Ten Unprocessed Salt Substitutes

Priscilla Willis is the writer, recipe developer, and creative behind the popular Orange County website She’s Cookin’ | from the heart. Her recipes and photographs have been featured on Huffington Post Taste, Huffington Post Kitchen Daily, the LA Times, OC Family, OC Menus (restaurants), and Honest Cooking (travel). She has served as a speaker on Social Media for the Orange County PR Professionals Association and the Fresh Produce and Floral Council and as a culinary judge for the Orange County Fair and SoCo Farmers Market “Farm to Food Truck Challenge.” Priscilla also collaborates with Hoag Hospital on raising awareness and educating folks about cooking good foods for the heart. You can follow Priscilla on Twitter, FacebookPinterest, and Google +.

Growing up on a small family farm and being the oldest in a household of six, I learned to cook at a young age and have always eaten relatively “clean.” Every spring the whole family was put to work preparing the soil and planting the garden which would provide  vegetables for the entire year. I remember my mom working diligently through the summer canning tomatoes, making jams, and freezing green beans, chard, and Chinese peas. Memories of summer days spent in sticky humidity under the blazing sun, grumbling under our breath so the old man wouldn’t hear, as we did our required two hours of tortured servitude. Our garden was not a glorified hobby – it was our sustenance; along with the goats, chickens, and hogs that we raised and woke up at 6:00 a.m. to feed and milk every day before school, and the side of beef that we bought from the local slaughterhouse each year and stored in the giant deep freezer at my grandmother’s house down the hill.

Of course, at the time I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to grow up drinking goats’ milk instead of soda, eating freshly picked vegetables and eggs we had gathered ourselves and, as the oldest, my mom’s designated right-hand in the kitchen. I began to appreciate these early experiences when I had my own family and take great pride in preparing delicious meals that nourish our bodies and brings smiles to the faces of friends and family.

With all the diets out there you may be wondering what exactly is a heart healthy diet. A heart healthy diet is really the same as a cancer prevention diet or a basic healthy diet: one that is low in refined or processed sugar, low in saturated (animal) and trans fats, rich in nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, eat fish at least twice a week, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

But there’s another matter of vital concern that is often overlooked, for heart health and being healthy overall: the amount of sodium that the average American ingests. Sodium has come under increasing scrutiny in the past few years and has long been a silent culprit in high blood pressure and heart disease. Further scrutinizing our diet and eating unprocessed became imperative after my husband suffered his first heart attack in December of 2000, followed by bypass surgery and arrhythmia related problems. His twelve-year struggle with heart disease has meant virtually giving up some of his favorite foods – like cheese and charcuterie! – and  developing laser-sharp focus on the sodium content in food.

Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring…or bland. And, there’s more ways to amp up flavors besides adding salt. One way to shake the salt habit is to cut back on the amount of table salt, however, most of the salt we consume is from restaurant and processed foods  — bread has lots of salt, as do cereal and cakes, cheese and meat, and, of course, snack foods. Many of us have been conditioned with a craving for salt from the foods we ate as children and it takes time for your taste buds to grow accustomed to the inherent flavor of foods without the pop that salt adds. Besides eliminating processed foods as much as possible, I started cooking without added salt years ago and everyone (mostly me) could sprinkle sea salt to their own taste at the table.

Using herbs, spices, and other flavorings is a great way to season food and lower your dependence on the salt shaker. Here are my Top 10 ways to add flavor and enhance the taste and complexity of food, along with popular recipes from the archives that you might like to try.

1. Onions and Garlic

Raw or cooked they complement nearly any savory dish. I especially like caramelized onions for a deeper, umami flavor in stews, soups, any braised or roasted dish, tomato based pasta sauces, burgers (beef, veggie, or turkey), meatloaf, pizza (allowing you to cut down on cheese). The umami flavor of caramelized onions work well in vegetarian and vegan dishes as well. Experiment with omitting the butter and using only sesame, avocado, olive, and grape seed oil to cook them. Since the holidays are coming up, I wanted to feature my healthy take on Green Bean casserole – that ubiquitous holiday favorite since the 50’s:

Mushroom, Green Bean Casserole Redux

Mushroom, Green Bean Casserole Redux – be gone, Campbell’s mushroom soup!

2. Herbs and Spices

If your spice rack consists of Italian seasoning and basil, it’s time to expand your horizons – reinvent the dishes you’ve been making for years and bust a move with a few new ones! Pick up some fresh rosemary, thyme, chives, or basil at the market or stock up on dried herbs and ground spices such as: Herbs de Provence, cumin, coriander, cayenne, lemon pepper, no-salt chili seasonings and spice mixtures for every cuisine at stores like  Savory Spice Shop where I satisfy my urge for Moroccan with Ras el Hanout and Za’atar.

3. Lemon Juice

Not just for water or cocktails or as a salad dressing substitute for dieters, lemon juice adds a bright taste that is capable of replacing salt  – the #1 culprit of bloat and water retention besides being a major contributor to high blood pressure – in a lot of foods. Oftentimes when a dish tastes flat, it needs a little acid – not salt. Add a squeeze of lemon to salads, steamed or sautéed veggies, grilled fish or chicken, sauces, and soups. Don’t limit yourself to lemon juice either – lime, orange, tangerine, and grapefruit juices are also equal contenders depending on the dish – lime is a staple in Mexican, Central American, South American, and Asian cuisines, orange and tangerine are fabulous foils for pork and game, and experiment with grapefruit juice in place of lemon (unless you’re on a statin drug).

4. Citrus and Citrus Zest

This includes lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit and tangerine: take that marinade up a notch and include the zest of the fruit, not just the juice. Citrus is the perfect complement to fish and seafood and citrus zest is also great in baked goods where the liquid may change the delicate composition of the recipe.

5. Vinegar

As I said previously, if a dish tastes “flat” add a dash of acid. It’s the supporting character behind many a stellar sauce, salad dressing, marinade, salsa, or chutney. Vinegars are far more versatile than you (or I) ever suspected. If cost per ounce were calculated they are the ultimate flavor enhancer – stock up on white balsamic, apple cider, balsamic, rice, red wine, white wine, and champagne vinegars. I’ve used balsamic vinegar with mushrooms in recipes as a substitute for high-sodium soy sauce (don’t let the low-sodium label fool you).

Pear Vinaigrette

Pear Vinaigrette – amazingly versatile and received rave reviews on my Grilled Pluots with Mozzarella

6. Infused Oils

A wonderful replacement for butter, salted butter, and soy sauce or to add another layer of flavor beyond extra virgin olive oil. I frequently use truffle oil, blood orange oil, Meyer lemon oil, chili oil, garlic-infused oil, and oils infused with Asian flavors which have far less sodium than soy sauce.

7. Beer and Wine

Use beer and wine (and even coffee) to add flavor to stews, soups, chili, pasta sauces, and braised dishes on their own or instead of broth. Avoid all canned soups – they are loaded with sodium. Canned or boxed broth or soup base, unless you make your own at home, is high in sodium – even the low-sodium varieties can be too high for someone on a restricted sodium diet, unless one serving, which is usually considered 1/2 cup (read labels), is all you’re going to consume.

8. Salsa and Chutney

Whether traditional tomato-based, sweet seasonal fruit, or a combination of the two, they are a colorful, fresh flavored accompaniment to grilled meats, fish, omelets, a wide-range of appetizers, cheese plates, chips and crudités. Homemade salsa and chutney are actually quite easy to make, you’ll wonder why you’ve never bothered.

Hoppin’ John Salsa

Hoppin’ John Salsa – great with chips, on nachos, with eggs – you name it!

 9. Chiles and Peppers

Low sodium fare does not have to taste bland, if you crave highly seasoned food there’s no better way to get that punch than with chiles and peppers, whether you like them mild or packing some heat, add them freely.

10. Mushrooms

Add a meaty, satisfying flavor to vegetarian and vegan dishes and can provide that elusive umami taste to Asian-inspired dishes without sodium-loaded soy sauce by using a mixture of caramelized onions and mushrooms sautéed in a sesame oil/vegetable oil combination with a dash of balsamic vinegar. You can eliminate soy sauce, oyster sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and other high-sodium condiments with natural umami flavors.

If you use any or all of these ten naturally delicious and unprocessed flavor enhancers in lieu of salt, you’re doing your body and heart a big favor. Remember that the American Heart Association actually recommends consuming less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day – at 2,325 milligrams per teaspoon that is less than ONE teaspoon of salt per day! According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average American consumes 3,436 mg of sodium a day, much more than the government’s recommended daily maximum. Our bodies require sodium (about 180 to 500 mg/day) – it helps maintain blood pressure, send nerve messages and plays a role in muscle contraction, but too much has been linked to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

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24 Responses to Ten Unprocessed Salt Substitutes

  1. Shereen October 31, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Great suggestions! But, I’m confused about the benefits of reducing salt intake. I recently read this article (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/05/research-finds-a-sweet-side-to-salt/) that suggests a low-salt diet might actually have negative effects. So, I’m not sure what to believe at this point! Or what kind of salt is best to use for maximum health benefits.

    • Jessica Marie October 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      You are right, low-salt diets can be harmful as your body needs some salt/sodium to regulate sweat and water consumption. However, I have discovered there is a difference between low salt, the right amount and too much. As Americans we do eat way too much salt; did you know that there was a time when Americans ate salt tablets to make sure they had enough salt b/c they did not laden their foods with it. My grandfather tells the story about how he ate one every morning. He still eats food that is prepared without salt, he just puts a little on his food at times and he is extremely healthy and anyone would swear he is only about 60 rather than the 84 that he is. It is all about eating the right amounts and creating balance in your diet.

  2. Mary Papoulias-Platis October 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    Your suggestions are terrific! I often get stuck some nights and this will be my new guide – These items are a must-have pantry item in everyone’s kitchen! My tip: Add them to your weekly grocery list.

  3. Jessica Marie October 30, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    I grew up in the same type of environment and did not appreciate it either. As a preteen and teenager I remember thinking we did all that because we were poor and I was so embarrassed to let anyone know. My best friends’ parents did the same thing. It was tough, but today even though it was because we were “poor farmers” it has had quite a positive impact on my nutrition today.

  4. Dana @ Foodie Goes Healthy October 30, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    I love all your tips, especially your discussion about other ways to add umami and acid to flavor a dish. Gorgeous food photography. I look forward to checking out more recipes on your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Chef AJ October 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    I love Benson’s Table Tasty. Tastes like salt with no sodium. Made just from herbs, you can get it at http://www.BensonsGourmet Seasonings.com.

    Love & Kale,
    Chef AJ

  6. Priscilla October 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Thanks to everyone for your kind comments and to Stacy for answering Jacquie’s question. Please feel free to email (shescookin {at} gmail.com ) me if you have any questions about salt substitutions or the recipes on my site.

  7. jacquie October 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    thanks for such an informative post. i stopped adding salt while cooking a couple of years ago and use many of the subsitutions that you mention above. food just taste so much better to me – so much more “real” somehow. i can’t explain it well. i do have a question though .. while i do consume dairy i don’t eat much processed food in general so i do wonder about iodine levels since i’m not sure how to get that into my diet and it is an important in the heathy functioning of the body. Are you concerned with that? Is there anything you do to address it? thanks so much.

    • Stacy Spensley October 29, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

      Jacquie, great question! The most efficient way to get iodine is to include sea vegetables in your diet. I just got a shaker of dulse granules and sprinkle that on my eggs or avocado toast or soup or whatnot. Kombu, hijiki, arame, kelp, nori, dulse…

      Other good sources include cranberries, navy beans, strawberries, dairy products (especially yogurt), potatoes (with skin), beet greens, and seafood. Too much iodine can also be detrimental, the average adult only needs about 150 µg per day.

  8. Sandy October 29, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    H’mmm . . . for things that do require salt, what do you think of “sea-salt” (in quotes because all salt did originally come out of a sea, even if a now-dry one) or pure (“pickling”) salt, as opposed to “table” salt with de-caking ingredients added?
    Background for question:
    Mom reduced the salt in her bread recipe to a teaspoon per loaf, after Dad was diagnosed with salt-sensitive high BP, but any lower than that, the yeast tends to collapse. (Nobody’s quite sure what’s causing Mom’s high BP, but we reduce salt for her anyway, just in case . . . altho the canned cream-of-mystery-meat soup she likes is probably doing worse damage. sigh.)
    My husband actually has problems with occasional LOW blood pressure (especially on antihistamines) so after getting most of the processed food out of our diets (OK, the occasional ham sandwich with mayo isn’t going anywhere!) I don’t feel pressure to get rid of salt added to recipes. But the anti-caking agents, it seems to me, would prevent the salt from doing the useful things it needs to do in the body.

    • Priscilla October 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      Some sea salt is less processed than regular table salt but it all contains the same amount of sodium. Bread has been a tough nut for us to crack. After many trials we have a recipe that works, but it is denser than what you’re accustomed to. We now consider bread a “splurge” food and have grown to like wrapping sandwich ingredients in corn tortillas (not flour, which has much higher sodium) and butter lettuce or romaine leaves.

  9. Kathy and Ken Lindner October 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Wonderful! We especially have fallen in love with RICE VINEGAR; it adds a tang of sweet pucker somehow!

  10. Colleen October 29, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    Great article!!! You have certainly done your research. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    May I suggest one more? I frequently use Bragg Liquid Aminos for a seasoning when I want that wonderful soy sauce or tamari taste. Unlike soy sauce, it contains only 100 mg of sodium per 1/2 tsp., is vegan friendly, is gluten-free, contains no preservatives, and makes a delicious broth. It contains 16 healthy amino acids and is made from non-GMO soy protein.

    My favorite way to utilize this seasoning is to add it to a spray bottle; 1/3 water to 2/3 Bragg’s Liquid Amino and spray it on my vegetables, adding the taste I love, but cutting down even more on the salt.

  11. Shari-Tickled Red October 29, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Over consumption of salt has been in my cross hairs for years now and especially so when I read that some specialists believe that too much salt and preservatives might have a hand in the increase of thyroid issues. Love this post!! Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful alternatives.

  12. Dorothy at ShockinglyDelicious October 29, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Excellent advice for ALL of us, whether our doctor tells us to do it or not. We all need to pay more attention to the hidden sodium in our food and avoid it. Thank you!

  13. Judy Rempe October 29, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I’m printing this whole thing out and moving my cook books to storage and just having this pamphlet I make from the recipes on my shelf. I’ll adjust whatever I usually make to these recommendations and see how it works out. Sometimes I get the feeling someone’s out there trying to GET US with all the sodium that’s in processed foods. Yet, if all of us quit using processed, what will happen to the economy? We’ll get richer, healthier, and they’ll disappear or….adjust.

  14. LiztheChef October 29, 2012 at 7:50 am #

    After my husband’s heart attack, I started collecting tips like these and coming up with some of my own – this is a very helpful post, one that all home cooks will benefit from reading. The overdosing of the public on sodium is really epidemic.

    • Priscilla October 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      It sure is, Liz – most people have no idea how much salt is in the food they consume and how our tastebuds have been conditioned to it.

  15. Christina October 29, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    This is such a great post!! I frequently omit salt and replace with herbs and spices, but I never thought of these other replacement ingredients! And thank you SO MUCH for the alternative green been casserole recipe. I’ll be sure to replace the traditional Campbell’s recipe with this one for Thanksgiving – I’m sure my family won’t mind :)

    • Priscilla October 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

      Thanks, Christina! And your family may mind, but they’ll get used to it – you can actually taste each fresh ingredient in this green bean casserole :)


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