Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Key to Saltless Cooking

For the past few years, I've been cooking salt-free. This has been for a number of reasons:
  1. My mechanic's mom, who's as good a chef as I've ever met, uses no salt. This intrigues and inspires me.

  2. Reducing salt makes food taste "cleaner", and clarity's not always a good thing. So salt is often used like makeup - a fast, cheap way to blur and mask the truth. I'd rather cook honestly.

  3. I don't have high blood pressure, but I retain water when I eat salty food.

  4. As I wrote a few months ago, "When cooking at home...I want healthy food that leaves me not impressed but deeply nourished, my batteries refreshed."
After years of practice, I don't miss salt in my cooking, nor do my guests (exception: scrambled eggs absolutely require at least a pinch of salt). I use plenty of spices and herbs, and am meticulous about details. Saltlessness is like working without a net; you can't get away with overcooking, undercooking, unfresh ingredients, or any of the other common flaws often mitigated with sodium (or grease). No-salt cookery keeps me honest.

But every once in a while, I'll make a dish that turns out horribly bland-tasting, though I can never figure out why. I usually just sprinkle some salt, and chalk it up to juju. But last night I figured it out. I've gravitated to using carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, apple cider, and onion in my cooking. All these ingredients are sweet. And whenever I don't use at least one of those items, the result tastes bland.

Last night I made chicken thighs cooked with vegetables and heirloom tiny rice. There were onions, but not many. And there were diced carrots, but they weren't evenly distributed. And my first bite, which contained no carrots, painfully lacked for salt (though it brimmed with kala jeera, ginger, cumin, black pepper, and Turkish aleppo pepper).

My second bite included a clump of carrots, and it tasted just fine. My third bite was carrot-less, but it still worked. And that's when I realized that we're conditioned to saltlessness in sweets. Sweetness is a trigger: with it, we crave no salt. Without it, we cry out for salt.

Fortunately, it doesn't take much. A shred of caramelized onion, a dab of tomato, a splash of cider in the sauce, any of these things are sufficient to reprogram the brain and make it accept a lack of salt. Everything needn't be sweet; there just has to be a dash. Think of the raisins in the pilaf; the prunes in the tajine, the parsnips in the stew (all dishes developed before salt became widely available).

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