Dr. Tim Says...

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Chef Tim Says....


I have had a lot of questions recently about salt. It’s clear that too much salt leads to health issues. At the very least it raises blood pressure and is also an issue for those with conditions such as congestive heart failure. While the research says the increase in blood pressure with too much salt is only modest, in some people it appears to be more of an issue than for others. There’s a recent study that also links high salt diets with heart disease.

A teaspoon of table salt, like good old fashioned Morton Salt in the round blue box, weighs 6 grams. The salt is made up of one sodium molecule linked to one chloride molecule to form sodium chloride. The Nutrition Facts on the box reports this as having 2,360 milligrams (mg) of sodium per teaspoon.

Many chefs and food writers will say that using kosher salt, sea salt, or one of the many gourmet salts on the market is better than the stuff in the round blue box. As far as your taste buds are concerned, however, salt is salt.

The argument that kosher salt tastes saltier is true only because the crystals are larger and less likely to dissolve completely on the food. The crystals that remain dissolve on the tongue, more directly activating the salt taste buds. There is a slight difference in the amount of sodium in a teaspoon of kosher and regular table salt, but this is because the larger, irregular crystals in kosher salt take up more room in the spoon. The weight of a teaspoon of table salt is about the same as 1 1/4 teaspoons of kosher salt.

Sea salt is also popular and there are chefs that swear by using special varieties. Don’t get me wrong: the different varieties do taste different, but it’s not because the sodium and chloride molecules are any different. The sodium chloride that makes up sea salt is the same as that in granulated or kosher salt. It is the impurities in sea salts that account for differences in flavor.

So how much salt and how to use it?

The answer is that it appears that a dish needs to have at least 300 mg per serving to taste salty. I have found that a target of around 500 mg of sodium in a main course dish will help food be salty enough.

Since there is just about 2,400 mg of sodium in a teaspoon, that means that 1/8 teaspoon has about 300 mg. This is a good starting point per serving in your recipes because there will almost always be other ingredients that contain some sodium.

Certainly there are other salty seasonings you can use, such as soy sauce. I prefer the low sodium version because it has about half the sodium as regular soy sauce – a tablespoon contains about 550 mg of sodium. Other Asian sauces are high in sodium as well. Hoisin sauce, for instance, has about 250 mg in a tablespoon. Another salty ingredient is cheese. I am careful about adding salt to dishes that contain cheese for this reason. For instance, an ounce of parmesan contains 450 mg sodium and often this is enough to flavor a dish.

I’m not a fan of salt substitutes. I prefer to simply be careful when cooking, by measuring the salt or salty ingredients that I add to recipes. Most salt substitutes do use some variation of a potassium "salt" to mimic the action of table salt. The more popular are mostly made up of potassium chloride. We reviewed a version made with potassium chloride and L-lysine called AlsoSalt. The claim is that the addition of the L-lysine blocks the metallic taste of the potassium chloride.

Salt substitutes contain varying amounts of potassium - some as little as 300 mg and others as high as 800 mg in 1/4 teaspoon. If you are taking medications for blood pressure or other heart conditions, check with your doctor before using a salt substitute.

If you are used to eating a lot of salt, your taste buds can learn to crave less. In a study performed in 1982, a group of people were placed on a low-sodium diet for five months. Their taste response to salt in solutions, soups and crackers was measured before and during the research. Over the five month period, the same measurements were made in a control group that did not change their diet.

In the group that lowered their sodium intake, the perceived intensity of salt in crackers increased over time. In addition, the amount of salt needed for “maximum pleasantness” of taste in soup and crackers fell in the experimental group but not in the control group.

It is clear that preferred levels of salt in food are dependent on how much salt you are used to eating. So give it some time and slowly decrease the amount of salt in foods you prepare and your perceptions of saltiness will change.

Dr. Gourmet
February 11, 2008