Saturday, June 01, 2013


Natural sea salt

 “He’s the salt of the earth” 

Salt has been the most essential addition to our food for thousands of years. It was valued and, in some eras, so prized that it attracted heavy taxes, making it too expensive for the common man to use every day, which is why even today, when the salt tax is long gone, much of Italy still bakes its bread unsalted, having acquired a taste for it more than a hundred years ago.  Salt has always been so much a part of our food heritage that it is a little strange that it has become today’s scapegoat of the food world. Fat is back, butter is once more safe to eat (did you ever switch to marg? I certainly didn’t!) but salt is now the demon.

The biggest part of the problem lies with packaged and processed foods and a fast-food culture that relies too heavily on them. Salt is a fantastic preservative, so tends to be used quite heavily in complex foods with a long shelf life.  It’s all too easy to eat too much salt and that can result in health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Another problem is that our taste sensors build up a tolerance to salt, so that if we get used to the taste of a certain amount, any less tastes bland. We end up adding more salt to our food than is good for us. But ruling out salt altogether isn't the answer. Our bodies need salt to function properly, ultra low sodium diets can cause health problems just as much as  diets too high in sodium.

I think I add just the right amount of salt to my cooking. I add to my own taste levels...  my husband’s taste buds are differently calibred and he tends to add salt at the table. I’ve noticed that the children are following suit, our son in particular being a little too lavish with the adding, so when I got an email from Nestle mentioning a Salt Awareness week and offering to send me the ingredients and their recipe for a low salt but tasty meal I thought this would be a good thing to try out.

Expecting some new low-salt products and seasonings, I was a little taken aback when their box was delivered to find packs of stew granules, Worcestershire sauce and 2-minute noodles alongside some flavoured evaporated milk cook-in sauces. It was as if the person packing the boxes hadn’t got the memo that this was a low-salt challenge. The ingredients list on the stew granules was headed up by salt, which didn’t give me much confidence in its health credentials. However it did result in my salt awareness jacking up a notch, as I dug out the magnifying glass, scrutinised the labels and started doing calculations in my head for daily salt allowances. 

The recommended upper limit of sodium per adult per day is 2300mg, equivalent to one teaspoon of salt.

The stew granules had 4600mg of sodium in a 30g packet, intended to go in a recipe to feed four, so basically that is half your entire daily salt allowance used up in one dish. These were intended for the butternut and lentil bobotie recipe, so I gave that one a miss and went for the beef stroganoff, which actually only had two packaged ingredients, the Worcestershire sauce and the mushroom flavoured evaporated milk, both of which were fairly reasonable in salt content.  The cook-in milk came in at 140mg per 100ml serving which puts it just into the official low-salt category and the Worcestershire sauce has 119mg per 10 ml serving.  For the recipe provided this added up to 707mg of sodium in total, giving about 176mg per person if no extra salt is added, which is much more reasonable. To give Nestle their due they had also sent a voucher to purchase the fresh ingredients for the recipe, so I had some lovely beef fillet, red peppers and mushrooms and parsley lined up on the counter.

However, at this point I started to have a logic problem with this exercise.  Normally when cooking a recipe like this from scratch with fresh ingredients I would probably only use about 1/3 teaspoon of salt anyway. A little seasoning in the flour dusted on the meat, a couple of twists of the mill over the whole dish as it cooks and a quick check at the end to correct the seasoning to taste... to my taste that is!

“Take it with a pinch of salt”

And I have to confess to being a food snob when it comes to packaged sauces, so I was already having doubts about smothering luscious fillet steak and fresh peppers and mushrooms with something out of a tin. Why use a ‘mushroom flavoured’ sauce (containing no real mushrooms) in a dish that already has mushrooms in? I tried to stick with the recipe, I really did try, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pour the stuff on. This was supposed to be our family supper after all. I decided to split the dish at the point when the sauce was added and try one part with the cook-in sauce and one part with sour cream, as is more traditional. The two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce in the recipe seemed outrageously overpowering to me, so I reduced the amount considerably.

I went ahead and cooked the meal and we all enjoyed the treat of tender fillet steak strips, but I have to admit that the dish as a whole was a compromise. The cook-in sauce version, I imagine, would have tasted fine to those who like to use packets of mushroom flavoured soup in their recipes, but needed the whole amount of Worcestershire sauce to give it enough salt, which would have completely overwhelmed the rest of the spices and the meat itself. The version where I used cream instead of the sauce ended up being bland because I hadn’t added any real salt during cooking and there wasn’t the salt from the cook-in sauce to compensate. I would have been far better off from a low salt point of view just cooking from scratch with only fresh ingredients and using judicious pinches of natural seasalt as I usually do.

So as a salt awareness exercise it was in a way a success – it made me think, scan labels more critically, and it made me even more determined to cook from fresh, use salt wisely and in moderation.  However as a taste test it failed completely. It did nothing to make me want to buy or recommend any of the products ever and I still can’t understand why 2-minute noodles and very salty stew granules made it into a press pack for food bloggers for a salt awareness week. No food blogger worth their salt is going to be thrilled with receiving these products. I’m feeling more than ever cynical about big brands disguising  (not very subtly) a product promotion as a health drive . The best thing they could do for everyone's health is take 2-minute noodles and stew granules off the supermarket shelves altogether.

Three different sea salts
Three salts in my kitchen: KhoiSan sea salt, Khoisan seaweed salt, FalkSalt seasalt flakes with chilli

If you want some more facts about salt here’s a 2009 report on salt usage from Harvard.

And my salt aware path forward?
Continue to cook with fresh foods, avoid processed foods even more and check labels, check labels, check labels!
Use a good unrefined sea salt. When I switched to using KhoiSan salt from regular table salt several years ago, I found that I needed far less salt to get the same intensity of flavour. Plus there are no artificial additives and chemicals so it’s healthier in every way... as long as you use it in moderation of course!

What are your feelings on salt? Do you have a favourite cooking salt in your kitchen?

Sea salt
Natural sea salt crystals like jewels


  1. I use salt from the Camargue region of France right near where I live. Besides that, I don't add much. I find processed foods too seasoned now...either too salty or too sweet.

  2. Would be wonderful to have a comparative tasting of everyone's local salts, Meredith! Our Khoisan salt comes from sea salt pans just up the West coast and I'm sure your Camargue salt would have it's own distinct flavour too.

  3. For me, the key to using salt is to NOT use it as much as possible - or rather, to not OVER use it, so that when I do add a bit to a dish here and there, I can really taste and enjoy it.

    I think salt and sugar are both flavors that, with over-use, become dull on our tongues. By cutting it out almost completely, or just not habitually dumping it on top of everything we eat, and using it sparingly, we actually get more flavor sensation when we do use it, and we need a lot less of it to do the same job.

    Also, I try to use spices like chili and cumin and curry and etc. to make dishes more complex and flavorful instead of just loading them up with salt.

  4. Totally agree, Marcheline. No salt at all is a sad, sad food experience, but a little can go a long way if you use it wisely.
    There's a wonderful old tale about a king's daughter and salt, which I was going to tell in the post, but it was going to be way too long. Another time, perhaps.

  5. Oooh! I love stories - tell the story, Kit!


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!