16 Salt-Free Flavor Boosters
No salt necessary
By now, you probably already know that overdoing it on sodium can lead to high blood pressure and up your risk for stroke. But giving up salt can be tough. One way to slash your intake right away is to check labels on processed foods, and avoid fast food restaurants, the menus of which are often chock full of sodium bomb after sodium bomb. But you can also chip away at your salty total with a little bit of kitchen creativity. Many recipes rely on salt as a way to improve the aroma, reduce bitterness, and balance out the flavors of a dish. But real food whizzes know there are plenty of substitutes that add just as much flavor—and provide some health benefits, too.
We went to a few of our favorite chefs as well as some registered dietitians to find out their favorite easy swaps.
Salt is a flavor booster, but eating too much can raise your blood pressure. Watch this Cooking Light video for 5 easy ways to cut down on salt without sacrificing flavor.
Ginger is a unique flavor that's both sweet and spicy. You can use it when searing any protein: fish, chicken, pork, and even beef, says Libby Mills, RD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dietetics.
Pro tip: Combine it with garlic for double the flavor—and the health benefits, Mills says.
Health bonus: "Anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols can bring relief and mobility to those with arthritis. It also protects us from damaging free radicals, so it's perfect for winter months when you want your immune system at its strongest," Mills says.
Fresh basil is a dream on tomatoes (which people love to salt), sauteed vegetables, or even grilled meat or fish, Bittman says.
Pro tip: "It works best raw, which is why people use it to make pesto. But if you want to use it when cooking, throw it in the pan at the last minute so it doesn't lose flavor," Bittman says.
Health bonus: "Basil contains flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage," Mills says.
This herb has a very strong, woodsy flavor that works in pasta sauces. Or any time you sautee something, use garlic, oil, and add a few whole sprigs of rosemary, Bittman says.
Pro tip: "The good thing about rosemary one is it keeps for weeks," Bittman says. "Just put in a baggie and then keep in the fridge."
Health bonus: Rosemary is an old folk remedy for heartburn. "It's a delicious way to stimulate the digestion," Mills says.
People have a love-hate relationship with cilantro. Some absolutely adore it, while others say it tastes like soap. Fun fact: Studies show that whether you fall in the love or hate camp depends on your genes. If you can stomach it, cilantro is great for Asian-inspired stir-fries or other rice dishes.
Pro tip: "Cilantro doesn't keep that well so it's best to use it pretty soon after you buy it fresh," Bittman says.
Health bonus: This herb is a powerful antimicrobial. Cilantro leaves have even been found to fight back against salmonella germs.
Mint is great in spaghetti or any chilled grain dish like couscous or quinoa salad because it adds a bright freshness.
Pro tip: Grow it yourself! Mint can easily be grown indoors through the cold winter months, so you can pick it fresh each time you cook.
Health bonus: Mint is an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps the body build important proteins that keep skin healthy and hair shiny, Mills says.
Mostly thought of as a sweetener or sugar substitute, you can use cinnamon to reduce sodium by combining it with low-sodium broth when preparing whole grains, like barley, millet, or quinoa.
Pro tip: Use it to make a spicy-sweet chicken rub: combine 1 to 2 teaspoons of chili powder (two if you like it hot), half a teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder. This will give you enough for four to six medium chicken breasts.
Health bonus: What can't cinnamon do? "Cinnamon has essential oils that are both antiinflammatory and antimicrobial," Mills explains. "It can also be helpful in reducing PMS symptoms, but it's most famous for it's ability to slow stomach emptying and thus reduce the rise of blood sugar after a meal."
You can use wine to deglaze after sauteeing meat to create a nice pan sauce. "Also, even just enjoying your meal with a glass of wine helps distribute the food flavors in the mouth," Mills says.
Pro tip: Here's a step-by-step guide to making a red wine reduction pan sauce.
Health bonus: If you use it in your recipes, much of the alcohol will cook off. But studies have linked a nightly glass of wine to a reduced risk for heart disease. (If you're not a drinker, this would be no reason to start, but one glass for women and up to two for men would be within healthy reason, Mills adds.)
Combining one herb, like oregano or rosemary, with twice as much parsley, for example, is another way to spice up your egg dishes or roasted potatoes.
Pro tip: Experiment with different flavor profiles to find the combos you like. "You can pair a big flavor like rosemary with more mild ones like basil and chives," Mills adds.
Health bonus: Many herbs have similar properties, so combining them in one dish can only compound the health benefits.
You can completely replace your saltshaker with a small dish of gremolata, a traditional Italian condiment. To make it, combine the zest of one lemon, with a quarter cup of chopped fresh parsley and three minced garlic cloves. It's a savory addition to flatbreads, any meat, and even salads.
Pro tip: Make double or triple the recipe to use for multiple meals. "It will keep covered in the fridge without much compromise to the flavor or nutrition," Mills says.
Health bonus: In addition to small amounts of calcium from the lemon zest, garlic in gremolata offers garlic's antioxidants that keep the blood vessels healthy and elastic, which is important for maintaining low blood pressure.
Red wine vinegar
Red wine vinegar allows you to use less salt because it's acidic and therefore a natural flavor enhancer, explain explains Diane Kochilas, author of forthcoming cookbook, Ikaria: Lessons of Food, Life and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die.
Pro tip: Red wine vinegars vary a lot in their flavor, depending on the brand: "Some vinegars are fruity. Some remind me of wine or of dark fruit, such as berries or plums," Kocilas says. So add slowly to your recipes until you've got it to your taste.
Health bonus: "Vinegar has been shown to curb appetite and promote weight loss," says Health's contributing nutrition editor, Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD.
Squeeze lemon over eggs or grilled meats. "The acid balances the fattiness beautifully," Kochilas says.
Pro tip: Don't stop at lemon! Other citrus juices like grapefruit and tangerine work too, offering subtle differences in flavor.
Health bonus: Aside from vitamin C, lemons contain the nutrient lemonin, which is actually in all citrus fruit. Lemonin might be able to help fight cancers of the mouth, lung, skin, breast, stomach, and colon, says Mills.
Brush mustard—either yellow, spicy, or Dijon—directly onto seafood or make a simple sauce by adding water, lemon juice, and garlic to your mustard of choice. Then you can toss this with any combination of veggies. Keep in mind that prepared mustards contain some sodium; read the label and choose a low-sodium version.
Pro tip: Try adding a dollop of this condiment to spice up your scrambled eggs.
Health bonus: Mustard, which is made from the seeds of a mustard plant, offers the same antioxidants as broccoli!
If you can handle the heat, fresh or dried chilis can be a spicy way to enhance the flavor of your favorite dishes, says Chopped star Jeremy Bringardner, corporate executive chef of LYFE Kitchen.
Pro tip: "One of my favorite tricks is to toast some freshly sliced garlic, a few dried chilis, and a grind or two of black pepper in extra virgin olive oil (just enough to submerge) over a medium low heat until the garlic is golden and crispy. Then, I pulse it in the food processor to make a paste, and I keep a jar of it in my fridge at all times. You can spread or spoon this chili-garlic paste into or onto just about anything (my favorite add is to a bowl full of quinoa) and it will be robust with flavor!" Bringardner says.
Health bonus: Many studies have linked capsaicin, the ingredient in chili peppers that gives them their heat, to a metabolism boost and increased feeling of fullness, which may help with weight control.
Known as the fifth taste, umami is a complex flavor that's probably best described by the terms "savory" or "meaty." The food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) is what many think of when they hear umami, but the amino acid glutamate is found naturally in foods like certain cheeses and mushrooms.
Pro tip: Focus on fresh healthy foods that bring natural umami, like tomatoes, garlic, spinach, and mushrooms. To maximize it, it's best to cook or sautee these foods over a fierce flame so they caramelize, Bringardner says.
Health bonus: In a recent study, adding MSG to soup boosted post-meal satisfaction, so that study participants ate less later on. Skip the additive and try to get the same effect by naturally boosting umami.
Skip the saltshaker and prepare a homemade marinade. Though you can buy them pre-made from the grocery store, many store bought marinades are loaded with sodium.
Pro tip: We've got a marinade recipe for any kind of meat. Take your pick!
Health bonus: Research has shown that grilling meats at high heat can cause the carcinogens heterocyclic amine (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form. But a 2008 study found that spicy marinades can decrease HCA formation.