You and salt go way back. You have fond memories of late-night frolics with greasy french fries, kettle-cooked potato chips, and savory slices of cured meat, all slathered and soaked in glorious sodium chloride. But now you’ve reached the point in your relationship where she’s doing your heart (and kidneys) more harm than good (literally―your blood pressure is through the roof and your arteries are beginning to harden). It’s time to listen to your doctor and break it off now, before you really get hurt.
When it comes to salt and sodium, breaking up is hard to do; a study conducted in 2011 showed that sodium may affect the brain in the same way as sugar, cocaine, and other addictive substances, which is what causes those sudden irresistible cravings you have for salty foods. It would help if salt and sodium weren’t so sneaky, hiding out in unexpected places like bagels, cheese, many popular breakfast cereals, and even blended coffee drinks (that’s right, frappes are now the enemy).
Don’t worry, though; reducing your sodium intake to 1,500 mg a day (as recommended by the American Heart Association) will eventually heal your broken heart. To make things even easier, we’re here to help you say “goodbye” to salt and sodium and “hello” to a whole new host of appetizing alternatives.
Replacement Method 1: Turn up the heat
Spicy isn’t technically a “taste”; it’s actually a physical reaction to capsaicin, the component that gives peppers and other spicy foods their “heat.” To determine which pepper has the right heat for your tastes, consult the Scoville scale, a sort of heat index for peppers. Popular peppers include jalapenos, serranos, chilis, and ghost peppers.
You can also spice up your dinner date by cooking with cayenne pepper, paprika, crushed red pepper, or a low-sodium/salt-free hot sauce like Mr. Spice Tangy Bang. If things get a little too heated and your date’s face starts turning red, pour her a glass of milk―while other types of beverages will just wash the capsaicin around inside the mouth, milk contains a fatty compound that binds with capsaicin and carries it away when you swallow.
Replacement Method 2: Get the urge to go herbal
There are well over 70 different culinary herbs to choose from, giving cooks the added option of concocting and customizing their own herbal blends. Beginners might want to stick with the more commonly used herbs, such as oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary, while cooks eager to experiment can explore this comprehensive guide.
Herbs have the added value of convenience, since you can find all but the most exotic ones at your average grocery store―just don’t get lazy and start grabbing spice blends off the shelf without checking the label for hidden forms of sodium, such as disodium phosphate, sodium citrate, sodium alginate, and sodium hydroxide. If you prefer shopping online, Foods4YourHealth.com has a great selection of salt-free rubs and spice blends to choose from. And if you have a green thumb, you can even try growing your own!
Replacement Method 3: Take a taste vacation
If you find yourself stuck in a familiar rut (parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme… every time), take a trip! To the grocery store, I mean. Using this handy chart as a reference, you can create an authentic international dining experience right in your own kitchen, whether you’re in a Mediterranean mood, craving Cajun, or feeling French. You should also try curry at least once; it’s a traditional Asian dish with many distinctly flavorful variations.
There is, however, one destination you should leave off your itinerary. All the recent hype about the supposed benefits of pink Himalayan sea salt (or any other type of sea salt) has yet to be verified by scientific evidence subjected to peer review. This means that, for all intents and purposes, sea salt is just salt―and you know by now that salt’s a no-go, no matter what color it is!
Replacement Method 4: Be sweet…
We all need a little sweetness in our lives every now and again, and there are plenty of ways to get it besides from white or brown sugar. Popular “natural” alternatives include agave nectar, coconut sugar, and of course honey, a versatile standby that tastes as good in meat marinades as it does in green tea.
Be careful, though: While adding a pinch here or a dollop there may help distract you when you’re craving salt, sugar of any kind is every bit as dangerous when consumed in high quantities (albeit for slightly different reasons), and the superior health benefits of one type of sugar versus another are still being hotly contested by doctors and researchers worldwide.
Watching your weight or dealing with diabetes? You can still have your cake and eat it, too. Despite being blamed for causing everything from migraines to cancer, decades of research show that artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose aren’t the villains they’re made out to be―so you can sprinkle Equal, Nutrasweet and Splenda freely (although the jury’s still out on newcomer Stevia).
Replacement Method 5: …Or be saucy
The secret’s in the sauce, say many savvy chefs. Now that you’ve split it with salt, avoid high-sodium “off-the-shelf” sauces like salad dressings, barbecue sauces, meat marinades, sriracha, and yes, even ketchup. But relax; many of your favorites sauces have low-sodium versions, and there are also many other delicious salt-free sauces to try!
Like alcohol, for example. There are several types of spirits you can use while cooking to add a robust flavor to meat or an extra boldness to baked fruit; bourbon, sherry, and red wine are just a few. If you’ve never cooked with alcohol before, give this introductory guide a look before you begin.
Oil and vinegar are another simple yet extremely versatile option. Even the basic standbys like olive oil and balsamic vinegar will add some savor to your supper, but the great thing about oil and vinegar is that you have such a wide variety of flavor choices―from oils infused with bacon, lime, or even jalapeno to vinegars distilled from fruits like pear, plum, or pomegranate. Visit your local oil and vinegar store to try samples!
We’d be amiss not to include one last option, especially since it’s so prevalent in Southern recipes. I’m talking about butter, baby! Believe it or not, butter is one giant sodium trap, so be sure to use only unsalted butter for your corn bread.
Option 6: Go big or go home
Big flavor, that is! If the ingredients you’re using already have a strong taste all their own, you can forgo the seasonings and sauces and enjoy your food in its natural form. Onions, garlic, turnips, and sweet peppers have distinctly pungent tastes you’re probably already familiar with. If none of those tickle your fancy, try pairing rhubarb with some fresh strawberries for a sweet-yet-sour twist. Some folks swear by arugula for a savory salad, and if you turn up your nose at turnips, maybe it’s time to give a rutabaga a chance.
Hopefully by now your love affair with salt has become a distant memory and a new flavor (or two, or three) has piqued your interest. Do you have any salt replacement ideas that we forgot to list? If so, let us know in the comments!