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Ditch the Salt Without Ditching the Taste

family cookingCooking is as much of an art as it is a science, but when your doctor’s telling you that it’s time to reduce your sodium intake, it can be tricky to keep the magic in the kitchen.

The good news is that there are lots of alternatives to salt and salty flavorings if you’re willing to experiment a little. You’ll be surprised at the depths and layers of flavors you can add to your mom’s old recipes with a little improvisation.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Cut out the salt slowly. Cutting out salt cold turkey isn’t great for your mind or your body. Your tongue was built with salty flavor receptors for a reason — we’re wired to like salt. Instead of declaring open war on all things salty, reduce your use slowly. If you ease into your new lifestyle, it’ll make it easier for your taste buds to accept and give them time to acclimate to the new level of salt they’ll get from incidental intake.

Look for low sodium options. Regularly cooking with broth, bouillon or dressings can add a lot of body to your meals, but you’re also probably adding a lot of salt with that extra flavor. Next time you go shopping, check the ingredients and compare your old stand-bys to other options in the aisle. Swap high-salt bouillons for low-salt options, or use significantly less when you cook.

Another way to open the door to low sodium options of your favorite flavorings is to create your own. Instead of relying heavily on salt to bring out the flavor of a broth, you can use your slow cooker to simmer stock seasoned with herbs for a longer amount of time, allowing a deeper flavor profile to develop.

Try salt alternatives. “Lite” salts and salt substitutes are available for when you really need a salty kick, but without all the sodium. Salt substitutes typically utilize potassium chloride, which has a salty flavor. Lite salts are a mixture of salt substitutes and regular table salt and can help you transition into a low-salt lifestyle. Either should be used sparingly but will give you an added kick when you really need something salty.

Take caution with salt substitutes if you have kidney disease, high blood pressure, or congestive heart failure. The medications for these conditions are often potassium-sparing, meaning that they cause your body to retain potassium. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hyperkalemia.

Herbs and spices add dimension. Many cooks rely heavily on salt and pepper to create beautiful dishes that brighten the original flavors but don’t change them. You can do the same with a huge assortment of herbs and spices, without the added salt. Whether you’re looking for something more exotic, like Thai curry or an Indian masala or just a little boost to your burger, there are literally hundreds of herbs and spices to help create the flavor you want.

Try adding ginger the next time you cook something that should have a strong chicken flavor. Smoked paprika is another spice that can create a whole new dimension, especially for vegetables like green beans. Cream sauces can be enhanced with earthy herbs like lavender and summer savory.

Don’t forget tasty liquids. Another valuable tool in your kitchen arsenal should be flavored liquids. You can create a huge array of flavors without salt this way. Wine, vinegar, and expeller-pressed oils make excellent bases for a huge array of dishes; fruit juices can be used to brighten flavors during cooking. Cooking wines can range in flavor intensity from subtle whites to loud, pungent reds; vinegar runs from acidic white to thick balsamic.

Expeller-pressed oils should be treated just like other tasty liquids — add them after you’re finished in the sauté pan. Since they usually have relatively low smoke points, oils like grapeseed, olive, or sesame work their best once your dish is at a simmer or as a last-minute touch.

When you make the move to banish the salt shaker from your kitchen, you’re moving in the right direction to improve your health considerably. Giving the boot to everyone’s favorite kitchen helper can complicate your kitchen craft, but it doesn’t have to slow you down for long if you make the change gradually and give new flavors from herbs, vinegar, and expeller-pressed oils a try.