How to add Flavor without Salt
Most chefs try to encourage home cooks to not be afraid of salt. Salt allows us to taste all the flavors in food and sodium is an essential nutrient--we actually can't live without it! But many more health conscious cooks and consumers are concerned with the over abundance of salt in our diets and are looking for ways to make delicious food without so much of it.
According to the CDC (in 2017), most sodium in the American diet comes from processed foods--more than 70%! So for those of you that are concerned with salting your roasted broccoli at home, my culinary recommendation is to not stress about that too much and instead consider the fast and processed foods in your diet as the real sodium culprits. Particularly foods like deli meats and cheeses, canned soups, vegetables, beans, broths, packaged breads and rolls, and of course processed snacks like crackers and pretzels. The sneaky thing is that many of these processed foods won't even taste that salty (like packaged bread--2 slices can Sodium is often used for it's preserving quality in processed foods, not just for its ability to enhance flavor.
So that's my personal strategy: season homemade food well with high quality himalayan sea salt and then skip as many processed products as possible. The problem with skimping on salt at home is that if your whole foods meals don't taste good, you'll be MORE likely to want to eat out and grab those processed snacks later.
However, I thought I'd put together a post for those of you that might be on a doctor-recommended low-sodium diet or just looking for more creative ways to season than always reaching for the salt shaker. If you are just beginning to learn about seasoning food, be sure to check out my Culinary Color Wheel and other worksheets in the Resources section of my site. So below are some additional options for seasoning your food that are either no sodium or low sodium.
One quick note: Recommended sodium intakes are measured in weight (milligrams), not volume (teaspoons), so the grind of your salt makes a big difference. For example, most conventional health resources will give you volume recommendations based on a fine-grind manufactured iodized sea salt (aka Morton's). If you use a large grind sea salt like me, the same weight will translate to a much larger volume, meaning it will look like you are adding more salt to your food than you really are.
One more note: My "no sodium" designations in the seasonings below really means "virtually no sodium." There are often going to be very trace amount of sodium in lots of natural foods, just a very minute amount that they typically count as effectively no sodium. (For example, one whole lemon contains 1 mg of sodium. Not truly zero, but a squeeze of lemon juice in your soup almost adds no sodium. Just clarifying for any of you on a strict no sodium diet.)
Salt-free Ways to Season Food (low sodium and no sodium options):
Haven't heard of gomasio? It's a Japanese and macrobiotic seasoning that translates to sesame salt. It's a condiment made of toasted sesame seeds and pinch of sea salt that you can sprinkle at the table or after cooking to give dishes like steamed veggies, bowl meals, or even salads more taste and texture.
You can buy this ready-made (Eden Foods makes a version) or you can make your own by toasting 1.5 cups of sesame seeds in a skillet, then letting them cool. Combine the toasted sesame seeds with 1 teaspoon sea salt and grind lightly in a suribachi, mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Store in a glass jar or shaker and keep for several weeks at room temperature.
2. Lemon and Lime Juice and Zest
A squeeze of citrus is often exactly what a dish needs to give it some height and dimension. Use a microplane to grate lemon and lime zest to top dishes like roasted potatoes and broccoli. (I try to buy organic citrus and clean it well if I'm using the zest). Also lemon wedges and lime wedges are perfect alongside sautéed greens, soups, cooked beans and lentils, and animal foods like fish and chicken. Be sure not to get too heavy-handed with the citrus as it's easy to go overboard and make a dish too sour.
When do use juice versus zest? I add juice to liquids like soups, smoothies, and dressings and zest when I want some texture like on top of roasted veggies.
3. Cayenne Pepper, Red Chile Flake, and Hot Sauces like Sriracha
*no sodium/low sodium
Some like it hot! Heat from chiles is a great way to literally spice up a meal without salt. Dry red chiles like cayenne pepper or red chile flake (also called crushed red pepper) are easy to sprinkle on during the cooking process and are totally salt-free.
Post-cooking, a hot sauce can be your best option, especially a tangy vinegar-based one like Sriracha. While not totally salt-free, hot sauces get lots of their zip from the spicy chiles and other aromatics like garlic and get extra brightness and tang from vinegar. I like to keep a couple options on hand like Sriracha, Co-op Sauce (a Chicago-made brand), and my new favorite, a sweet and spicy Korean hot sauce from K-Mama.
4. Dijon Mustard and Whole Grain Mustard
Sense a theme yet? Tartness and tanginess can be a big flavor boost that can brighten up dishes similar to the way that salt does (but not exactly the same). Both dijon mustard and whole grain mustard are pantry staples for me. I add a teaspoon to marinades and dressings for a little zip.
5. Kelp Granules
Another at-the-table seasoning, kelp granules can be shaken on salads and other dishes for a salty-umami finish. Kelp is a type of seaweed, so like all things from the sea, it will contain some sodium, but also other trace minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. I buy the Maine Coast Sea Seasonings brand and it has a texture almost like dried oregano. You can find it online, at Whole Foods, or other health food stores in the Asian food aisle (usually with other seaweeds like nori and wakame). You can try dulse flakes as well; dulse is a different type of seaweed but the effect will be similar. These sea seasonings are also great for dishes that need a (plant-based) taste of the sea like Caesar Dressing or Carrot Lox.
6. Smoked Paprika
Most dried, ground spices like smoked paprika should be added during the cooking process rather than at the table. (Check out my Building Flavor Guide for the proper order to add ingredients to the pot when you are improvising a meal). Smoked paprika--and other smoky ingredients--add depth, interest, and strong flavor which can help mask the absence of salt because smokiness is such a dominant flavor.
Try adding smoked paprika to my Crispy Chickpeas or my Smoky Corn, Tomato, and Chard Soup.
7. Coconut Aminos
Coconut aminos is popular, lower-sodium alternative to soy sauce (the brand I have is called Coconut Secret). I typically prefer tamari (a higher quality, Japanese-style and gluten-free soy sauce) in my recipes, but for those strictly concerned with sodium, coconut aminos can be a good one-to-one substitution in recipes that soy sauce or tamari listed. It has that same salty-umami vibe but is sweeter and, unsurprisingly less salty. I'm personally not a fan of Braggs (just seems overly synthetic and I don't dig the spray-bottle vibe, which must be the only thing that makes it lower sodium).
For a quick comparison (approximations, found online):
soy sauce/tamari: 1 teaspoon has 305-315g of sodium
coconut aminos: 1 teaspoon has 90mg of sodium
Braggs liquid aminos: 1 teaspoon has 320g of sodium
8. Fresh Basil and Cilantro
Fresh vegetal herbs are a good way to add interest and aroma to a dish just before it hits the table. My personal favorites are fresh basil and cilantro that are both highly aromatic and go well with more tart or sour-leaning dishes like tomato-based sauces and soups, which is a pro if you are cutting sodium in your cooking. Gently tear or rough chop these delicate leaves before sprinkling generously on your dish. Fresh herbs should be stored unwashed and un-chopped, wrapped in a damp paper towel and put inside a glass food storage container or ziploc bag in the fridge for a longer shelf life.
9. Aged Balsamic Vinegar
All kinds of vinegar can add salt-free zip to your food, but balsamic vinegar is usually sweeter, mellower, and more rounded in flavor than other alternatives like red wine vinegar. Aim for balsamic aged at least 12 years and ideally 18 years for something really rich and almost syrupy. Try drizzling on top of salads (duh), roasted veggies like Brussels sprouts, and even as a garnish to soups. Check out a local olive oil shop where you can taste oils before you buy them--they often have balsamic vinegars for tasting too so you can try before you buy. Chicagoans can check out the shop Old Town Oil.
10. Granulated Garlic
Like our buddy smoked paprika, granulated garlic is another power spice that does heavy lifting when it comes to adding flavor to a dish. It has that slightly gritty texture reminiscent of salt as well. Granulated garlic holds up to roasting and sautéing without burning so it's a good way to cheat flavor when you don't feel like chopping onions and garlic too. (Those sensitive to garlic can also try an Indian spice called Hing.)
Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend made from equal parts sesame seeds, thyme, oregano, and sumac. Sumac is a purply, tart berry that's ground to create this sour, citrusy element. Za'atar can be purchased as a blend in the spice aisle or you can make your own. I like it on homemade pita chips and roasted potatoes and it's a good post-cooking garnish too.
Another spice blend that's amazing at adding flavor and texture is dukkah. You can find my recipe here. It's a combination of pistachios, sesame, fennel, and a few other nuts and seeds. I add a little sea salt to mine, but you could skip if you wanted. I like it on top of a creamy, blended soup or generously sprinkled onto a kale salad. It's perfect on top of any kind of toast too. You can make a batch and store it in a jar or shaker bottle for sprinkling at the table.