Cook with Herbs for More Flavor, Less Salt

Cooking with herbs can open up a whole world of healthy salt substitutes.

August 30, 2009

Chop chop: Herbs add flavor to food and help you cut out salt.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With most of us focused on our upcoming Labor Day weekend plans, you probably missed out on yesterday's less familiar holiday, More Herbs, Less Salt Day. Consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which affects one out of every three adults, according to the American Heart Association, and with the astonishingly high levels of salt in restaurant meals and processed foods, it's important to fix low-sodium meals at home whenever possible.

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A great way to do that is by cooking with herbs—they're perfect salt substitutes because they add so much flavor. But if your only experience with herbs has been the parsley garnish on your restaurant steak, or turning basil into pesto, don't worry. Just follow our guide and you'll be cooking with herbs before you know it.

Swap herbs for table salt.

Keep an herb mix handy to toss onto your food as a table salt sub. "In my experience, dried herb mixes are most successful as salt substitutes when used as a sprinkle on baked potatoes or other things most people might sprinkle with salt," says Leah Nichols, director of Rodale's Dining Services. Mix dried onion powder or garlic powder with dried basil, parsley, thyme, and dill, she says, with a little cayenne powder to give it some kick.

Handle fresh herbs properly

If you're picking herbs from your garden, harvest them in the morning when their flavors are at their peak, and before they've been warmed by the sun. Herbs bought at the store or farmer's market should look fresh and clean, with no discolorations or bruises.

Herbs taste best when they're used immediately, so buy or pick only the amount you'll use in a single day. You can lengthen their lives somewhat by snipping off the ends and storing them in the fridge with the cut ends in a jar of water, covered with a plastic bag that's loose enough to allow air to circulate. Change the water daily. The herbs may keep their flavor for up to a week.

Alternately, try drying them. Perhaps the easiest and safest way to do that is to hang them upside down in bunches in an area with little light or dust. To dry them on a screen: Lay a window screen flat in a dry room with little exposure to sunlight, and cover it with cheesecloth. Spread your herbs over the cloth; turn them every few days so they dry evenly. Either drying process takes about a week. Once the herbs get so dry they start to crumble, store them in airtight jars or bags, and use within six months before they lose their flavor. Some herbs lose their flavor sooner that that, others keep for a year or more. So let your taste buds be your guide.

Experiment

There's really no end to the use of herbs as salt substitutes. Use fresh basil or fresh tarragon in your scrambled eggs. Nichols likes using basil, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and parsley to flavor sauces and soups, and adds nasturtiums and marigolds to late-summer salads. Here's a quick breakdown of foods and the herbs they pair with best:

Fish: anise, cilantro, coriander dill, fennel, parsley, sage, thyme

Pork: anise, cilantro, coriander, oregano, rosemary

Chicken and poultry: anise, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme

Vegetables: basil, chives, dill, fennel, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary

When using cilantro and coriander on fish or pork, Nichols suggests mixing it with a something citrusy, like lemon.

Most chefs will tell you when cooking with herbs, fresh taste better than dried, but if you're in a pinch and have only dried herbs on hand, cut the amount of herbs you'd use if fresh by a third.