Salt is one of the most basic, and important, ingredients in both cooking and baking. It works as a flavor enhancer, which means that it gets added to just about everything to make it just a little bit more delicious.
That can be a big challenge for people who can’t have salt in their diets though, since it means that most people are used to the flavor addition of salt, and miss it in foods that don’t have enough.
The good news is that salt substitutes are getting better and a little more common than they used to be. The bad news is that you still need to be a little creative and figure out good cooking methods to get flavorful food without adding too much salt.
This guide to the best salt substitutes will help with both problems.
Why Substitute Salt In Your Cooking?
There are a lot of different reasons why people might need to substitute salt in their diet.
Some common reasons include bloating and having problems with water retention, having high blood pressure, or having various levels of organ failure or damage, especially when your kidneys or liver are involved.
Some people also just prefer how they feel if they don’t eat as much salt, or have noticed that salty foods give them a headache.
However, it's also important to remember that salt and sodium are important dietary nutrients as well and that going without them can cause problems on their own. It's always best to talk with your doctor before switching if you think a low or no-sodium diet might be right for you.
You may also need to use a salt substitute like potassium chloride, which is just a different kind of salt from typical table salt, to make sure you’re getting the electrolytes you need to stay properly hydrated.
It's also worth remembering that most pre-processed foods are high in sodium unless they are marked low-sodium, reduced-sodium, or salt-free.
How To Substitute Salt Effectively
Substituting salt effectively can be a bit of a trick, depending on what you’re making. Usually, the best approach is to use an alternative flavor enhancer that complements the main flavors of whatever you’re cooking.
So, for instance, if you want to make a low-sodium honey chipotle chicken rice bowl, you can add more honey, lime, and chipotle powder or sauce to boost the flavor without adding sodium. Or for coconut lime chicken, add more lime juice, onion, and garlic, and maybe a little rice vinegar to get a delicious flavor with lower sodium content. Of course, you'll also have to switch to a low or no-sodium soy-sauce alternative.
Find both recipes and more healthy chicken recipes, in our list of the 25 Ultimate Summer Chicken Recipes.
This is easiest when your recipe already calls for a good salt substitute, but there is almost always another healthy salt substitute that will complement the flavors in your cooking, even if none of the ingredients are natural salt substitutes.
Salt Like Substitutes
These substitutes all help give you that salty flavor, while minimizing the amount of sodium in your diet. These are the best 1:1 replacements, but they don’t all work for everyone.
Potassium Chloride is the most common salt replacement that still tastes like salt. It’s a different kind of salt, using potassium instead of sodium, which has dual benefits. For one thing, it still tastes salty. The other big benefit is that potassium can actually help lower your blood pressure, so this is a good option for people dealing with hypertension or high blood pressure.
Kombu Kelp Powder
Kombu kelp powder (also sometimes sold as granules like sea salt) is a newer option, but still a very good one. Kelp and certain brown algae have been studied as salt replacements, and give you a lot of the same flavor, an umami kick, and are low-sodium or sodium-free.
This option works particularly well in Japanese and other East Asian cuisines, but it can work in most meals with a little experimentation.
Low Sodium Seaweed Salt
Seaweed salts are somewhere between a salt and a seaweed-based salt replacement. They tend to have lower sodium by nature, and the low-sodium versions have even less. The nice thing about this substitute is that it can still help you meet your low sodium goals without having to give up on the delicious salty flavor entirely.
Also, like kelp powder, the seaweed helps to give this salt some added umami, which can also help make up for the lack of sodium flavor in your cooking.
It doesn’t really taste like seaweed to most people, just better salt.
Coconut aminos are not salt-free, but they are a low-sodium alternative, and you don’t need much to make a big difference in the flavor of your foods.
They can be used on their own as a flavor enhancer similar to Worcestershire sauce, or as a replacement for soy sauce.
Tamari is probably the best low-sodium replacement for soy sauce and has the added benefit of being a gluten-free soy sauce substitute as well.
This option works in anything you want to add a little more salt flavor, but don’t want to add as much sodium as you’d otherwise need.
However, like coconut aminos, no Tamari is truly salt-free. Even with the lower amount of sodium compared with regular soy sauce, you might still want to choose low-sodium tamari depending on how much sodium you can tolerate in your diet.
Looking for more low-sodium recipes you can try at home? Give these 23 Tasty Low Sodium Chicken recipes a try!
Since so many salt substitutes still contain at least a small amount of sodium, it’s also a good idea to experiment with other seasonings that can help replace the salt content in your food. Here are some good options:
Garlic is one of the best salt substitutes because it’s a flavor enhancer, but also one that tastes good on its own to most people. However, not all garlic is created equal. Roasted garlic or garlic powder might work better than fresh since their stronger flavors are also slightly mellowed and more similar to the umami you get from salt.
Lemon or Lime Juice
Lemon and lime are both effective because the tangy flavor can sort of trick your tongue. You’re less likely to notice that something is missing from a dish that has a bright citrusy finish – especially if you combine the lemon and lime with other seasonings including herbs and spices.
Black pepper and salt are the seasoning base for a lot of foods, but did you know that you can just increase the amount of black pepper slightly to help mask the flavor of under-salted foods?
There are a few reasons this works. For one, most people associate the flavor of black pepper with the flavor of salt, so you can actually trick your brain into thinking your food is saltier than it is. It also works because black pepper is a spice that actually numbs your tongue slightly, which means that you are less sensitive to taste and more likely to rely on smell.
Since salt isn’t a particularly aromatic seasoning, being more smell-dominant for your sense of taste is a big advantage.
Nutritional yeast is often used as a cheese substitute in sauces and pasta, but did you know that it can also be used as a salt replacer?
That’s because nutritional yeast has a slightly salty flavor on its own, and also because the malty and yeasty flavor of the nutritional yeast helps provide plenty of flavor without needing salt.
Balsamic, Apple, Red Wine, or Rice Vinegar
Vinegar works well as a salt substitute, but you do generally want to use vinegar with a stronger flavor.
Rather than using white vinegar, which can add tanginess but doesn't have many other flavors, consider balsamic or apple vinegar for most dishes. You can also experiment with fruit and herb-infused vinegar to add even more flavor.
Apricot, orange, and other citrusy vinegars will work particularly well for the same reasons that lemon and lime juice work. Aged vinegar will also generally do better than fresh vinegar.
And, if you want even more digestive benefits, consider getting a vinegar “with the mother” which just means that the active bacteria and yeast used in fermentation were included in the bottle of vinegar. It’s a great probiotic.
Most Herbs and Spices
Increasing the herbs and spices in your foods is another good option when you need to reduce your sodium intake. Almost any herb or spice flavor you enjoy will enhance your foods and make it less likely that you’ll notice the lack of sodium flavors.
Truffle oil has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in the culinary world, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in your kitchen.
The problem with truffle oil is that it doesn’t actually taste that much like truffles, and it was overhyped for a few years, which led a lot of people to add truffle oil to dishes that really didn’t benefit.
However, the strong earthy flavors of a good truffle oil are naturally slightly salty, and also give you a strong flavor that doesn’t really need any salt to be delicious. Both are a big win for people who need to reduce their sodium intake.
Tips For Reducing Sodium Intake
When you’re trying to reduce sodium a lot of people try to go all in and basically cold turkey off of sodium. The problem is, unless it’s a medically urgent issue that requires you to eliminate salt immediately, that probably isn’t a good idea.
Not only will it be harder to feel satisfied if you switch from sodium-rich foods to salt-free alternatives, but salt is actually important for your body's electrolyte balance. If you switch away from it too quickly, it can leave you feeling sick and tired for a while until your body adjusts.
Instead, it’s usually better to slowly reduce the amount of sodium you’re eating, introducing salt substitutes so you get used to the different flavors until you're meeting your sodium intake goals.
If you aren’t sure which approach is better for you, talk with your doctor about the options. Remember it’s okay to tell them that you think a slower approach would be more successful and ask for their tips to make that kind of change. Still looking for more recipes to make the switch? These 21 low-sodium soups can help!