Q: I’m wondering if you have any spice combinations to reduce the need for salt – which is increasingly being touted as extra bad for us. I’ve tried ‘Mrs. Dash’ but didn’t care for it. I’ve also used the lavender mix from France and I’m wondering if you have any other ideas.
A: “Instead of thinking in terms of ‘substitute’ come up with flavor combinations that you learn to prefer in place of salt.”
That’s a quote pulled from later in the post. But let’s start by getting the formalities out of the way. I’m not a physician but I do take a keen interest in health through wholesome real foods. Take my advice here with, well, a grain of salt (you had to see that one coming)!
Salt gets a bad rap. Anything in excess is going to be bad for you and salt is no exception. Understand this: salt is an essential mineral for life. It maintains electrolyte balance inside and outside of your cells. It also affects blood pressure through signals to the muscles of blood vessels trying to maintain pressure within an ideal range.
It’s excessive salt intake that’s bad news. Current guidelines from the National Academy of Science’s Insitute of Medicine recommends keeping your daily sodium intake limited to a range of 1500 mg/day to 2300 mg/day (approximately 1 tsp.) as a maximum before possibly increasing your blood pressure due to excessive intake.
Salt’s ability to naturally enhance flavor has elevated salt to superhero levels of popularity throughout history. This amazing ability has not gone unnoticed by our nation’s processed food manufacturers nor chain restaurants. Salt + fat = an addictive flavor combination in food. I’m not trying to be snarky here…it’s true. Our bodies seem to crave this combination in a pretty fundamental way.
How Much Salt?
I turned to an “Eat This, Not That” article in Men’s Health to get some numbers on how much sodium restaurants are putting in their meals. A Colorado omelette at IHOP has 4,200 mg of sodium. Applebee’s Appetizer Sampler has 6,520 mg. Does a grilled chicken and avocado club at Cheesecake Factory sound healthier? Not at 2,309 mg of sodium. This is your entire MAXIMUM allotment of daily sodium in one meal. Match this with the average American’s tendency to eat out 4 times a week and you have a recipe for serious health concerns.
At home it’s not much better. According to the Mayo Clinic, 77 percent of Americans’ daily sodium intake comes from eating processed foods.
So where am I going with this?
Of course…spices to the rescue. There loads of salt substitutes. In my opinion a salt substitute ranks up there with margarine, non-fat vegetable shortening, dairy-free powdered creamer, sugar substitutes and fake whipped cream. Why on earth would you use a substitute when the real thing is so much better tasting and better for you?
The secret is to eat the real thing (in this case salt) is moderation. And moderation is so much easier when you train yourself to appreciate quality. So here are my suggestions. Instead of thinking in terms of “substitute” come up with flavor combinations that you learn to prefer in place of salt. Or at least encourage you to eat less, but a better quality. Here are four of my ideas:
Popcorn with salt and butter is beloved combination. It’s good. Reaaallly good. Microwave buttered popcorn bags seem to range anywhere from 100-400 mg of sodium per serving. Could be worse. You can make it better. Pop up your own batch of popcorn using olive oil. Toss with a little butter (if you use salted butter just be aware this is one of those places where your daily sodium intake likes to hide). Personally, I don’t mind using unsalted butter because the butter just helps the seasonings stick to the popcorn.
Now, instead of sprinkling with salt try this amazing spice blend from Mark Bittman’s cookbook, Food Matters. He calls this one of the “Six Seasoning Blends You Can’t Live Without.” And frankly, I agree. (Confession time: I use both. Shake Bittman’s blend on liberally and then pick a pinch of your top-shelf gourmet salt and sprinkle sparingly. Oh. My. Yum.)
Ingredients: 2 tbs. ground ancho, New Mexico, or other mild, dried chile; 1/2 tsp. cayenne, or to taste; 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns; 2 tsp. cumin seeds; 2 tsp. coriander seeds; 1 tbs. dried oregano.
Instructions: Put your whole spices in a dry skillet over medium heat. Toast, shaking pan occasionally, until fragrant (3-5 min.). Lower heat if necessary so you don’t scorch the spices. Add ground spices during the last minute. Grind everything together in a spice blender until powdery.
That lovely starchy, filling, comfort food—we love pototoes. Potatoes simply beg to be treated with anything but a ton of salt. Again, open your spice cupboard and rev your creativity engine. The great thing about cooking potatoes is that precision is not necessary. Here: this recipe from Moosewood ought to help get you started.
Ingredients: 1.5 cups chopped onion; 2 garlic cloves; 3 tbs. olive oil; 4 cups grated and peeled sweet potato; 1/2 tsp. dried oregano; 1 tsp. chili powder; t tsp. fresh ground cumin; pinch of cayenne (optional); salt and pepper to taste; grated sharp cheddar cheese (optional).
Instructions: Saute onions and garlic until transparent. Add the grated potatoes and all the spices and cook, covered, for about 10 min. Stir frequently to prevent sticking. (Mine always stick. Just heat some water in the pan when cleaning it, essentially deglacing the pan for cleaning purposes.) Heap into your warmed tortilla with or without cheese. Enjoy the wall of practically salt-free flavor.
3. French Fries
This is a sub-category of pototoes but here’s where you can put Bittman’s blend to work again. Slice up the potato into french fry shapes. Spread on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Brush with olive oil and then sprinkle with the spice blend. Roast for about 10-15 minutes on about 300 degrees (please cut me some slack, working from memory here). About halfway through turn the fries over and brush with more oil (if necessary) and sprinkle with more spice blend (if necessary).
4. Bonus! Almonds
This is a bonus entry because no spices are used. There are recipes out there for spiced nuts but I’ll save that for another day. Here’s a quick way to eat salt-free almonds and love every bite. Grab a handful of roasted, unsalted almonds. Squeeze a drop of honey on the almond. Pop it into your mouth and be very glad your read this post to discover this tasty little snack that packs a powerhouse punch of satisfaction. Plus, because you have to prepare every bite you may eat less.