salt.

Let’s look at our roasted vegetable example one more time. What have we done to them so far? The vegetables were tossed in olive oil to add a touch of bitterness. Then we roasted them on high heat to make them sweeter by carmelizing their natural sugars. We even slightly overcooked them to get a bit of char around the edges to add a bit more bitter. And we added a squeeze of lemon juice and a bit of lemon zest to add acidity which will add a big pop of flavour. Now, if we add a bit of cheese like Swiss or a very small amount of parmesan (Parmesan is high in salt but is generally okay in small amounts) we will get this umami flavour which will balance the whole thing out. Our vegetables will be incredibly flavourful without ever having come into contact with salt.

Putting it all together.

Let’s take a second and imagine a full meal. Let’s say pork chops with potatoes and vegetables. For simplicity’s sake, we will keep the vegetables the same as the above example. Now, what’s really important to note is that we want to maximize all the elements of the meal separately, but we also need to think of the flavour of the dish as a whole. How are these different elements going to work together? Meaning, how are the vegetables going to balance the pork chops, how are the pork chops going to affect the flavour of the potatoes, etc?

Pork Chops

Let’s start with the pork chops. First of all pork chops are great for a variety of reasons. They have a fairly neutral flavour that goes with just about anything. Like all meat, they have built-in umami. And, they hold up well to multiple cooking styles. Let’s say we sear our pork chops in a pan. We add in a bit of garlic, onion, and tomato and cook until the vegetables start to brown. We add a bit of white wine and chicken stock to the pan and simmer until the pork is cooked. Finally, we add a teaspoon of dijon mustard and mix that into the wine and stock to create a sauce.

For the pork chop, we have umami from the pork. We added sweetness by caramelizing the onions, garlic, and tomato. And we added acidity with the wine and mustard. There is no need to add too much sweetness or any bitterness because we are going to get that from the roasted vegetables.

Potatoes

When it comes to the potatoes, in order to keep the balance with the rest of the dish I would suggest a very simple preparation. Roast them with olive oil, rosemary, and a touch of lemon. Or mash them with a bit of sour cream and chive. The brightness of lemon or sour cream will add a punch to the potatoes and help to make them taste good again without salt.

The point here is that all of these elements are going to work together. Nothing is going to be overpowering but every bite will be flavourful.

Conclusion

In all honesty, using all the techniques I just shared with you will help to make food taste good without salt. Unfortunately, there really is no replacement for salt. There’s no getting around it. Humans are biologically designed to love salt. But, if you are a person who has to eat a low sodium diet this will hopefully help you in some way.

Thank you to Doreen B. for requesting this post.

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