Ask Peter: Low-salt cooking
My husband is on a very low allowance (1500mg) of salt per day. I am finding it very difficult to keep coming up with tasty meals which do not include most added stocks, sauces, pastas — in fact any manufactured item that used to make meals interesting. I have been using herbs and spices, home-made stocks, lemons, balsamic vinegar etc, but still find some food is bland. We are not fond of curries or meals with chilli. There seem to be many books out to help those trying to give up sugar, but I have yet to see one here which contains recipes for a salt free or a very low salt diet. Can you please help me?
Regards, Mary Pevats
I’m not a dietitian so I can’t comment as an expert, on the levels of salt contained in various ingredients, but here’s my take on salt and tasty food.
My father Bruce is one of many people I’ve seen who salts their food as soon as it hits the table. Dad doesn’t taste before sprinkling it on, which I’ve always found slightly bonkers. In fact, several times over the years when I was living at home I’d dose his meal with extra salt just to see if he noticed. Usually he didn’t, but I soon realised I was getting too much sadistic satisfaction from his face puckering reaction. I’m not suggesting your husband is like Dad but it is interesting that, with time, the salt levels we crave can slowly be lowered and food can taste pretty good with much less.
You’re correct that an awful lot of processed food is way too high in salt — and sugar — so in order to not overload him, you’re going to have to make a lot of sauces yourself. As a chef and food writer, this news of course is just what I like to see, people cooking at home.
Salt acts as a flavour enhancer. It brings the flavours in a dish together in harmony (if used properly) and it also seems to give food a real levelling balance.
I’m not anti-salt at all, and in fact I often find myself telling younger chefs in the restaurant kitchens to add a little. A little isn’t a bad thing. Cooking a stew with no salt at all and thinking it can be added at the end just doesn’t work in my mind. Salt, or similar, added sparingly at the beginning just seems to make it taste so much better.
However, if I’m known for one thing it’s the fact I love big, bold, interesting flavours. And though I love chillies, the majority of my dishes don’t use them. Instead I rely on an abundance of fresh herbs and spices to give my food a great taste.
I’ve just finished writing my eighth book (it’s not due out until 2016 so I can’t write about it just yet) and found myself using a wide range of flavours, such as thyme, rosemary, black and smoked garlic, grated ginger and citrus zest, cumin, coriander and nigella seeds, mustard and the likes, in generous amounts.The more flavours you use, the less salt you’ll need to add. It makes sense of course, because what you’re trying to do is to make the food taste good.
The other ingredients you should investigate are fermented soy products such as soy sauce, tamari (wheat-free soy sauce) and miso. These add umami to dishes — umami being the sixth flavour the tongue senses. It’s a term that comes from Japan, where it was discovered and named and it’s the savoury character you get from fermented foods, the taste of roast meat stuck to the roasting dish, tomato skins, parmesan cheese and others.
Miso and soy contain salt, of course, but because they are fermented they have a lot more oomph per teaspoon than if they were simply pureed soy beans. Check the labels, because there are low-salt varieties of some of these.
The thing many people don’t realise is that you don’t need to be making Asian dishes to add these to your cooking. Adding either of them to a soup or meat stew will allow you to add a lot less salt, yet you’ll end up with a really good hearty flavour.
Adding them to a tomato sauce will darken it so it may not be so suitable — this is where I’d suggest you saute diced red onions, chopped garlic and grated ginger in olive oil till caramelised, and add some chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme and oregano), chopped olives and capers (they’ll be salty already). Then add chopped sun-ripened tomatoes, skins and all, and simmer it for 15 minutes with the lid on until softened and collapsed. Then add just enough salt to bring it together, which will be a lot less than you’d usually need.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.