Low Sodium AND Vegetarian?
I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years. Last year, out of necessity, I started cooking low sodium vegetarian meals. It was a shock at first, having worked as a professional culinarian. I must say that it’s not so bad. I have to read nutrition labels, and I now know which foods and products tend to have the most salt. If, for whatever reason, you need to start cooking with less or no added salt, I have a few tips to help get you started. I call this a “Manifesto” which is a strong word, but hopefully it can be a useful guide.
What exactly is LOW sodium?
As a rule, I try stay under 500 mg of sodium per person, per meal (I have read from multiple sources that the human body requires about 500 mg per day). To achieve this goal, I have stopped adding salt to meals and I count sodium. I still use ingredients that contain sodium, but table salt is a thing of the past.
Things that will help you get started
- Stop adding salt– This may not be obvious to some. A “little dash” on meals is still a lot of sodium. Here are the numbers: The minimum required amount that the body needs is estimated to be 500 mg. The suggested amount for healthy adults is 1500 mg per day. The average amount consumed by American adults is 3300 mg. If you cross-reference these numbers, you will see that these are approximately accurate. The average table salt has 575 mg of sodium for 1/4 tsp. According to my own calculations, 1/4 tsp. is roughly equal to 2-3 pinches of salt. In summary, 2-3 pinches of salt provides all the sodium your body needs in one day and roughly 1/3 of the recommended intake in a day. A little bit goes a really long way. Quick suggestion: Use grated Parmesan instead of table salt. It has 76 mg per Tbl. It adds a little bit of sodium and also umami (I’ll get to that later).
- Low-Sodium frozen meals– One unfortunate side effect of this diet is that you will likely not eat out very much. You can’t if you truly want to be in control of your sodium intake. Amy’s offers lots of frozen meals for those times that you don’t want to cook: Light in Sodium Meals. Lean Cuisine also has quite a few meals: Less Sodium Meals | Frozen.
- No-salt spice blends– I use Mrs. Dash selectively. I don’t use it as a substitute for salt. It just doesn’t work on everything. Bragg’s makes no-salt seasoning – There are at least two kinds. The one that has sea kelp is really handy with certain Asian dishes. It adds umami and has no sodium. The “Sprinkle” variety has lots of rosemary. It is tasty with certain dishes. Trader Joe’s has one and I can’t really comment on how good it is. I’m sort of skeptical of relying on these spice blends and I encourage you to make your own.
- Nutritional Yeast– This is really good on tofu, and popcorn, and can add a cheesy, nutty flavor to dishes. It also provides umami and is high in B vitamins. If you are concerned about consumption of vitamins, be careful how much you use.
- Sugar– When we talk about “balance” in cooking, sweetness is part of the equation. When you take out salt, you have to rely on the other components that affect our sense of taste. Adding a little bit of sugar is appealing to our taste buds, even in savory foods. The trick is to not use too much.
- Acids– Vinegar does wonders to enhance the overall flavor of certain dishes. A tablespoon of vinegar in your low-salt beans adds brightness and zing. Balsamic vinegar is a godsend. It adds acidity and sweetness, boldness and umami. Once again, if you add too much vinegar it can be problematic. Citrus juice is another great way to transform a recipe. I can’t get enough lemon these days.
- Mouth-feel elements– Think of heat and numbing sensations. Capsicum in chiles adds heat. You can balance heat with sugar and citrus. Mint can add a cooling effect that is nice in Mediterranean dishes. Alcohol can add warmth. Mustards and horseradish, including wasabi, add a different kind of sensation than the burn of capsicum. Be careful.
- Fresh herbs– I encourage you to grow herbs. There is almost no situation where fresh herbs won’t help your food be better without salt. Learning what to use and when to use them is the only challenge.
- Garlic– I give garlic its own category. Most people already use it in many of their savory dishes. If you can handle it, I might recommend using even more than you already do.
- Toasted, fresh-ground spices– If you don’t already have a coffee grinder, or other tool, for grinding spices, then you should get one. I strongly recommend grinding your own spices, or at least the ones that are relevant. Seeds like cumin, coriander, fennel and caraway are so much tastier when fresh ground and toasted. I also like to grind my black pepper fresh as much as possible. You will likely save money doing this. Also, toast your spices! You can toast spices separately in a small skillet or egg pan. I sometimes toast the seeds whole, then grind. This is the best method in my opinion. You can semi-toast the spices as part of a sauteed dish. You can toast spices as part of a roasted ingredient in a dish. Toasting spices transforms them and you will believe it when you see it done yourself.
- Toasted nuts– I usually toast nuts such as walnuts, pine nuts, slivered almonds and cashews, before I add them to recipes. Toasting them adds to their flavor depth. To toast them, you can use the oven. Lay them out flat on a baking sheet, and toast for a few minutes until you smell them and they are starting to sizzle and change color. Keep an eye on them! Lately, I have been wrapping them flatly in foil, folding over the foil, and toasting them in the oven. They don’t burn as fast, but you still need to keep an eye on them. You can also semi-toast them in a skillet on the stove.
- Fond– Fond is what is left on a saute pan, or sauce pan, when you cook something. It is commonly deglazed, and incorporated into sauces, soups or sauteed items. Fond is the collection of browned food bits that are left over when you cook something in oil. It has a lot of flavor, and I highly recommend not letting it go to waste. You can learn more about this by web searching. I found this link Reluctant Gourmet – Deglazing.
- Spirits– Beer, wine and liquor. If you think about it, there is a lot of flavor, and not a lot of salt in an alcoholic beverage. When these are reduced in cooking, it’s even more flavorful. I am pretty sure there is a lot of “umami” in fermented beverages (umami explained in a bit).
- Low-sodium Cheese– There aren’t that many, but you will learn these. Panir, or paneer, is usually very low in salt. It is versatile and can hold up on a grill. Fresh mozzarella, especially one product that I have found at Trader Joe’s, is relatively low in sodium. It is good because I can still make those Italian comfort foods. Swiss cheeses are pretty low in sodium. I found an Emmentaler that is 40 mg per ounce. It can be combined with other cheeses as low-sodium “filler”. I use slices in sandwiches and in cheese sauces. I already mentioned using Parmesan as “table salt” on certain dishes.
- Flax Milk– Flax milk has less sodium than milk, soy and almond milk. If you are a breakfast cereal addict, this is a good source for liquid to pour over it.
- Cream– Anderson Erickson, among others, lists having zero sodium in their heavy whipping cream. This can be useful in sauces, or making things taste better. Yes, it’s not that good for you. But what are you going to do? Life is a balance. 1/2 and 1/2, by the way, is pretty low in sodium as well, if you want less fat.
- Umami– This one is pretty complicated. It’s very important in vegetarian cooking, and it is really helpful in low sodium cooking. But here are the basics: It is pretty much accepted that there is a fifth taste receptor in our tongues, and it is now associated with the word umami. It has long been suspected that MSG was related to this 5th receptor. To be more specific, umami is related to glutamate. Glutamate is naturally occurring in meats and vegetables, and high levels can be found in many fermented foods, including fermented fish and soy sauces. Since we are trying to not eat sodium, these options are unfortunately out the window.Vinegar, beer, wine, sauerkraut and tempeh are high in umami. As for vegetables, mushrooms and tomatoes are good sources, especially when in dried form. Sea vegetables, nutritional yeast, green tea, toasted nuts and certain spices have high levels. When vegetables are caramelized in the process of cooking, it raises the levels of glutamate. Parmesan, and other cheeses, are packed with umami. I put parmesan rinds in my broths to add some more yum. I will mention that olives are high in umami, but they are almost certainly very high in sodium. But one or two olives chopped up in a dish can add a lot. Chefsteps.com has a video for a nice looking umami sauce: Umami Bomb Sauce Video. If you are careful, you can use a very small amount of Bragg’s liquid amino sauce in a dish. 1 tsp. = 320 mg. of sodium. This stuff packs serious umami punch.
Note: I have left out MSG and Potassium Chloride because of possible health risks. You can certainly use these products to add umami, or simulate salt. But use at your own risk.