Oh, I hear you. I was there. I said the exact same thing — “what kind of loser needs to worry about salt reduction.”
Well, my answer now would be, “Do it now before it’s done to you. Because if you do it now, you can likely enjoy a lifetime of merrily enjoying gourmet salts. If you wait till a doctor does it to you, your arse will likely be banned from salt for a lifetime.” 1
I was never at the point where I was doctor-ordered to cut back salt, but when my blood pressure started to creep up after years at a desk job, I knew that salt intake could make a positive contribution to my health2 and that every lil step helps.3
Thing is, though, my salt was already in control, see? Heck if anything, I figured half-joking to myself, maybe I’d find out I needed to use more. As a smart cook, for years I’d already used salt in moderation in cooking, and in very small quantities at the table.
Well, turns out I didn’t know anything, because I hadn’t realized the near toxic levels of salt snuck into all the processed food that makes its way into our kitchens — from the ketchup to the jams to the pots of gourmet mustards to the soda pops to the “healthy” loaves of artisan breads.
And as cooks we know why they do it. We know as cooks that salt is an easy, lazy way to add a flavour hit to something. And for the first time in human history, it’s also a cheap way to do so: salt is so cheap now that we even grab lil packets of it at restaurants and then 25 minutes later throw them away unused without a second thought. So of course food companies are going to go the salt route. I know, it makes no long term sense — hey, I got a business idea: let’s kill off our loyal paying customers.
Anyway, the buggers were over-salting me for the day — nay, the week, the month! — before even dinner came round and I got a chance to choose to use salt for the first time that day. The safe overall figure being bandied about for sodium intake these days is 1500 mg a day — did you realize a tablespoon of soy sauce can have up to 1100 mg?
Yet, as a cook, I do know that salt is a critical element in balancing taste, particularly in my specialty which is soups and stews.4 Without that element, something can taste off-balance and not quite right. So I had a chat with myself and said, you know, it’s not a matter of banning salt from the kitchen or your life; it’s a matter of getting control of it again so you can get it back to normal, natural levels.
The strategy I came up with had these four elements to it:
- Begin checking the sodium levels on all processed and prepared foods and food items I buy and choose versions with the lowest levels to put me back in charge of when I want to choose to add salt;
- Find a salt substitute to use in cooking for balancing taste inside a dish, where all you really want is the taste balancing chemistry anyway;
- Leave room in a healthy life always for added salt where I really truly wanted it as a food item in itself — pinches of good quality salt where the taste and texture really matter as featured items in a dish, such as coarse sea salt in a Roman style salad of just greens tossed with some high quality olive oil and salt5, or my beloved crunchy, flaky Maldon Salt on steaks that have just come screaming off the grill;
- As a cook, always stand back objectively and make sure that I haven’t entered that sad, oblivious zone where people whisper behind your back how “healthily bland” your food is (the worst horror of all, of course.)
So, what I did was not so much a “lifestyle” change as a “cookstyle” change.
Step 1, wrestling back control, required its own shopping strategy. I feel that I won that one hands down; you can read about it here: Shopping for Low Sodium Foods.
Step 2, finding something to use inside recipes as a flavour balancing tool. That was touch and go for a while, but I feel that I figured that one out fine. You can read about it here, Salt Substitutes.
Step 3, leave allowance and permission in my life to still enjoy salt in itself as a featured ingredient. Yep, I feel that it’s mission accomplished, so far so good, anyway.
Step 4, we shall see. Maybe everyone is just being nice, though I haven’t seen anyone diving for salt shakers, and I have to coax them to sprinkle some Himalayan Pink Salt on their plates because no one feels they want more salt (or they just don’t trust the pink colour?).
Coming up with and implementing my salt management strategy actually re-energized my cooking, creativity and thinking. I feel that becoming aware of the issue was good for me, because I was cocksure that I had something covered and it showed me that I didn’t actually (ha!) quite know everything. Tackling it gave me a great challenge that I found really interesting, and putting myself back in control made me feel great.
Mind you, it took me over a year to get most of all this together, and there’s still pieces of the puzzle I’m adjusting, and probably always will be. I’d encourage others to start devising a salt strategy for their kitchens, too, until the day comes (if ever?) that we can trust processed and prepared foods again, and just implement your plan slowly but surely. I found that it didn’t end up costing me a nickel extra or any time extra in the long run.
And yes, I get the whole Clarissa Dickson-Wright bon-vivante, bon-mangeuse approach to cooking — but she died at the relatively young age of 66, depriving the cooking world of another two or three decades of her wit and knowledge. ↩
British Blood Pressure Association. Salt’s effects on your body. Retrieved September 2013 from http://www.bloodpressureuk.org/microsites/salt/Home/Whysaltisbad/Saltseffects ↩
I also realize that a few contrarian viewpoints are starting to emerge that maybe salt isn’t bad for you — but note, very few, as in just one or two so far. I’ve tracked the discussion objectively (I hope) here under Salt Nutrition Information. ↩