Creating Umami: How to cook with less salt

Many ingredients besides salt can give dishes rich satisfying flavor. The following tips will help you transition to a lower sodium diet without sacrificing flavor by creating what is called umami. Often called the “fifth taste” umami suppresses bitter compounds (in foods like kale and broccoli), heightens the existing flavor of dishes and increases the perception of saltiness.

Cook with fresh or dried mushrooms. Mushrooms (particularly shiitakes and morels) are rich in amino acids (essential for developing umami) that create more complex low-sodium broths for stews soups or braising liquids.

Add fresh or dried chili peppers, white pepper or smoked paprika. The piquancy of these seasonings stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers in much the same way as salt. So, we can actually trick the brain into thinking a meal is higher in sodium by using chilies and other warming spices.

Flavor dishes with aromatic vegetables and herbs: onions, shallots, leeks, celery, garlic and rosemary.

Season with fermented condiments such as Worcestershire sauce, low-sodium tamari, miso and anchovy paste give. Worcestershire sauce, for example, has 65 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon which is significantly less than 2,300 mg in one teaspoon of salt.

Add kombu (a type of seaweed) to soups and stews to add depth of flavor and help dried beans cook evenly.

Sprinkle dishes with nutritional yeast. An excellent alternative to cheese, this low-calorie condiment has just 5 milligrams of sodium in one tablespoon and is packed with essential amino acids and B-vitamins. Nutritional yeast is delicious sprinkled on popcorn and roasted vegetables. Imparting “cheesiness” nutritional yeast can be used to enhance the flavor of, and thicken soups and stews.

Shake dried seaweed such as furikake, nori or dulse flakes on salads and side dishes to add Asian flare with less salt.

Use tomato paste or sun-dried tomatoes to enhance the flavor of soups and stews (one handful of chopped sun-dried tomatoes adds only 120-300 milligrams of sodium).

Powdered tomatoes and powdered mushrooms are convenient ways to add umami to sauces, omelets, stews, sautéed greens, bean dips, bread and soups.

Use salt in moderation. Choose a flaky or larger grain  salt to control how much you add. Flaky salt dissolves rapidly on the tongue creating bold flavor so you will add less. The best bang for your buck for flavor is alberger salt, a flaky salt shaped like tiny, hollow pyramids. Another option is to buy salt with a grain size similar to whole peppercorns and combine it with herbs and spices in a pepper grinder.

A note about salt: Don’t pay extra money for Himalayan, pink or sea salts because they are not healthier for you. These salts have roughly the same amount of sodium as traditional iodized table salt. The attractive hue comes from an array of minerals that are beneficial to our health but the amount you get from a pinch of salt is minute, so there is truly no advantage to using them instead of table salt.

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