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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Pinch Me: The Salt Rant

In the past 5 years, glossy big-name cookbooks have started insisting on a full teaspoon of salt in every dish. Do your tastebuds–and your heart, and brain, and kidneys and especially, your children–a favor. Toss it out.

Likewise, toss out that teaspoon of “kosher” (large-crystal) salt per dish currently making the rounds of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and all the rest of the glossy food-as-fashion magazines. Kosher salt contains just as much salt as the regular kind. It’s no healthier. Likewise Maldon sea salt from Great Britain, fleur de sel de Guerande (literally, “the bloom of salt from Guerande, in Normandy”), pink salt from the Himalayas, or any other kind. The tastes may be subtly different, but when you stir them into a dish, they get lost. And in the case of the fancy imported salts, that’s money down the drain and sodium down the hatch.

For reference: A teaspoon of salt is 2300 milligrams of sodium, the maximum recommended daily sodium intake for an adult under 40, and far more than almost anyone needs physiologically. For anybody 40 and over, or with high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes, the recommended maximum is now about 3 grams of salt or 1500 mg sodium. So a quarter-teaspoon of salt (almost 600 mg sodium) per person in a single dish is really a lot.

Above all, toss out the idea that the celebrity chef who calls for a teaspoon or more of salt in every recipe of his glossy new cooking bible actually knows what he or she is doing. They don’t.

Every. Single. Recipe….. Every. Single. Recipe?

Young adults—not just middle-aged and elderly people—are showing higher average blood pressures today than they did 20 years ago. Worse, there’s an insidious tendency for blood pressure to creep upward, point by point, toward levels where medication is required to control it.

Salt is a major factor in whether people’s blood pressure creeps up or not. Up to now, 75 percent of the salt people got could be blamed on packaged food and restaurant food, not home cooking, so eating fresh and real foods was a good recommendation to counter that.

What does it say that today, otherwise whole-foods, eat-local, self-righteous cookbook and tv food channel gurus are throwing so much salt into their recipes, and doing it so reflexively?

Does it have to be a full teaspoon? Could you get by with a pinch? Or, daringly, none? It’s gotten to the point where you have to wonder why they’re not being careful with what should be a strong flavoring–maybe they’re not really thinking about the taste and figure no one else will either? Maybe it’s cheaper than building complex flavor into the food? Have they even tried the dish without salt?

Or maybe they’ve trained their tastebuds on a diet of high-salt foods and now they’re stuck adding the excess salt just so their food will taste normal. Not a recommendation for a chef, who’s supposed to have a sensitive palate.

Although a little salt can complement food, the definition of “little” has drifted upward dangerously in recent years. Our palates are designed to adjust within about two weeks to sharp changes in dietary salt. In ancient times, this helped us stock up on salt without gagging on the rare occasions when we ran across an abundant source. Now, however, salt is plentiful and dirt-cheap–and our bodies are still designed to stock up and hold on tight, and we find ourselves developing a dangerous appetite tolerance to high salt. It starts to taste normal, then we add a bit more so we can taste it again in our food, then that seems normal, and so on…

Worse yet for gourmets and anyone who enjoys fresh food, the habit of adding large amounts of salt to everything by routine starts to dampen perception of subtle or complex flavors in fresh aromatic ingredients. Salt is one of the four basic tastes hard-wired into the receptors on your tongue, rather than nuanced through your olfactory system. Far from enhancing flavor, the salt habit eventually overwhelms and inhibits your sensitivity to other flavors. And if you’re used to a high-salt diet, you’re not even tasting most of the salt.

But the effect is reversible. Try going off salt altogether for only two weeks or so and you’ll reset your palate. It’s shocking when you taste a piece of something as ordinary as plain celery or carrot–even raw cabbage–afterward and realize how much more there is to the flavor. It’s like quitting smoking. What have you been missing?

Don’t get me wrong. A small pinch of fancy salt for accent is okay, if you sprinkle it on the surface, where you can still taste it when you take a bite. But if you’re going to eat salt to enjoy it, then do that. Don’t stir gobs of it into a dish.

Think about it. You wouldn’t do that with nutmeg. Don’t do it with salt.

One Response

  1. Nice post…

    You probably have seen this already, but just in case, here is a good article on the benefits of salt reduction

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061101151027.htm

    Slow Food Fast: Thanks for the comment and the article link! A couple of years old but it only gets truer with time. I particularly like the way the study authors, from Finland (where the government’s been fighting heart disease aggressively and successfully as a national emergency for 20 years–I think Benecol comes out of their efforts), bluntly take the U.S. Salt Institute’s own consumption figures to point out that not only is reducing dietary sodium not dangerous, as the organization tries to claim (see the Salt Institute’s president’s comments and my reply in this post from June 18th, but the fact is that U.S. salt intake has risen by 50 percent in the past 25 years–just about the same time we started seeing a jump in overweight and obesity. Coincidence? Doubtful. American researchers are just coming to the conclusion that it takes a significant cut in sodium, not 10 percent but 30 or so percent, to get us back down to something reasonable.

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