Time to explore some salt-free seasonings

For most of us, Salt is a must in the kitchen. When the term ‘season lightly’ is bandied about, it almost always means add salt and ground pepper to taste. As I’ve noted here in many, many times, one of the major differences between home cooks and Pros is the judicious use of salt and pepper throughout the cooking process – Seasoning lightly in layers. If you often read electronically as I do, take any of your cookbooks and do a word search for salt – Guaranteed it’ll come up more than any other term in most, if not all of them you own and use. In other words, the influence of salt in cooking is felt damn near everywhere – So what to do when you simply can’t have that mineral any more? Time to explore some salt-free seasonings. 

Salt’s ubiquity in cooking isn’t a mistake. In addition to being used as a preservative for thousands of years, salt does yeoman’s duty in waking up or suppressing certain flavors. Ever wonder why something like a cake recipe often calls for a pinch of salt? Its presence rounds out how we taste, smell, and feel food in our mouths – Even sweet stuff. Taste a fresh batch of soup or stew without salt in it, and the vast majority of us will note something to the effect of, it tastes bland, off, flat, no backbone, and so on. A dish that we expect to note the presence of salt within, and doesn’t have it, will seem incomplete or out of balance. As oft noted in the food world, we eat through our sense of smell as much as we do taste, and here again, salt plays a pivotal role – It enhances the volatility of many aromatic components, making their presence much more notable to our schnozes – It does this by freeing aromatic scents from the foods in question, thereby making them more intense to our perception. It wouldn’t be out of line to state that our brains have salt receptors – When it senses salt where we think it should be, it’s a happy brain, and vice verse when it’s not there – That’s powerful stuff.

Sodium chloride is a mineral, which is fairly unique, food-wise. Given its broad power in the kitchen, salt becomes an imposing thing to do without, or to adequately compensate for the absence thereof. An old friend contacted me yesterday, asking for salt free seasoning blends. Her Hubby recently suffered a serious medical setback, and as such, his Docs say no mas with salt. Medical and dietary restrictions are the primary reasons folks are forced to give the stuff up. When it’s medical, it’s serious – a guy really can’t cheat and expect to recover fully or quickly. The current trend in medical thinks says too much salt isn’t good for your blood pressure, heart, liver, or kidneys, and can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. But absolutely no salt isn’t that great for you either – The indication being that moderate salt intake affords some protection from those ills, while an absolutely zero salt diet probably does not. It has some critical functions, acting as an electrolyte to balance fluid, as well as aiding nerve and muscle function. But again, that’s moderate use. 

The WHO calls moderate less than 5 grams daily intake, but that’s for sodium as a whole, not just salt. If one’s diet includes regular doses of fast food, and/or highly processed foods in general, chances are good you’re taking in far, far more than that – Often two or more times that RDA, in fact – The FDA claims that roughly 11% of our sodium intake in this country comes from an actual salt shaker, while over 75% of it is derived from packaged, processed food. Let that sink in for a sec…

In other words, it’s not at all out of line to say that most American’s problems with sodium doesn’t come from seasoning, but from eating shitty food. That’s easily remedied, in a way – Get rid of the junk, and you’re mostly good – Or as I used to teach in first aid classes, just go around the outer ring of the grocery store. That way, you’ll get produce, protein, dairy, and beer – And most of what’s in the inside probably ain’t all that great for you, anyway… Of course, just stopping eating a high sodium diet, and still enjoying what you eat, isn’t as easily said as done – Doing that takes some help – and that’s where low or no salt spice blends come in.

If you’ve poked around here, then you know most of the blends I’ve offered do contain a fair amount of salt. Many commercial seasoning blends contain salt first and foremost, for the reasons detailed herein, so how should we compensate? Salt free or damn near is an obvious step, but not a fulfilling one necessarily – Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, how do we compensate with something that will adequately fill the taste and flavor enhancing qualities of salt? The quick answer is acid and umami.

When reviewing the ingredients in commercial no salt seasoning blends, (and how many of us actually do that, by the way?), it becomes readily apparent that the most popular contain at least an acidic constituent, usually powdered citrus or vinegar. Yet quite a few have no viable salt substitute at all. To me, this is a no brainer – If we’re out to successfully replace salt, there must be something effective in its place. Flavor balance among the primary tastes, (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, and possibly kokumi, described as mouthfulness or heartiness), is a key to great overall taste, and a key to many cuisines, especially Asian. Simply removing salt without compensating for and considering the other primary taste factors is unlikely to yield a satisfying result. Again, acidity and umami are the primary candidates to fix that.

Umami is often regarded as being closely associated with MSG, monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamate. Contrary to a lot of common myth, MSG is not unnatural – It occurs in many foods, (It’s why we dig Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, among others), and it’s found in our bodies as an amino acid. Granted, there are some folks who don’t tolerate it well, but there are also, to my knowledge, no viable studies that tie MSG to nerve damage, as has been broadly claimed in the past, and many of the studies that found it deleterious to health involved people ingesting quantities far above anything us relatively sane folk would do. MSG contains appreciably less sodium per weight than regular salt, and as such certainly can be considered as a viable constituent of a low salt seasoning blend. Pure MSG is available readily, as are MSG powered seasonings like Maggi. The latter is a good candidate for a spice blend, (it comes in cube form as well as liquid), as a very little bit added to an herb blend packs a big umami/salt punch. Maggi has a bunch of other things in it, herbs, aromatic bases, and the like, depending on where it’s made – Swiss in origin, there are variants made all over the world, and they’re all unique. All that said, if MSG just isn’t on your list, then consider acids.

When it comes to salt free home made spice blends, citrus or vinegar are excellent salt substitutes. Both can be bought powdered, as can lime, lemon, and orange, and all of those in very pure form – These are spray dried, and contain nothing but dried citrus juice. You can also buy, or dry at home, citrus and citrus peel, albeit they won’t have nearly the punch, weight per weight, that dried juice will. As stand alones, or perhaps with the tiniest touch of MSG or regular salt, acids can be effective and satisfying salt replacements.

Next, let us consider the best herbs and spices to employ. This is where things get fun, because replacing or reducing salt calls for the use of what may be considered somewhat exotic ingredients. While there really aren’t any spices, herbs, or aromatic bases that taste salty, there are quite a few that can add their own unique punch to a blend – Something that can contribute to that sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami balance and fill in the missing pieces. Alliums, like garlic, onion, and fennel can do a lot in this regard. So can chiles, throughout their range of heat and smokiness – everything from cayenne to Piment d’Espelette, urfa biber to pepperoncino, or Szechuan to Thai, and any of a hundred other regional gems in this vein. Then consider some of the warmer spices that may not usually make it into your thinking for every day spice blends – Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg come to mind. No, these won’t replace salt, but they can provide a balanced flavor profile that intrigues a tongue dismayed by the lack of a favorite thing – This stuff is all about receptors – in our tongues, eyes, noses, and brains – Whatever we need to do to adequately fill the void is the ticket. Add to this the heady, heavier notes of traditional constituents like basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and you’re in the wheelhouse.

The final consideration is proportion. This really will depend on what you’re building. Let’s say we go for something you’d like to use as an every day blend, something that could go on a wide variety of dishes as a salt based blend might. If it’s me, I’m going allium heavy, with onion and garlic leading the way. How about a Mexican based blend? Chiles are the obvious lead, with pepper as a close second. Speaking of pepper, how about that as a lead? I’d follow it with alliums and sweet pepper notes. Something for poultry? How about paprika, onion, chiles, lemon and some floral herbs? 

I think, and trust, that y’all get the idea. I’ll put a few of my ideas up, but here as always – and especially here, where it may be really important to y’all – I need you to take this and run with it. There are no truly bad choices. If you’re unsure of where you’re going, make a tiny batch and see what you think. Tweak that and get where you want to be, and then, guaranteed, one day you’ll use it and think, ‘this is good, but I should…’ and the answer to that is damn near always, ‘yes, do!’

With all of these blends, combine and mix thoroughly. If you’re starting with whole spices, grind them fine. I transfer blends to a shaker topped glass jar, stored away from direct sunlight. Depending on the gauge of your shaker top, you may need to run the finished blend through a single mesh strainer to make sure it’ll flow well. Caking can be an issue, especially in humid environments. Calcium Phosphate is yet another edible rock that does yeoman’s duty as an anti-caking agent. It’s readily available online, and yes, it’s perfectly fine to use and consume – A teaspoon or two in any of these blends should do the trick.

 

Urban’s Every Day Lo Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon granulated Garlic

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

1 teaspoon dried Mustard

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Urb’s Low Salt Pepper Blend

2 Tablespoons ground Black Pepper.

1 Tablespoon ground Red Pepper

1 teaspoon ground Green Pepper

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Celery Seed

1/4 teaspoon Maggi seasoning

 

Garlicky No Salt Blend

2 Tablespoons granulated Garlic

2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

2 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

1 teaspoon Urfa Biber

1 teaspoon Vinegar powder

 

Urb’s No Salt Mex Blend

1 Tablespoon ground Ancho chile 

1 Tablespoon ground Pasilla chile 

1 teaspoon ground Chipotle chile

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Urb’s No Salt Poultry Blend

1 Tablespoon sweet Paprika

1 Tablespoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1 teaspoon ground Pepper

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

1/2 teaspoon granulated Honey

1/2 teaspoon Sage

1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

 

Urb’s No Salt Italian Blend

1 Tablespoon Basil

1 Tablespoon Oregano

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon powdered Vinegar

1/2 teaspoon powdered Lemon

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

 

Urban Chinese Five Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns

3 whole Star Anise

1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)

2 teaspoons whole Cloves

2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

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