Using Salt = Cheating

You'll notice that very VERY few of the recipes I use and that I'll post on this blog contain any added salt. That's usually one of the first modifications that I'll make to any recipe. Cut out the salt. It's cheating.

That's right, using salt in a recipe is like cheating. I consider it an even worse sin than using pre-minced garlic from a jar.

The purpose of this post is to convince you to cut as much salt from your diet as you possibly can.

Masking Agents
Salt is really just a masking agent. It blinds your tastebuds. It covers up the real taste of your dish. It masks any subtleties of taste that your ingredients or your overall dish might have on their own. It's nothing more than a blunt instrument.

What's even more mortifying to me is how many restaurants cheat by using excess salt. And we're not talking TGI Friday's here either (who could blame them?--I go there for the flair myself). My wife and I have found this in a meaningful percentage of some of the really good restaurants in New York. Dishes taste like brine instead of food. It's as if the chef dumbs everything down for you, yet he still charges you $29.50 for a piece of fish.

There's also an amusing story I read years ago about how Campbell's attempted to make "low sodium" versions of all their soups...and they all tasted so bad that nobody bought them. Eventually Campbell's faced the music and realized they couldn't just put out briny soups--minus the brine--and expect people to like them. You can't get away with a lifetime of making industrial-style soup masked with salt and then just take the salt away.

Taste Things For Real
I remember when my parents made the switch to a lower-sodium diet after my father's blood pressure got up above normal. At first, it was Mrs. Dash in everything. They felt that food "needed" something. But the truth is that almost all foods have a surprising subtlety that salt only serves to cover up.

I recall distinctly making my Mom's split pea soup recipe one time years ago and deciding to leave out the salt. When I finished cooking it up and actually tasted it, I couldn't believe how bland and tasteless it seemed at first. I remember thinking to myself that if I was going to try it this way, I should at least get through to the bottom of one bowl before I furtively added back the salt.

But then I began to discover some subtleties in the dish. Huh--split peas actually had a taste! Not a strong taste mind you, but they actually did have a taste and it was pretty good! This may not strike you as an earthshaking event, but it was the catalyst that actually changed my cooking permanently to where I now never add salt to any dish.

Try actually tasting your food for real. You don't have to be a savant in the kitchen to do this. If you cook competently, use decent-quality ingredients and condition your palate away from salt, your cooking won't "need anything" at all.

Condition Your Palate Away From Salt
Will you have the same experience I had at first and think everything is so bland you can't stand it? Then try using some exta black pepper instead of salt. Or try a little cayenne pepper or chipotle pepper. Or just stick with it and try eating your food for a few weeks with no salt added (see this link on the concept of a 30-day trial to form new habits). You'll find that in a matter of days this will deepen and enrich your palate, and you won't be so conditioned to NEED salt added to everything. You'll find that you'll very quickly develop a surprising subtlety in how and what you taste. You'll actually start tasting things for real instead of tasting brine. And your food will taste better and healthier to you without salt acting as a masking agent.

Live Longer, and Save on Blood Pressure Meds!
Heck, you're likely going to have cut your salt intake down eventually anyway, since we're all going to get old someday (if we're lucky) and we'll need to watch our blood pressure. Instead, why not teach yourself now to enjoy your food for what it really is, and you'll get the side benefit on saving on blood pressure meds (uh, and erectile dysfunction too) down the road!

A final note: Most foods already contain more salt than you'd think. For example the split pea soup recipe below contains optional beef boullion cubes. Guess what those are made of? Uh huh. If you use canned vegetables, especially canned tomatoes or tomato sauces...yep, added salt. Most stores will offer low- or no sodium sauces or canned products. Consider using them. But at the very least, don't add extra salt to a dish that should taste good without masking agents.

***********

Try this recipe out for a simple, low-sodium soup:

Easy Split Pea Soup
1 lb dried green split peas (prefer Goya)
10 cups water
1-2 beef boullion cubes (optional; can also use 1-2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock, but then use only 8 or 9 cups water instead of 10 above)
3-4 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pieces of ham or chicken (optional)

Rinse peas, then add to water and bouillion (or stock) in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer (covered) for 30-40 minutes, occasionally dipping off foam. Add all other ingredients and simmer for another 40 minutes or until peas are soft.

25 comments:

Jim said...

Interesting idea. I decided years ago not to add salt at the table and I have never really looked back from that. But I never thought of cutting it out of the cooking process too. I'll give it a try.

As for "using pre-minced garlic from a jar", we've gotten in the habit of using pre-peeled garlic that we get fresh from a local supermaket. It saves a TON of time vs peeling garlic. It's definitely more expensive but considering the time saved, I think it's worth it. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

It is very true that chain restaurants and processed foods often contain tons of salt and this does mask the flavor of the food. It is also true that people who have dietary restrictions should be very cognizant of the amount of sodium/potassium their food contains. But I definitely do not agree that salt = cheating. And while I am just a home cook, many chefs will also justify the pinch of salt as a necessary "flavor enhancer". Desserts often call for a pinch of salt and this is chemically necessary to "point up" or underscore the main flavors in the dish. Without salt, the flavors can be two-dimensional. I will continue to use low-sodium chicken broth and unsalted butter so I can control the seasoning in my food, but kosher salt will always have a place at my kitchen counter.

Jonathan Johnson said...

I don't quite believe you :) First off, I'm a happy new reader and have enoyed catching up on your blog.

Additionally, I'm a big fan of the Food network, where I've grown to like Alton Brown's Good Eats show. In it, he adds pinches of salt to already herb-plenty recipes, explaining that a pinch of salt helps bring out the flavors of the herbs. Beyond that, I see show after show on the Food network where little pinches of salt are necessary.

A very good example is bread baking, a passion of mine (still a novice though). Salt is very necessary when making your dough, because it regulates the yeast.

I'm a big believer in salt moderation, and with any food I cook myself, the salt shaker gets lifted off of the table. But in cooking, a pinch here or there can really bring out the flavors, or can be a crux in the cooking process of certain items.

Daniel Koontz said...

Thank you for the feedback! Happy to hear you enjoy reading.

Re the breads/baked goods, that is a very good point. I attempted to address it in my "How to Modify a Recipe" series.

PS: And what exactly is it that you don't believe? The part about not needing the erectile dysfunction meds? :)

DK

Jonathan johnson said...

I finished catching up with all the articles in the RSS feed :)

Re: what don't I believe, wasn't about erectyle disfunction medications, but rather cutting *all* sodium out :) It's funny how a comment seems well-formed and directed until someone else reads it, and then you realize your comments weren't fully qualified ;)

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason to add salt to a dish (and one of the reasons that Alton Brown often cites to do so, especially during a low-heat "sweat" of aromatics like herbs or onions) is because it draws moisture out of food. By soaking up water from your veggies or whatnot, salt leaves the flavors in the veggies more concentrated, which can add a real punch to a sweat or saute. It all depends when you add it and how much. . .

Daniel Koontz said...

I have to say I agree with you. A phenomenal new recipe I made recently (and just posted to my blog here) has caused me to take on a bit of, uh, moral relativism on this issue. But I still think that excess salt use is cheating and too many packaged foods, recipes and restaurant foods egregiously overdo it here.

Thank you for your comment!

DK

Lea Petra said...

Thank you, for this great article
We had to got low sodium in our house. There are a lot of misconceptions about salt. I was told I could not make bread without it. You can, just don't expect it to be like store bought. My favorite was you cannot digest vegetables without salt. Growing up with a mother that had a 1 acre garden and eating vegetables right there; according to that myth I should have starved long ago.
Herbs and spices are a great way to play with the flavor of food. Liquid smoke is a wonderful addition to meats and vegetables if you want a smoky taste without the salt.
We have noticed that when we do go out to eat, you can really start to taste the salt. Pretty soon all you can taste is the salt.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Lea,
Thank you for your comment. Totally agreed on the shameless overuse of salt in almost all restaurants.

Thanks for reading!

DK

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of confused, aren't you basically replacing the salt that would be added if you were using homemade beef stock with the bouillon cubes, which are extremely high in sodium?

Carol said...

We (some friends and I) ate out on Good Friday. I was the only one who didn't add salt at the table, and I found our meal salty as it was. One of my dinner companions actually added salt to a Caesar salad!

I have to eat gluten-free, and I made a loaf of bread today. It's full of wonderful grains, and -you guessed it - no salt to cover up their flavours. As soon as I could, I cut into it, and slathered a slice with some butter and enjoyed it thoroughly.

I agree that salt has its place, used judiciously, but we consume far, far too much of it, and all without thinking of what we're missing.

Regards, Carol

Daniel said...

Thanks for your input Carol, I couldn't agree more.

DK

Anonymous said...

Sorry, cannot agree. You may as well say that ALL seasonings are to cover up the flavor of food. That IS what they were all originally used for, to mask the taste of rotten meat in the time before refrigeration. But, over time we have learned to enhance the flavor of fresh food with spices, herbs and salt. While I agree that most processed food is phenomenally over salted and you aren't really tasting what is in the can, I do not agree that food should be cooked without any salt whatsoever. For one thing, we need the iodine added to most salt for healthy thyroid glands. Heck, we need salt itself. We may be 60% water, but it the salt in our bodies that regulates our water content. To have the right amount of salt (not too little or too much) keeps us healthy. Salt is needed for every cellular mechanism in our bodies. That's why when you go to the hospital, they don't give you a pure water i.v., they give you a saline i.v.

Anonymous said...

As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a chef, and a voracious reader of food science texts, I can tell you without a doubt that you are incorrect about this. While an exorbitant amount of salt would mask flavor, salt is truly a flavor enhancer, on a chemical and culinary level. Though it's true that processed foods use artificial flavors and an insane amount of salt to mask the lack of flavor in their subpar ingredients, food cooked entirely from scratch will never contain enough salt to be considered flavor "cheating".

Daniel said...

Happy to have some back and forth on this.

You actually help make my point by saying that processed foods use an insane amount of salt. So do most restaurants. Unfortunately, this overuse is what conditions our palates--and it causes many people to use too much salt in their cooking at home too.

Thus salt gets used in amounts that go beyond flavor enhancement and veer off into cheating. And as a result almost all of us consume more salt than we need.

DK

autumn609 said...

One very good use for salt: it stops your gag reflex.
I have a terrible gag reflex especially at the dentist when it is time for x-rays. They use the kid size and I still almost regurgitate them until my hygienist had me lick a bit of salt (from the lunch room shaker poured in my palm) and that pure salt flavor was so strong no gagging. Except I didn't want anything salty for weeks afterwords.

Otherwise I really try to limit my salt, and I found that as you train your palate away from it, less is needed to get food to taste like what you expect.

Sally said...

While I'll agree that most people consume too much salt, it's most often not from what we use in cooking or at the table. About 75% of our salt consumption comes from processed foods. Eliminate those and you've eliminated the problems for the overwhelming majority of people.

I have heart disease -- congestive heart failure. I had a heart attack 15 years ago and my congestive heart failure was caused by the damage done to my heart during the heart attack. I've seen it on an echocardiogram -- the damaged area is very small, but in a very bad spot.

My cardiologist told me he didn't care what I ate or how much salt I used in cooking or at the table -- as long as I avoided processed foods as much as possible.

I agree with the first anonymous poster. The only time I've had trouble since developing CHF is when I happen to eat too much processed food and/or eat at chain restaurants. One memorable day several years ago I ate all three meals at various chain restaurants. I almost ended up in the hospital with pulmonary edema!

I will admit that my doctor's advice is not the standard advice -- but I'm not at all sure that the standard advice is necessary.

My blood pressure has only been elevated once in my life for a very short period of time. I'm a nurse -- and I've worked in an area where high blood pressure is more common than not (dialysis). My "high" was far lower than most folks "low." In fact, my high was lower than most of my coworkers normal blood pressure. While I am on an anti-hypertensive, it's for the side effect of decreasing the workload of the heart.

My doctor started me on a standard dose of the anti-hypertensives. We've had to lower it twice because my blood pressure gets so low I'm symptomatic.

Only about 30% of people with hypertension are salt-sensitive. And erectile dysfunction isn't caused by salt consumption/high blood pressure. It's caused by plaque build-up in the arteries -- the same as coronary artery disease. The heart isn't the only thing affected! However, high blood pressure is often caused by coronary artery disease.

This is from an article that Martha Beck wrote in O Magazine nearly 9 years ago:

"In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare's King Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only "I love you as meat loves salt." The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. "All along," he cries, "it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!" The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).

"This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we're making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn't cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with."

I don't think the use of salt = cheating in either matters of taste or health.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm not taking using salt=cheating completely literally I can agree with Dan. I eat at home 90% of the time, and while I do salt in the cooking process it is a flavor enhancer. But I do feel salting to excess is cheating...yourself. You lose out on the beautiful taste of food. It does cover up the taste of real food and it does become a habit. Because I use so little I'm super sensitive to salt but I often dine with friends who salt before tasting and salt everything from salads to salt-cured ham. I believe you become accustomed to salty flavors and you forget the delicate taste of real foods without it.

Anonymous said...

The day my wife and I got married, we cut out salt from our diet. It came naturally, it wasn´t a decision we took together. She was not interested and neither was I. We both love to cook, and we enjoy our meals more. We both come from families who love a huge amount of salt in their food and it has become difficult to both of us to eat at our parents homes. Our food simply tastes so much better.

Ronda said...

This post is one of the very few on this site that I really haven't liked. I don't think salt is a flavor masking agent any more than vanilla is in baking. Used properly, it is a flavor *enhancer.* Yes, it can be overused (and I get quite irked at my husband salting things before even tasting them!@! GRR) but to say that you should never salt is positively ridiculous. Salt also serves another purpose in baking, since some things won't rise properly without it. Maybe all these things have already been said--I haven't read all the comments--but I just wanted to make sure that someone called you on that "cheating" business. You are WAY overstating the case!

Daniel said...

Hi Ronda,

I think some readers benefited more by taking the phrase salt = cheating as a metaphor. Others were helped by seeing it as an absolute.

Either way, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for slipping a big compliment in there that you like most of what you read here. :) Sometimes the approach I use in a given post will flop for some readers, and that's okay. What I'm trying to do is send my message in different ways so it can resonate with different types of readers. As always, thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

DK

Anonymous said...

I feel that many of the readers have taken this post to literal and without flexibility. With salt as with all things cooking or otherwise it is finding the balance that works for you and what you are making. Here he is trying to make a statement on the overuse of salt and for him that means using no salt. For others it could be no processed foods or not adding salt to recipes containing processed foods. This is a suggestion to work off of it is not a command. I believe in trying things without salt and slowly adding until you find the right balance. The most important thing is to know what is going into your food as an overall, before adding "enhancers" or "maskers".

Unknown said...

It's time to end the war on salt:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=its-time-to-end-the-war-on-salt

Anonymous said...

You're dead wrong, and as a professional chef, it irritates me that people assert this.

When you taste something, most of the information that your body is taking in doesn't actually come from your sense of taste, it comes from your sense of smell. Right now, we know that our tongues are capable of processing 5 very basic flavors: Sweetness, Saltiness, Sourness, Bitterness, and Umami (which seem to be glutimates.) Anything other than those very basic sensations, such as the complexities in coffee, or herbs, is sensed by the nose.

For example, when you put a lime lollipop in your mouth, your tongue is tasting the sweetness from the sugar, the sourness from the citric acid, and all of the rest of those complex chemicals that make it taste like a lime lollipop, as opposed to a cherry lollipop, are being processed by your nose. If you effectively block your nose (easier said than done, they are extremely sensitive) you'd probably have a pretty hard time distinguishing a lime lollipop from a cherry lollipop.

So, if that is the case, why can't we be satisfied by simply smelling delicious foods? Your olfactory sense works in conjunction with your tongue, and the rest of your mouth, to form the experience of consuming food. If your mouth can't feel the food in there, and your tongue's sweet/sour/bitter/salty senses aren't triggered, then our body simply doesn't pay as much attention to what our olfactory senses are taking in. However, if you make something salty, or sweet, or bitter, or sour, then our brains immediately start analyzing it, intensely, to see if we like it, or if it's poisonous and should spit it out. Seasoning is generally designed to target, specific, broad tongue sensations in order to make our bodies more closely analyze the more complex notes in the food that we take in through our sense of smell!

This is *why* processed foods pack their products full of salt... to intensify their cheap flavors.

Daniel said...

Anonymous,

"This is *why* processed foods pack their products full of salt... to intensify their cheap flavors."

Thanks for making my case for me. You've described EXACTLY why it pays to condition your palate away from oversalted foods. It literally changes your palate and makes it so processed foods actually taste bad.

DK