We want to start doing healthier food. What’s a good substitute for salt if I’m making cauliflower rice?
– Osei Blackett, Chef-owner, Picky Eaters, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I am teaching the introductory culinary course this term, and my students are learning some of the secrets to tasty restaurant food. Unfortunately for health purposes, those secrets tend to be butter and salt, along with good, rich stock. Kudos to you for introducing healthier menu items way beyond “heart healthy” items, as we’ve done in the past. Doing good while feeding people well is a laudable goal, and I think you are ahead of a big shift in restaurant dining.
You are bumping into a common frustration when it comes to healthy cooking: There is no good substitute for salt. The problem is not salt itself—necessary for our survival—but too much overall sodium intake, most of which comes from the salt added to prepared foods.
There are a few things you can do to reliably reduce the amount of sodium you are adding to your foods while still delivering big on flavors:
- Use natural sources of sodium. Some foods—celery (which gets its name from salt), shellfish and beets, for example, have a good deal of natural sodium already.
- Balance flavors. Remember that salt, while important in conveying flavor, is just one of multiple flavors. Adding some fresh-tasting acidity such as lemon juice, or some rich umami such as dried mushrooms, will help.
- Go big. Using big-impact cooking methods such as grilling or searing and incorporating toasted spices, smoked paprika, fresh herbs or fermented ingredients (but watch for salt here) can help achieve big, bold flavors that make reduced salt less noticeable.
- Rinse. When using ingredients such as canned beans, rinse them to remove excess salt.
- Think shape. Salt comes in different shapes and sizes. Using big, coarse crystals means that much of the salt your guests are ingesting may be swallowed without really tasting. Using finer salt or a flake shape means that more of the salt will touch the palate, increasing its impact.
- Finish. Similar to thinking about shape, finishing with salt as a garnish or at the table will hit the tongue and can help you reduce the amount of salt you use in cooking.
In general, your best strategy in reducing salt is to use no-salt-added or low-sodium products. Even better: Cook from scratch and season accordingly. Much of the sodium in restaurant menus is from “hidden” sources such as bases, spice blends and mixes.
More on reducing sodium in restaurants here.