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10 ways to add flavour without salt

HFG founding editor Niki Bezzant has ideas for cooks on ways to maximise flavour and minimise salt.

We all know too much salt is not good for us. We also know that most of us still eat too much salt, mainly in processed foods. On top of this, it’s all too easy to add a heap of salt to dishes while we’re cooking, or to be heavy-handed with the salt shaker at the dinner table… But the good news is we can retrain our palate to be a lot more sensitive to salty flavours simply by eating less salt. And the reward? Other than health benefits, the palate becomes more sensitive to other flavours, giving us greater enjoyment of a wider range of food. Here are some ways to help cut down on salt without giving up on flavour.

Fresh, soft herbs, especially parsley, mint, basil and coriander, add sensational bursts of flavour when added to dishes. Add them at the end of cooking so they don’t lose any of their bright, fresh flavour. Tear them up roughly or chop at the last minute so they don’t get bruised.

Re-invigorate your spice rack and you can add amazing flavour. ‘Warm’ spices such as cumin, coriander and smoked paprika add real savoury flavour to sauces, stews and curries. Spices taste best when they are cooked, so add them at the beginning or during cooking, and layer the flavour by combining with fresh herbs added at the end. Dried herbs can be useful as well — they are not the same as fresh, but in general they’re more intense. Sage and tarragon are useful additions to your repertoire. Use them to season meat. Make sure you don’t keep your spices or dried herbs too long as the flavours do fade. If you’ve still got unused spices in your cupboard after a year, throw them out and invest in new ones.

Sauces like soy, fish sauce, hoisin, black bean and sweet soy are packed with savoury flavour. They also tend to be super-high in salt. But you don’t have to give them up altogether. Use salt-reduced varieties where you can get them, and dilute sauces with water (in recipes, use half and half sauce and water). You will still get great flavour and you will use less. Where a recipe specifies a sauce and salt as well, try leaving out the salt completely — chances are you don’t really need it.

You can eliminate adding salt to vegetables, rice and potatoes without any noticeable difference in flavour. If you still want a touch of savoury flavour, cook with salt-reduced stock. A 50:50 blend of salt-reduced chicken stock and water is good in risotto, pilaf-style rice dishes, potatoes for mashing (don’t add salt when you mash) and vegetable-based soups. If you are using powdered stock, make it up with more water than specified in the instructions. (See Lamb and barley soup, Chicken and white bean stew and One-pot tortellini for examples.)

If you are partial to hot food, chillies and ginger could beyour new best friends. Use as much as you like of fresh or dried chillies (try out different kinds as they vary in flavour and heat). Fresh ginger gives a triple-whammy of amazing fragrance, flavour and hotness. Use chillies and ginger liberally in stir-fries, braises, soups and anything else you like! Tabasco and other hot pepper sauces contain salt but because they are so hot, you only use tiny amounts, so they can be a useful condiment, too.

Citrus zest and juice create bursts of flavour on the palate and stimulate taste buds. Spend a few dollars on a citrus zester and use it to take off the outer peel of lemons and limes. Add zest to savoury dishes: in salads, on vegetable side dishes, in dressings and sauces, in chillies and dips. A dash of lemon or lime juice added at the end of pan-frying fish or chicken adds zingy flavour and makes for delicious pan juices.

All members of the onion and garlic family (allium family) are great flavour boosters. Chives and spring onions can be added at the end of cooking for fresh flavour, and onions and garlic cooked slowly at the beginning of a dish (take your time and let them soften) will add depth and savour. Garlic bulbs, roasted slowly in tinfoil, can be used whole — squeeze the pulp out over roasts and grilled meats. Or keep pulp in the fridge to use at a later date, ready to add to simmering sauces and stews.

Spice mixes can contain salt, but if you eliminate any other salt added to the dish you will end up using less overall. Experiment with different exotic blends such as harissa, dukkah and zataar — these add heat as well as aromatic flavour. Curry powder is also a wonderful addition, even to non-Indian dishes. Add a small amount to brighten meaty dishes or rice-based meals.

Both white and black pepper finish almost any dish perfectly. But white pepper has a touch more savoury flavour, which adds an extra special something when you add it to mashed potatoes, cheese sauces and Mexican chilli dishes. If you can get whole white peppercorns, even better: like black pepper, grind them as you need them.

Tomato paste is intensely flavoured, meaning a small amount can add a lot of flavour. The same can be said for miso paste. This Japanese ingredient is super-salty but it also has a ton of what’s known as umami (savoury deliciousness) which means that a tiny bit added to stir-fry sauces, meaty stews, gravy and dressings gives you much more bang for your buck, sodium wise, than plain old salt.

  • It’s worth checking labels for lower-salt varieties of common processed foods, including canned vegetables, sauces, mustard, dressings and spice pastes.
  • Lower-salt varieties of soy sauce and tomato sauce are still quite high in sodium, but better options than the full-salt versions.
  • Salt (sodium chloride) can hide where you might not expect it, for example, in cereal and bread. Refer to the ‘sodium per 100g’ column on the labels and look for lower-sodium products. (See page 95 for information on sodium recommended daily intake.)

Did you know? Sea salt, flaky salt and Himalayan salt are the same in terms of health properties as ordinary table salt — they are no more healthy for you.

Date modified: 7 October 2022
First published: May 2012


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