In Search of Salt Substitues
Been told you need to cut back on your salt intake but you’re dreading a lifetime
of dull, bland food? Cheer up! With a whole world full of available flavoring agents,
you need never stare longingly at your salt shaker again.
Sugar and unhealthy fat are the dietary villains the media loves to hate, appearing in headlines so frequently that it’s easy to forget about that other culprit: salt. Although vital to health in proper amounts, big food companies are now using this ancient condiment in dangerous excess. “Salt is a heavy, low-cost ingredient that adds bulk and reduces the cost of a product,” says Ian Hemphill, Australian spice exporter and author of The Spice and Herb Bible (Robert Rose). “Heavily salted manufactured foods tend to have the perception of having lots of flavor.” Too much salt can push blood pressure upwards, which doesn’t help the 65 million Americans who have pressure problems.
In fact, the American Medical Association is now urging the federal government to limit the amount of salt that can be added to prepared foods.
Whether you need to get your blood pressure under control or simply want to not feel like you’re feeding off a salt lick, there is an answer to the low-salt/low-taste riddle…and it’s as close as your kitchen cupboard.
Herbs and spices are Nature’s way of saying “flavor.” These plants have culinary histories going back thousands of years; today, when regional cuisines hopscotch the globe with regularity, all the world’s tastes are increasingly available in the US. But exactly how do you employ those somewhat intimidating ingredients? “I always say that to use spices you do not need any special cooking skills,” Hemphill claims. (If you’re wondering, “herb” refers to the leaf of a plant used for flavoring, often fresh, while “spice” is reserved for other plant parts, such as bark, berries, buds, roots and seeds, that are almost always dried before use.)
First, a little cupboard cleanout is in order. Sweep your shelves clear of not only salt but also such related seasonings as garlic salt or onion salt. Then take stock of your packaged goods, especially flavorings such as bottled sauces and dried bouillon cubes, many of which are sodium-intense. Finally, look at your spice containers; dust or rust indicates something you haven’t used in a dog’s age—and out it should go.
You’re now ready to restock. Flavored vinegars—such as balsamic, rice and red wine—and table wine (the cooking type has salt added) provide the basis for piquant marinades and sauces, as does freshly squeezed lemon juice. Add onion and garlic powders, along with peppercorns (and a pepper mill). Also keep plain sesame seeds on hand, and toast them as needed.
All in the Flavor Family
Selecting herbs and spices for your new-look pantry can feel a little overwhelming simply because there are so many. (Hemphill discusses more than 100 in his book, which provides much of the information in the following bullet points.) It gets easier once you realize that these flavors can be grouped into families. According to Hemphill, spices fall into five classifications:
*Sweet—Best known as the stars of the dessert table, these spices also complement savory foods well. The more popular ones include allspice, which goes well with tomatoes; cinnamon, used whole to infuse liquids with flavor and in ground form for mixing with other dry ingredients; and nutmeg, a great addition to root vegetables and winter squash.
*Pungent—These nose-tickling spices should be used sparingly. Cardamom, a popular curry spice, falls into this category, as do cloves, which warm stewed fruit and mulled wine; cumin, tasty in vegetable casseroles and lamb dishes; and ginger, one of the few spices used both dried and fresh—gingerroot can smooth out the flavor in fish recipes.
*Tangy—The sourness of these spices helps balance out other flavors, especially sweet. This group includes tamarind, often used in tropical cuisines, and black lime, sun-dried whole lime that pairs well with chicken and seafood.
*Hot—These are the spices you add when you want to turn up the heat; use them judiciously. Chili is the best-known of the bunch, which also includes horseradish, another spice used in fresh form to complement cold meats, and mustard, the whole seeds of which can enliven steamed vegetables and are fried in oil when making curry (cover the pan or you’ll be sweeping them up from all over the kitchen).
*Amalgamating—The relative mildness of these spices belies how important they are in spice blends, where they help pull all the more strident flavors together into one enjoyable taste. Hemphill especially praises coriander—“a little extra coriander can save a blend from ruin”—but says you shouldn’t forget other members of this moderate family, such as fennel seed, which imparts a licorice-like flavor to soups, stews, breads and salads; paprika, the perfect accompaniment to meat and eggs that can also tone down powdered chili; and turmeric, a prime ingredient in spice blends from Morocco to India to Malaysia.
Herbs have their own groupings:
*Mild—Parsley is the most commonly used item in this category, which also includes borage, a cucumber-scented herb best sprinkled on salads or mixed with cream cheese (cut the hairy leaves finely for the best texture), and chervil, which subtly enhances the taste of other herbs.
*Medium—Chives, a mildly oniony herb best known for topping potatoes, is good in egg recipes and white sauces. Balm, which lends a lemon-mint flavor to poultry and fish, is another medium herb.
*Strong—Basil, a favorite in both Italian and Thai cuisines, is a strong herb, as are dill, a good match for chicken, seafood and vegetables; mint, especially spearmint, as an accompaniment to not only lamb but chicken and pork as well; and tarragon, a French cooking favorite.
*Pungent—Garlic and oregano are classic pungent herbs; this group also includes bay leaf, best used in such long-cooking recipes as soups, stews and casseroles; rosemary, a natural in meat dishes and casseroles; sage, found in many bean recipes; and thyme, which enhances the flavor of tomato and potato dishes.
Hemphill suggests starting with “a small selection of spices that have many applications, such as coriander seed, paprika, cumin, allspice, turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon.” Then move onto blends; Hemphill recommends using amalgamating spices and mild herbs as the base followed by, in increasingly smaller amounts, sweet spices and medium herbs, tangy spices and strong herbs, and pungent members of both groups, capped off by smidgens of hot spices. Prepackaged blends are another option; buy small amounts to see which blends work best in your favorite dishes.
Proper storage is vital. When buying fresh herbs, look for bright foliage that isn’t limp or yellow and stems that are crisp. If you place the stem ends in a cup of water and cover the leaves with a clean plastic bag they should last about a week in the fridge (change the water every couple of days).
When shopping for dried herbs and spices, “never buy cardboard, cellophane or low-barrier plastic packs,” Hemphill warns. Jars are better, but he recommends high-barrier zip-packs: “You can squeeze the air out of these packs before resealing.” Store them in the pantry, away from heat and light.
There’s an herb or spice for every dish. Find them, and you’ll have so much fun that you can kick the salt shaker straight to the can.